News Story

Charter Public Schools Give Detroit Schoolchildren Hope

Stanford University study finds charter pupils gain an extra three months of learning

On a National Assessment of Educational Progress test given to urban students a few years ago, Detroit Public Schools students scored the lowest ever measured in the nation.

Or, in the words of one urban education expert: "They are barely above what one would expect simply by chance, as if the kids simply guessed at the answers."

But thanks to school choice, there may finally be hope.

Detroit school children are learning at a rate of an extra three months in school a year when in charter public schools compared to similar counterparts in conventional Detroit Public Schools, according to the findings of a Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) study done by Stanford University on students in the Detroit area.

Charter public schools in Detroit give parents an educational option for their children that previously didn't exist. Charter public schools in Detroit enroll 47,000 students, the third highest charter enrollment in the country behind Los Angeles and New York. DPS has an enrollment of about 66,600 students.

"While on average the Detroit charter students have higher learning gains than their traditional school counterparts, when we look at the school results, only about half of the Detroit charter schools perform significantly better than their local alternative," said Dev Davis, research manager for CREDO at Stanford University.

Andy Smarick, a partner at the Bellwether Education Partners, a non-profit organization that works to improve education for low-income students, says that charter public schools should replace the urban school district.

Smarick said that high performing charter schools are encouraged to expand and replicate. Schools that persistently fail are closed. New schools are regularly created.

"This is a continuous improvement cycle that happens year after year to ensure that we continually grow the number of high-performing seats," Smarick wrote. " …. The traditional urban school district is broken. It cannot be fixed. But, thank goodness, it can be replaced." 

Like conventional public schools, some charter public schools do better than others.

"There are more than 40 elementary and middle charter public schools in Detroit that are not authorized by DPS. On average, students at those schools appear to do better on state standardized tests," said Audrey Spalding, an education policy analyst at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. "However, 15 identified independent Detroit city charter public high schools did less well. Michigan Merit Exam scores for the 2012 school year show that on four out of five subject areas, DPS students on average outscored students in Detroit charter public schools. This may be because charter public schools serve more students from low-income backgrounds. Both a Stanford University study and a report prepared for the State Board of Education found that Michigan charter schools serve more students from low-income and minority backgrounds."

Michael Van Beek, education policy director at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, said the CREDO report was significant because it looked at individual students who were making larger learning gains. The study matched students of the same education-level, race, gender, poverty level, English language learner status, special education status and other areas and tracked their progress for years.

"That's what matters," Van Beek said.

However, not everyone agrees that charter public schools are helping.

Kristen McDonald, a program director at the Skillman Foundation, which is a grant making foundation focused on Detroit schools, said Detroit children are not necessarily served better by charter public schools.

"Detroit children are best served by the schools that have high-quality teaching and learning and a commitment to getting kids to college," McDonald said. "There are far too few schools anywhere in the city meeting this standard — charter or traditional. What we know is that few of our charters are making significant gains in graduating students from high school and moving them on to college in very high numbers. The academic rigor that adequately prepares students to succeed once they get there is still a challenge.”

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.