Charters May Help Solve Detroit's Education Woes

Gaps in educational outcomes between Detroit Public Schools students and those in other school districts around the state have been a sad, prolonged reality. Differences between schools within the city, however, are less well known. These differences can be found in the Mackinac Center’s new Elementary and Middle School report card. The report card compares student educational outcomes while controlling for socio-economic status.

The results in Detroit show large differences between conventional public school performance and public charter school performance. The Center’s report card provides the latest evidence that students in Detroit’s charter schools are learning more than their counterparts in conventional public schools. On this report card, a score of 100 indicates average performance. Schools that performed better than expected given their student populations received higher scores, while schools that performed worse than expected received lower scores.

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Though eight DPS schools made the Center’s list of the top 100 elementary and middle schools, and DPS’ Thirkell Elementary was ranked No. 1, many of the district’s schools are struggling. Detroit’s conventional schools received an average score of 95.7, compared to an average of 98.4 for Detroit-area charter schools. While both groups of schools did worse than expected after adjusting for student background, charter schools posted significantly higher scores.

Earlier this year, Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes found that students in charter schools across Michigan outperform their peers in conventional schools — with this finding being particularly strong among low-income, African-American students. According to the study, the typical Michigan student in a charter school “gains more learning in a year than his traditional public school counterparts, amounting to about two months of additional gains in reading and in math.” The study also notes that these gains are “more pronounced in Detroit.”

While there is still much to be done to improve the educational choices available to Detroit children, these findings suggest that the educational outcomes of disadvantaged students would improve if more of them could attend charter schools. To this end, DPS should convert some of its worst-performing public schools to charter schools, and those schools should be managed by charter companies that have a successful track record in Michigan.

As the report card shows, charter school authorizers also matter. Of charter schools in Detroit, those authorized by DPS scored only a 94.37, while those authorized by non-DPS entities scored 99.18. This finding is not unique to our report card; a study commissioned by the Michigan Department of Education found that the highest-performing charter school authorizers in the state were Grand Valley State University, Lake Superior State University, and Wayne RESA, among others, while the worst included DPS and Eastern Michigan University. [1]

Converting the worst performing schools in Detroit into charter schools would have a dual benefit; it would allow students in Detroit to attend better schools in the same location, saving them the burden of additional transportation costs, and it would allow DPS to focus more on improving its remaining schools.

[1] This study did not account for student background, so authorizers of more schools in disadvantaged areas may have been unnecessarily penalized.