By ABBEY HAUSWIRTH
Journal Staff Writer
and CELESTE BOTT
Master gardener Linda Rehorst, of Little Lake, helps North Star Academy eighth-graders, from left, Anna-Liisa Kautz, Dakota Castello, Grace Randall and Alli Goriesky clean Little Blue Stem seeds, which will be used in native plant restoration projects conducted by the Hiawatha National Forest. North Star has been under Northern Michigan University’s charter since 1997. It specializes in smaller classrooms and more individualized attention for students. (Journal photo by Jackie Stark
I believe the small classes are beneficial. No one falls through the cracks and teachers know all of their students and their backgrounds.
— Karen Anderson
North Star Academy
Special to the Journal
LANSING - An average Michigan charter school student will learn more in a year than his or her public school peer, according to a new report by Stanford University's Center for Research on Education Outcomes.
The study found that students from Michigan charter schools learn an average of two month's more of math and reading per academic year.
Twenty-seven percent of the state's charter school students are from Detroit, and Detroit charter school students gained up to three months' worth of additional education, it said.
Charter schools are publicly funded but can be privately run. They were established in part so that individual schools could have more independence over curriculum and teaching staff.
Margaret Raymond, director of the center, praised Michigan's charter school practices, especially given problems that districts cities Detroit face.
"These findings show that Michigan has set policies for charter schools to produce consistent high quality across the state," Raymond said. "The results are especially welcome for students in communities that face significant education challenges."
In Marquette, North Star Academy, which is a public school that has been chartered by Northern Michigan University since 1997, prides itself on a smaller learning community with no more than 20 students per classroom.
"I believe the small classes are beneficial. No one falls through the cracks and teachers know all of their students and their backgrounds," said Karen Anderson, CEO/superintendent of North Star.
Anderson noted that because the school is newly formed, the staff and students are evolving and improving on a regular basis. The school adheres to the same state regulations and mandates as traditional public schools, but is able to have more flexible programming.
"MAPS testing was put into place for the 2012-2013 year," Anderson explained. "The students are tested in September, January and May. Each student can see their growth for the full semester and for the year. It's a great way to track what our students are mastering and where we need improvement."
It is the center's first in-depth study of charter schools in the state. A total of 85,650 students attend 276 charters in the state. For the study, 61 schools were too small to be analyzed, resulting in a total study sample of 212 charters.
Not all of the findings were favorable to the alternative public schools, however. For example, 14 percent of Michigan charter schools showed below average growth and achievement, and 25 percent of students perform below average in math.
Devora Davis, a co-author of the report, attributed those conflicting numbers to the use of averages - there are both struggling charters and high-performing charters that distort the data. The poor performances are offset by the growing proportion of charters with high-level achievement, Davis said.
"Should these trends continue, the share of schools which currently lag the state averages would be expected to decline," Davis said. "These absolute improvements are within sight in Michigan."
Stanford's earlier national study in 2009 was heavily criticized by the Center for Education Reform - based in Washington, D.C. - for its use of inaccurate state data.
According its president, Jeanne Allen, the new study done in Michigan and a similar one done in New Jersey use an improved methodology.
"In these state-level studies, it appears that the inclusion of a wider range of students and more school-level data were used to identify and compare individuals to their 'traditional public school' counterparts," Allen said.
Doing so provided a more realistic view of students, and therefore, more credible results, she said.
Other experts are still critical of the study.
For instance, Amber Arellano, executive director of the Royal Oak-based Education Trust-Midwest, said that the use of averages in the study actually hides more accurate results, and she called for more government accountability for charter quality.
"The study's focus on average charter student learning gains masks some great disparities in Michigan charter performance," Arellano said. "Some charter schools are doing well and should be recognized for that.
"Others are abysmal. The question is, should the growth of chronically low-performing charter companies and organizations be funded by Michigan taxpayer dollars? The unequivocal answer is, absolutely not," she said. "Our children deserve the same performance standards and protections that are afforded children in leading states, such as Ohio," Arellano said.
Other criticisms included the study's failure to account for the more than 30 new charter schools that opened this fall, or the more than 20 percent of previously established charters whose schools were too small for CREDO's study standards, as well as the fact that most charter high schools weren't studied at all.
Michael Van Beek, director of education policy for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Midland, said that it was important to remember that many students attending charter schools are among the poorest in the nation.
"Based on the well-established relationship between test scores and student poverty, one should expect most Michigan's charter public schools to score below the state average since they serve a higher portion of poor students," Van Beek said. "The Stanford study says 70 percent of charter public school students qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch compared to 43 percent in conventional public schools," he said.
Dan Quisenberry, president the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, was quick to praise the state's charter schools.
"We've said all along that Michigan doesn't need more schools - it needs more quality schools," Quisenberry said. "The study reaffirms that we're on the right track in Michigan."