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Choices and Challenges: Charter School Performance in Perspective

reviewed by Stuart S. Yeh - April 05, 2013

coverTitle: Choices and Challenges: Charter School Performance in Perspective
Author(s): Priscilla Wohlstetter, Joanna Smith, & Caitlin C. Farrell
Publisher: Harvard University Press, Cambridge
ISBN: 1612505414, Pages: 232, Year: 2013
Search for book at Amazon.com

The topic of charter schools has elicited a range of conflicting opinions, arguments and research studies that make it extremely difficult for parents and policymakers to draw clear conclusions. Should I enroll my child in a charter school? Are charter schools a wise investment of taxpayer dollars? What does the research say?

Choices and Challenges: Charter School Performance in Perspective seeks to address the need for a clear, concise, balanced summary of the research on charter schools. Each chapter is organized around a single central question. The book begins by offering a brief history of the charter school movement and explains the dual rationale—the idea that decentralized decision-making would result in smarter decisions about how to teach children and manage schools effectively, and the idea that giving parents choices would foster competition among schools and create pressure for improvement.

Chapter One considers the extent to which teachers in charter schools have greater professional autonomy and increased authority over their schools' education programs, budgets and staffing. The authors conclude that charters do not provide teachers with greater "ownership" and evidence that charters promote increased opportunities for collaboration is inconclusive.

Chapter Two investigates the extent to which charter schools adopt innovative pedagogy and curricula, and concludes that while charters have not resulted in the invention of completely new ways of educating students, they have filled niches that have not been well-served by regular public schools. Charter schools tend to target a specific subset of students who may be distinguished by their needs (e.g., "at-risk"), their goals (e.g., "college preparation"), or their ethnicity (e.g., "African American"). The schools tend to package existing programs and pedagogical approaches in new ways.

Chapter Three reviews and synthesizes the research regarding student performance in charter schools. This is a central question: do students who attend charter schools perform better? The authors conclude that the research is mixed and the findings are inconclusive. This view is well-founded although several additional points are relevant to the discussion. First, the authors emphasize results from lottery-based studies that presumably provide a level of control similar to randomized studies. However, the number of charter schools involved in these studies is too small to warrant strong conclusions. Second, the summary of studies involving longitudinally-linked student-level data does not indicate which studies controlled for student fixed effects, and the narrative does not explain the advantage of using fixed effects methods (each student serves as his or her own control, reducing the threat of selection bias). It would have been of interest to include a full discussion of studies that may offer the best available evidence regarding the average impact of charter schools on student achievement. This evidence reinforces the authors' central conclusion but it is noteworthy that the best available evidence points to a weak overall impact of charter schools on student performance.

A third point is that a weak average impact may mask variation: some charter schools may perform very well but that performance may be offset by weaker charter schools. This is a position that has been adopted by charter school supporters and deserves more attention. In particular, studies of "no excuses" charter schools such as the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) and the Harlem Children's Zone Promise Academies suggest strong impacts (Dobbie & Fryer, 2011; Tuttle, Teh, Nichols-Barrer, Gill, & Gleason, 2010). If these results are valid, then it might be reasonable to recommend implementation of the strongest charter school models. However, a recent study suggests that the impact of "no excuses" charter schools may be due to an artifact—these schools may pull a disproportionate share of highly-dedicated teachers from across the nation (Yeh, 2013). If this is the case, then it may be impossible to replicate the strong impacts that were achieved in the research studies, assuming that the same models are scaled-up and implemented nationwide.

Chapter Four examines the extent to which expanded autonomy over charter school budgets, school staffing and the educational program has translated into innovations in educational programming, school leadership and financial efficiency. The authors conclude that charters use their autonomy to create targeted instructional programs for subsets of students. Four of every five charter schools maintain a theme or focus (gifted and talented, Montessori, etc.). The authors also conclude that charter schools are substantially more efficient than their non-charter counterparts, perhaps due to freedom from regulations specifying maximum pupil-teacher ratios, requirements to maintain school counselors and nurses, and mandatory minimum salary scales.

A question that has been overlooked throughout the ongoing debate is whether the charter school strategy is the most cost-effective approach for raising student achievement compared to other promising strategies. This question goes beyond comparisons with regular public schools but is arguably the key question in the entire debate. If there are other strategies that are more cost-effective, much of the debate over charter schools may be moot. The authors note that only one study has addressed this question.

