A brand-new evaluation from the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University offers promising signs that Ohio is on strong footing, especially with its brick-and-mortar charters. At the same time, the analysis reminds us of the hard work ahead to either harness or radically improve the online education model. CREDO examines state exam data from 2013-14 through 2016-17 to gauge the impact of charter schools on student achievement in reading and math.

More trouble in online schools

The bad news first. Previous studies have found that pupils in online charters lose significant ground in math and reading. Sad but true, this study showed the same thing, in spades. CREDO finds large negative impacts, especially in math where online charter students experience losses of 0.23 standard deviations (sd) compared to their “virtual twins” attending district schools—a result equivalent to falling behind almost a full school year. The impacts in reading were also negative, though smaller in size—roughly the same as losing forty-six days of learning in a 180-day school year.

These sizeable losses, in conjunction with the fact that online schools enroll almost a third of the entire charter sector, weigh down Ohio’s overall performance. With the inclusion of e-schools, the average Ohio charter student performed on par with district peers in reading and worse in math (-0.07 sd). Omit the online schools, however, and the picture brightens considerably, as we see in Figure 1. Brick-and-mortar charters are just as effective as their district twins in math, and superior in reading, providing the equivalent of twenty-four extra school days of learning.

Figure 1: Charter impacts for Ohio overall and by delivery model, 2019 CREDO analysis

CREDO 2019 blog figure 1

Note: * significant at p<0.05 ** significant at p<0.01. A result without an asterisk indicates no significant difference between charter and district students’ growth. This note also applies to figures 2 and 3.

To their credit, Ohio policymakers haven’t sat idly by on online schools. While its results are included in CREDO’s analysis, ECOT—the state’s infamously low-performing online school—is now extinct as a result of state action. Moreover, legislators are considering a move to competency-based funding that, by providing dollars when e-schools help students meet academic targets, could lead to improved achievement.

Good news from brick-and-mortar charters

Some will doubtless take the overall charter results, weighed down by e-schools, as evidence that the sector remains stuck in low gear or worse. But in the words of football analyst Lee Corso, “Not so fast, my friend.” Two critical pieces of evidence indicate that Ohio charters—the brick-and-mortar kind—are on the upswing—and doing some needy kids a great deal of good.

The analysis below considers results from both CREDO studies, the new one and the Ohio study released in 2014, which enables us to examine data over a nine-year interval.

Strong academic gains for black students

The most encouraging finding is charters’ positive effects on black students, children who often face the greatest barriers to academic success. The figure below shows that, in the 2019 analysis, the average African-American youngster enrolled in a charter school enjoyed significant gains of 0.10 and 0.04 sd in reading and math, respectively when compared to their “virtual twin” attending district schools. These results translate into an equivalent of fifty-nine additional school days of learning in reading and twenty-four extra days in math, based on a 180-day school year. Also noticeable is the stronger charter impact compared to the previous study, which found no statistically significant difference in the growth of black charter students versus their closely matched peers in both subjects.

Because the vast majority of black charter students attend brick-and-mortar schools—roughly 90 percent of them in 2015-16—we can be confident that these positive findings are attributable to the efforts of brick-and-mortars. Of note, too, while they comprise a very small fraction of charter students (about 5 percent), the results for Hispanic pupils were no different than their peers attending district schools.

Figure 2: Charter impacts for black students, 2014 and 2019 CREDO analyses

CREDO blog 2019 figure 2

Solid elementary and middle charter-school performance

CREDO also finds positive and improving results for charter elementary and middle school students. Consider figure 3, which shows that elementary charter schools in the 2019 study produced positive impacts in reading—a noticeable improvement over 2014—though no effects in math. Meanwhile, middle school charter performance improved against the already strong results reported in 2014. In the new study, their students posted impressive gains of 0.18 and 0.17 sd in reading and math, respectively, equivalent to approximately 100 extra days of learning. Unfortunately, the results for charter high schools still lag, though their students comprised less than 5 percent of CREDO’s charter sample. Finally, we observe large negative impacts in multilevel charter schools that are almost certainly being driven by e-schools, the largest of which serve students across grades K-12.

Figure 3: Charter impacts by grade configuration, 2014 and 2019 CREDO analyses

CREDO blog 2019 figure 3

* * *

To distill the results: Ohio’s charter sector is akin to a football team with an anemic defense and high-flying offense. The online charters can’t seem to tackle anyone, while the brick-and-mortars light up the scoreboard. If this were your favorite team, you’d be screaming for changes to the defense while praising the quarterback to the high heavens.

Something similar should happen in Ohio charter policy. The state needs to find ways to dramatically improve e-schooling. But, in the realm of brick-and-mortar schools, we ought to recognize the great work they’re doing—and do more to help them become even stronger. After years of shortchanging charter students, lawmakers should finally move to fund brick-and-mortar charters equitably, helping to kick-start new-school formation and the rapid expansion of the state’s top-performing charters.

As one of the pioneering charter states, we’ve learned a lot in two decades in Ohio. The progress can seem maddeningly slow at times, but the state is at last on the right track in its turn to higher quality. Let’s work to fix the remaining problems in the charter sector, and build on its strengths. Onwards!  

Policy Priority:

Aaron Churchill is the Ohio research director for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, where he has worked since 2012. In this role, Aaron oversees a portfolio of research projects aimed at strengthening education policy in Ohio. He also writes regularly on Fordham’s blog, the Ohio Gadfly Daily, and contributes analytic support for…

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