A newly released, nationwide study finds that public charter schools outperform traditional public schools across a variety of educational metrics. Stanford University’s Center for Research on Educational Outcomes, or CREDO, authored the study, which is considered to be the most comprehensive nationwide analysis of public charter school performance ever conducted. While data from Connecticut’s 21 public charter schools were not included in the 31-state study, the numbers provide important context for schools and communities in any state.

The report released in early June marks CREDO’s third nationwide study on public charter schools and continues the trend of improvement in their performance since its first publication in 2009. Using data from students at public charter schools and traditional public schools from 2015 to 2019 across the 31 participating states, the study ensures the most accurate comparison by matching public charter school students with those who have similar economic and demographic backgrounds. These “virtual pairs” are used to evaluate the difference public charter schools make when compared to traditional public schools, while ensuring the fewest possible external factors that could affect the results.

Center for Research on Educational Outcomes National Charter School Study III 2023

The results of the study paint a clear picture: public charter schools provided students with stronger learning advancements in both reading and math when compared to traditional public schools that were otherwise available to those students. Research found that, over the course of a school year, charter students advanced learning in math by an additional 6 days. In reading, charter students advanced an additional 16 days.

“This study has significant implications for communities across the country,” said Ruben Felipe, the Executive Director of the Connecticut Charter Schools Association. “These findings align with the results Connecticut’s public charter schools have seen from SBAC testing, which shows that 95% of charter schools statewide out-performed schools that serve the same student population in ELA. And 90% of charter schools out-performed schools that serve the same student population in Math. This further outlines the importance of making more charter school seats available in Connecticut to compound the positive effects in high-needs communities.”

Helping Students Who Need it Most

Some of the most critical takeaways from the CREDO study lie in the progress shown among the most disadvantaged students. Black and Hispanic students at public charter schools advanced more than their traditional school peers by large margins in both math and reading.

Center for Research on Educational Outcomes National Charter School Study III 2023

Critically, students for whom English is a second language also showed stronger growth in charter schools. Researchers credit many of these advancements to the flexible accountability the public charter school framework offers, allowing educators and administrators to adjust to individual learning needs of their students.

“Researchers note that academic performance across the country began to regress during the pandemic, with more severe declines among Black and brown students, those experiencing poverty, and those with special needs,” Felipe added. “These findings confirm what Connecticut communities have already learned, that public charter schools have a unique ability to address the needs of these underserved populations and help make significant steps toward educational equity.”

Furthermore, students from low-income families also showed stronger growth in charter schools, with many of the highest-performing schools relative to their traditional counterparts coming in urban areas. Students in urban charter schools surpassed the overall findings with 29 additional days of growth per year in reading and 28 in math.

Gap-Busting Charter Schools

More than 1,000 public charter schools evaluated in the study managed to eliminate learning disparities in their districts altogether and moved student achievement ahead of their respective state averages.

“We refer to these schools as “gap-busting” charter schools,” the study reads. “They provide strong empirical proof that high-quality, high-equality education is possible anywhere.”

Among the most successful were charter schools operated by charter management organizations, or CMO’s, which created stronger than average results across their portfolios. CMO’s were found to produce greater learning gains than stand-alone charter schools.

Future of Growth

The study concludes that not only do public charter schools provide students with stronger learning gains than their traditional counterparts, these schools and networks have shown to improve over time.

“Each student and each school is a proof point that shows that it is possible to change the trajectory of learning for students at scale,” the study states, “and it is possible to dramatically accelerate growth for students who have traditionally been underserved by traditional school systems.”

Overall, researchers found flexibility in school and curriculum design allows students to succeed along a variety of different paths. The average rate of advancement was found to be held back by some struggling virtual charter schools and scattered poor performance in rural areas. However, the proportion of public charter schools showing superior results is on the rise.

“This research is just the latest evidence that public charter schools specifically address the most pressing concerns in public education,” Felipe concluded. “While this study offers a valuable nationwide snapshot, the key to any public charter school’s success lies in its attention to the individual and creativity in finding ways to elevate its students.”

You can read the complete findings of the CREDO study here.