Chapter Five reports the results of studies suggesting that parents are more involved in charter schools compared to their non-charter counterparts. Parents may help to write the charter school's application, serve on the charter school's governing board, provide input at public hearings, provide recommendations through advisory groups, create new academic standards, align curricula and assessments, shape professional development for teachers, and participate in budget decisions. Parents may also serve as role models in schools that emphasize character-building. In 37 percent of charter schools, parents signed contracts committing them to support their children, teachers and schools (for example, by supervising the completion of homework).

Chapter Six examines the issue of charter school accountability and the shift toward ensuring high-quality charter schools, noting that most charter schools that close do so because of financial or governance issues. The authors conclude that charter schools have increasingly been subjected to regulatory requirements that have been implemented as it has become clear that market-based accountability has been inadequate to ensure strong governance and high quality. Contrary to the intentions of reformers, it does not appear that low-performing charter schools are driven away by higher-performing schools.

Chapter Seven addresses a related topic: the extent to which charter schools force their non-charter counterparts to improve as they compete for students. The notion that charter schools would provide a competitive wedge that would drive systemic improvements in school quality is a central tenet of the charter school movement. The authors conclude that the evidence is mixed. This view is well-founded, although it would have been of interest to pursue a full discussion of the best studies (for example, those using student fixed-effects methods). Those studies find little or no impact--or in some cases a negative impact—of charter schools on neighboring non-charter schools.

Chapter Eight addresses the concern that charter schools might result in resegregation—that white middle-class parents would use their information and transportation advantages to enroll their children in largely white schools, or that African-American students would choose to enroll in charter schools serving high percentages of African-American students. The authors conclude that the evidence is mixed but note that an analysis of NCES databases found that white students tend to look for school options that have even higher percentages of whites than their current schools. The authors also conclude that there is little evidence that charter schools systematically select the best students.

A question that remains unanswered is whether the charter school strategy is a promising approach that requires more time, or whether there is a need to reconsider the core assumption—the idea that competition is necessary to motivate teachers, principals and superintendents to try harder and to make smart decisions. In the penultimate chapter of the book, Columbia University researcher Jeffrey Henig notes that:

A lot of the [charter school] proponents genuinely believed that the reason [national] test scores were flat and unimpressive in international comparisons was because people at the school level were not trying hard. One of the things they learned was that even when they tried hard and did smart things, it didn't lead to sharp increases in test scores (p. 146).

Contrary to the core tenet of the charter school movement, evidence is now accumulating that the problem of student achievement goes beyond teachers and administrators who lack dedication or aptitude—instead, the evidence suggests that the source of the problem may lie elsewhere (see for example Yeh, 2011). If this is accurate, it may explain why the impact of charter schools has been disappointing and why a different approach may be more fruitful.


Dobbie, W., & Fryer, R. G., Jr. (2011). Are high-quality schools enough to increase achievement among the poor? Evidence from the Harlem Children's Zone. American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, 3(3), 158-187.

Tuttle, C. C., Teh, B., Nichols-Barrer, I., Gill, B. P., & Gleason, P. ( 2010). Student characteristics and achievement in 22 KIPP middle schools. Washington, DC: Mathematica Policy Research.

Yeh, S. S. (2011). The cost-effectiveness of 22 approaches for raising student achievement. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.

Yeh, S. S. (2013). A Re-Analysis of the Effects of KIPP and the Harlem Promise Academies. Teachers College Record, 115(4).

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: April 05, 2013
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17079, Date Accessed: 5/24/2022 6:57:01 PM

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About the Author
  • Stuart Yeh
    University of Minnesota
    E-mail Author
    STUART YEH is Associate Professor and Coordinator of the University of Minnesota Evaluation Studies Program and author of The Cost-Effectiveness of 22 Approaches for Raising Student Achievement (Information Age Publishing), which compares the cost-effectiveness of a range of approaches including charter schools, voucher programs, increased accountability, and improvements in teacher quality through value-added teacher assessment, NBPTS teacher certification, and a strategy that combines higher teacher salaries with a minimum SAT test score requirement.
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