Research on charter schools needs to go beyond test scores

Author: William G. Schmitt

Elementary school

A comprehensive review of the research assessing charter schools as the fastest growing area of school choice reforms has uncovered a need for studies that take a different tack, according to University of Notre Dame sociologist Mark Berends.

Charter schools have gained increasing attention in recent years as school choice laws have made them an alternative to traditional public schools. In the past decade, a number of studies have examined the effects of these schools to assess their impact on student achievement.

Researchers are questioning whether the 6,000 charter schools now operating deliver on the promise of school choice laws to shrink achievement gaps. However, the question demands deeper probes of schools’ qualitative conditions, not merely metrics such as test results, Berends wrote in an article, “Sociology and School Choice: What We Know After Two Decades of Charter Schools,” published in mid-August in the journal Annual Review of Sociology.

Mark Berends Mark Berends

Berends, director of Notre Dame’s Center for Research on Educational Opportunity (CREO), notes that the explosive growth of charter schools in the past decade, with total enrollment now exceeding 2.5 million children, has benefited from claims in the public arena that are not thoroughly examined.

“It’s time to go beyond the horse race between charter and traditional public schools based primarily on test scores,” Berends said in summarizing the Annual Reviews article. “More helpful research — how schools and classrooms are organized and an examination of school mission and goals, principal leadership, professional development and parent involvement — will help us understand whether charter schools are truly effective or not.”

Berends is a fellow of the Institute for Educational Initiatives, which advances Notre Dame’s multidisciplinary research of K-12 schools, public and faith-based.

Contact: Bill Schmitt, Institute for Educational Initiatives, 574-631-3893,