Although charter schools have operated in New York State since 1998, their effectiveness continues to be disputed. A recent New York Times article, “New York City Schools Face a Crisis, Charter Schools Gain Students, points out, “As traditional public schools in the nation’s largest system endure a perilous period of student loss and funding shortfalls, New York City’s charter schools are on an upward trajectory. The schools gained more than 10,000 children during the pandemic, though the expansion slowed last year, even as enrollment at other schools across the city — both public and private — fell steadily…But charters still face significant headwinds, as most Democratic lawmakers remain firmly opposed to allowing any expansion of the schools, concerned in part that it would come at the expense of traditional district schools. Their skepticism has stunted the sector’s growth in recent years, restricting its foothold in New York much more than in several large cities, including Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia. Teachers’ unions, too, are major political players and disapprove of the schools, which tend not to be unionized.”
Any discussion of charter schools in New York must acknowledge that they are not a single thing. Instead, they vary in their goals, approaches, and success. But supportive and opposing partisans tend to paint them with a single brush. Do charter schools offer an option that benefits inner-city children, or are they simply a burden and a diversion? An analysis of data from the New York State Education Department gives a picture of their performance that can be compared with district-operated schools.
Some Basic Information
Researchers have known for a long time – since the 1960s – that student performance is strongly related to economic status. Students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to do well in school than those from more affluent backgrounds. Inner-city schools with high percentages of economically disadvantaged students do poorly on New York state’s annual student assessments. In 2019, for the fourth grade English Language Arts exam, schools with the smallest percentage of economically disadvantaged students had passing rates averaging nearly 70%, compared with less than 20% for those with the highest percentages.
Students in New York City district-operated schools did substantially better on the State assessments than those from schools outside the City. The chart above shows the average performance of students at district-operated schools in New York City and outside it at two levels – for those with 50% of economically disadvantaged students and those with 80%. Although there was a lot of variation in the performance of district-operated schools within and outside New York City, the average performance of students on the grade four English Language arts exam at each level of economically disadvantaged students was about 21% higher in New York City schools than outside it.
Because of the disruption associated with the COVID pandemic, the results reported in this piece are from the 2018-2019 school year. The 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 school years saw school closures and the heavy use of online learning. As a result, although results are available for the 2021-2022 school year, they are atypical. See, for example, “An Early Look at COVID’s Educational Disruption in New York State.”
Charter and District-Operated Schools in New York City
First, it should be noted that this study compares levels of achievement in the 2018-2019 school year in district-operated and charter schools. It does not show student learning growth from one year to the next. As a result, selection factors not associated with classroom learning could be related to differences in student performance at schools.
In New York City, 13% of students attend charter schools, compared with less than 3% outside the City. On average, the performance of fourth-grade students at charter schools in New York City was 16 points better than those in district-operated schools on the English Language Arts Exam. Even in schools where four out of five students were economically disadvantaged, 65% of students received proficient scores on the ELA exam. The performance of these students at highly disadvantaged schools was as good as that of students in district-operated schools, where only half were economically disadvantaged.
The chart above compares the difference between the level of performance predicted from the trend line showing the relationship between the percentage of students passing the state fourth-grade English Language Arts exam and the percentage of economically disadvantaged students at each school and the actual level of performance at district-operated and charter schools. The data is grouped into schools where performance was better than expected, given the portion of disadvantaged students and those with worse performance.
The performance of both charter and district-operated schools varied. Grade four students at 60% of charter schools in New York City did better than the trend line of the typical percentage of students receiving proficient grades in New York City, controlling for the portion of economically disadvantaged students. Forty-eight percent of district schools did better than the trend. At 25% of charter schools, the difference was at least 20%, compared with five percent for district schools. At 43% of charter schools, the difference was 10% or more compared with 21% of district schools.
Overall, students at charter schools in New York City substantially outperformed those in district-operated schools, controlling for the percentage of economically disadvantaged pupils. But, there were substantial performance variations. 22% of charter schools performed at least 10% below average, controlling for disadvantage, compared with 25% of district-operated schools.
It should be noted that twenty of the twenty-five charter schools where the percentage of students who passed the state fourth grade English Arts exam was twenty percent higher than expected or more, controlling for the portion of disadvantaged students, were Success Academies. Also among the best-performing charter schools were KIPP schools and Ascend Charter Schools. Although students at many multiple-location charter schools did better than predicted by student socioeconomic status, others did not. Student performance at Achievement First schools was only six percent higher than expected, while at Harlem Children’s Zone, performance was only one percent higher. Fourth-grade student performance at Explore charter schools was 15% below trend.
The performance of New York City charter schools on the state’s fourth-grade math exam was varied. Still, almost three in ten schools exceeded the expected percentage of proficient students based on the trend line controlling for the percentage of disadvantaged students by more than 20%. Only 8% of district-operated schools performed as well. Students at half of the charter schools performed at least 10% better than the trend, compared with 24 % of district-operated schools. Student performance at twenty-one percent of charter schools was at least ten percent worse than the trend, compared with 29% of district-operated schools. Thirteen of twenty-six charter schools where student performance was at least 20% better than expected were Success Academy schools.
As a group, the performance of Success Academies was strongest, with 90% or more of students at all schools passing the math exam, more than 30% better than would be expected based on the percentage of socioeconomically disadvantaged students. Students at Ascend Charter Schools performed more than 20% better than expected. Other Charter schools with more than one location where students performed at least 10% better than expected were Achievement First Charter Schools, Harlem Children’s Zone, Kipp Charter Schools, and Leadership Preparatory Schools. On the other hand, Explore Charter Schools had a median passing rate of 49%, five percent less than expected.
On balance, the argument that charter schools divert needed resources from city-operated schools is not merited. On average, Charter School students in New York City outperformed those at district-operated schools by 16% on the State’s fourth-grade English Language Arts exam. But the performance of these schools was mixed. At forty-one of ninety-six charter schools the percentage of students who received proficient scores was at least ten percent higher than was expected based on the percentage of disadvantaged students. But, there is a quality control issue. Twenty-one charter schools performed 10% or worse than the average.
Several multi-location charter school operators had consistently strong performance on the fourth-grade exams. Most notably, much higher percentages of students attending Success Academies passed the exam than at other schools, even at those schools with very high rates of economically disadvantaged pupils. Students at Ascend charter and KIPP schools also performed substantially better than expected from the percentage of disadvantaged students attending the schools.
Parents making school choice decisions in New York City should recognize that the performance of charter schools differs substantially. Students at some district schools performed very well, even where high percentages were from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. Other schools run by charter school operators did not. The New York State Education Department offers valuable information on its website. Because of the effects of the COVID pandemic, the most reliable data is for the 2018-2019 school year.