Chicago's Charter High Schools
The UChicago Consortium on School Research’s 2017 report “Chicago’s Charter High Schools: Organizational Features, Enrollment, School Transfers, and Student Performance” is one of the first major studies of charter schools to examine student performance indicators other than test scores, namely attendance, grades, and academic behaviors. The study revealed differences between charter and non-charter high schools in Chicago Public Schools (CPS) in terms of students’ incoming characteristics, performance in high school, and performance on post-secondary outcomes. It also found variation on outcomes across charter schools. Specifically, the study found charter high schools in Chicago enroll students with higher eighth-grade attendance but similar or lower eighth-grade test scores than non-charter high schools. Once enrolled, students in charter high schools reported more challenging instruction, had higher attendance, and had higher test scores, on average, compared to students in non-charter high schools with similar attendance and test scores in the middle grades. Rates of four-year college enrollment and enrollment in more selective colleges were higher, on average, for students at charter schools than similar students at non-charter high schools. At the same time, the study found charter high school students were more likely to transfer schools between 9-12th grade than similar students in non-charter high schools. Notably, the study also finds substantial variation across charter schools on test scores, college enrollment, and college selectivity.
Why It Matters
Charter schools have experienced explosive growth in the United States. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the percentage of all public schools that were charter schools increased from 4 to 7 percent between the 2004-05 and 2014-15 school years, and the number of students enrolled in public charter schools increased by 1.8 million students. As the charter sector grows, families, teachers, and policymakers alike are asking, do charter schools actually improve the educational achievement of their students? Over the past 20 years, many research studies have sought to address this question, but have focused almost exclusively on comparing standardized test scores, leaving many important questions about charter schools’ influence on other academic outcomes, such as enrollment and persistence in college, unanswered. The UChicago Consortium’s study is one of the first studies anywhere to look at attendance and measures of school climate in charters. However, it also raises some important questions: in particular, why do students transfer out of charter schools at higher rates than other schools, and what are the implications of this for their long-term educational attainment? Ultimately, given what research shows about the range of performance among charter schools, and also among non-charter schools, schools in both sectors may benefit from opportunities to share best practices, potentially leading to greater growth for schools of all designations.