Getting Inside the Black Box

Examining how the Operations of Charter Schools Affect Performance

by Ron Zimmer, Richard Buddin

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In recent years, a series of papers have examined the performance of charter schools with mixed results. Some of this research has shown that charter school performance varies by charter type or the age of the school (Buddin and Zimmer, 2005; Sass, 2005; Bifulco and Ladd, 2005; Hanushek et al., 2002). However, this research has not examined the school attributes that lead to high- or low-achieving charter schools. In this paper, the authors use student-level achievement and survey data of charter schools and a matched-set of traditional public schools from California to take an initial step into examining correlations between school operational features and student achievement. While they did not find characteristics that consistently lead to improved student achievement, they did identify some features that are more important at different grade levels or in charter schools versus in traditional public schools. They also examined the relationship between greater autonomy within schools, which is a major tenet of the charter movement, and student achievement and found very little evidence that greater autonomy leads to improved student achievement.

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