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Research fails to support current rapid growth of charter schools


Lubienski and Weitzel
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Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
Education professor Christopher Lubienski, left, and graduate student Peter Weitzel have found in their research on charter schools that the schools' success is often overstated.

Craig Chamberlain, Education Editor

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — The case for charter schools, by all appearances, has been made with politicians and the public. Forty states now have them, their numbers are rapidly increasing, and they now serve more than a million students.

The research on which that case has been made, however – on issues from student achievement to equity and integration – is limited, often overstated, often based on suspect methodology, and largely outside the normal system of academic peer review, says Christopher Lubienski, an education professor at the University of Illinois.

“Serious researchers do not cite most of these studies,” Lubienski said. The well-funded promotion of them, mostly by advocacy-based think tanks and centers, he said, represents a significant departure from the way research has been conducted, vetted and communicated to the public.

Lubienski’s comments are based on a paper, “The Political Economy of School Choice Research,” that he is presenting March 26 at the American Educational Research Association conference in New York. His co-authors are graduate students Peter Weitzel and Justin York. Lubienski also is a fellow in the U. of I. College of Education’s Forum on the Future of Public Education.

“Privately funded think tanks are rapidly eclipsing independent university researchers in shaping the thinking around this issue, producing attractive Web sites, conferences and publications designed for the media and the policymaker,” the authors wrote. “Here, the quality of research may matter less than the strength of an institution’s brand or the efficacy of its promotional campaign.”

“I think that we’re kind of leaving the field to a lot of advocates who are basing their claims on pretty shoddy research,” Lubienski said.

“There’s not really an interest in finding the truth. It’s a matter of promoting a particular agenda.”

Arguments for school choice, involving both charter schools and voucher programs, have been advanced along several lines, the authors wrote. They have been sold as a means for disadvantaged students to escape bad schools and find better ones, as a way to force changes in the organizational behavior of schools, and as a means for increasing academic achievement.

In the era of No Child Left Behind, however, “academic achievement is now the predominant consideration,” the authors said. And on that score, based on their review of the research, the results have been “mixed, at best.”

If holding to a standard of independent peer review, “the research supporting school choice in the U.S. based on academic outcomes is rather thin indeed,” they said. “When examining research that has met the highest standards of academic review, the research basis for academic effectiveness stemming from school choice is still tenuous, at best.”

“The only peer-reviewed studies on achievement in charter schools suggests that there’s little effect, and perhaps negative effect,” Lubienski said.

Lubienski and Weitzel said they can understand and appreciate the appeal of school choice in addressing a range of issues in education. “The popular appeal of school choice is incredibly powerful,” Weitzel said. And Lubienski believes the prominent advocacy-based researchers “have their hearts in the right place” in wanting to address those issues, such as unequal access to quality education.

Addressing them through the mechanism of school choice, however, especially in an environment where student achievement has become the overwhelming priority, can put those issues in conflict, the researchers said.

“Such a heavy emphasis on achievement kind of washes out some of these other things,” such as attempts to use charters to target disadvantaged students or to integrate schools, Lubienski said.

To illustrate, he uses the example of college sports. Coaches know that it’s easier to recruit better players than to try to bring lesser players up to the same level. In the same way, educators know it is often easier to recruit better students than to produce them, he said. With pressure to produce achievement, charter schools feel pressure to give up on marginal students or to market themselves to more-advantaged groups.

“The initial optimism (in the promotion of school choice) was that we could do just this one application of a market mechanism to education and then we’ll get this flowering of diversity, flowering of innovation and greater achievement,” Lubienski said. “But there are different types of markets, and market mechanisms work in different ways in different conditions, and there wasn’t much thought given to that.”

Instead of making the case that charter schools are inherently better, researchers should be looking at what works in the good ones and figuring out how to replicate that, Lubienski said.

Ultimately, the system of advocacy-based research, combined with a heavy emphasis on achievement gains as the standard for success, may be a disservice to the school choice debate, he said.

Editor’s note: The AERA paper expands on a paper presented last October at the J. Reuben Clark Law School at Brigham Young University, as part of a conference on education choice issues two weeks prior to a vote on a state voucher referendum in Utah. The paper will appear in an upcoming issue of the Brigham Young University Law Review.  Lubienski also commented on the voucher issue at that time as part of a Q&A on the U. of I. Web site.