The new national charter school study by Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) has attracted enormous, well-deserved attention. It provides by far the most comprehensive look to date at charter school outcomes. Representing a heroic effort to wrestle with the enormous complexities of studying charter school performance across more than two dozen states, the CREDO team has drawn notice for its remarkable effort and even-handed presentation of the data. That presentation, of course, notes that charter school performance has improved dramatically since CREDO’s previous 2009 study.
In 2009, CREDO reported that charter students performed somewhat worse in reading and substantially worse in math than their district school counterparts. Now, in 2013, CREDO finds that charter students perform somewhat better in reading and about the same in math as their district counterparts. CREDO finds this remarkable shift to be due both to improvement in existing charter schools and to the fact that the poorest-performing charters are being systematically shuttered. This points to the critical role of charter school authorizers and the tremendous work that Greg Richmond, head of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA), has done in carrying the banner for more rigorous charter accountability (full disclosure: I sit on the NACSA board of directors).
But I’ll let others wade into the details of the CREDO analysis. The point I want to emphasize is a broader one, and the same one I raised a couple of years ago in my 2010 National Affairs piece, “Does School Choice ‘Work’?”. That’s the crucial role of mundane considerations like authorizing, quality control, and market dynamics in assessing the likely benefits of school choice.
After all, for much of the past twenty years, too many school choice advocates got in the habit of overpromising. They’ve tended to echo the famous hope of scholars John Chubb and Terry Moe, who argued in their seminal book, Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools: “Without being too literal about it, we think reformers would do well to entertain the notion that choice is a panacea. … It has the capacity all by itself to bring about the kind of transformation that, for years, reformers have been seeking to engineer in myriad other ways.” Chubb and Moe are gifted thinkers, and their book was a tour de force, but this may have been some of the worst advice that school reformers ever got.
First, the insistence that simply fostering the expansion of school choice or charter schooling would inevitably yield school improvement has been long been a destructive distraction. It led champions of market-oriented reforms — and so also allowed skeptics — to adopt a ludicrous standard for judging whether school choice “works.” Since reformers claimed that the mere presence of choice will bring about dramatic improvement in schools, the expectation has been that the simple fact of having an alternative should yield demonstrable gains in academic achievement. And proponents have sometimes twisted themselves into bizarre contortions in order to prove this is so.
Second, these heated debates have led school-choice proponents to pay too little heed to crucial questions of market design and implementation — especially the extent to which reforms have, or have not, created a real market dynamic in education. The chief promise of choice, after all, was that it would displace ossified, monopolistic school bureaucracies, or at least inject into them a degree of flexibility, competition, and quality control. The questions to focus on are when, how, and why deregulation and monopoly-busting improve the quality and cost effectiveness of goods and services — and whether they can do the same for K-12 schooling.
On both of these counts, the CREDO evaluation is a terrific contribution. It speaks to the effects of school choice with a nuance and sophistication that’s rare, and offers real insight into what kinds of changes drive these results. It also illustrates why “school choice” is not a panacea but (like any market-based reform) an intervention whose effects are contingent on what entrepreneurs, investors, regulators, and families actually choose to do.