Milwaukee Charter School Report Generally Sound
May 5, 2009

Review of report raises key questions but praises contribution

Contact: Teri Battaglieri (517) 203-2940;
Robert Bifulco (315) 443-3114;

EAST LANSING, MI (May 5, 2009) – A recently released report on Milwaukee charter schools found that charter school students showed no significant gains in reading scores and only small increases in math scores when compared with students in traditional public schools. The report also concluded that there is no evidence that competition from charter schools impacts the performance of traditional public schools. A new review of the report raises validity questions but notes strengths in the methods used. When the results are considered together with the large body of research on charter schools, the conclusion that charter schools should not be expected to have large effects on achievement in urban schools is found by the reviewer to be reasonable.

The report “The Impact of Milwaukee Charter Schools on Student Achievement” was published by the Brookings Institution. It was reviewed for the Think Twice think tank review project by Robert Bifulco, Associate Professor of Public Administration at the Maxwell School of Syracuse University.

Probably the most noteworthy finding from the report is that, even though no significant benefit in reading scores was associated with charter attendance, the report did find a small but statistically significantly higher math test score improvement among charter school students compared with conventional public school students. Yet it also found that those gains were largely limited to earlier years of the charter school program and to students in their first year in a charter school.

In his review, Bifulco observes that the statistical methods used in the Brookings report have been used in many other charter school studies and have been endorsed by a panel of experts on school choice research. Despite their “widely recognized strengths,” however, these same methods “have come under sharp criticism,” he notes, and should probably not be used by themselves. For instance, Bifulco points out that the study’s charter school sample excludes students who have attended only charter schools, who may be different in important, unmeasured ways from those (included) students who transferred in or out of charters during their schooling years.

A further concern, acknowledged but not fully resolved by the Brookings authors, is that Wisconsin changed its achievement test midway through the study. Given these and other “threats to the validity of the estimates presented in this report, robustness checks and alternative estimates are important.”

The study results, Bifulco concludes, “are most informative when considered in the context of the larger body of research on charter schools”—namely, that charters produce “at best modest effects on student performance.” In that light, he says, the authors are wise to point out that charters offer “no silver bullet” in the school-reform arsenal.

Find Robert Bifulco’s review on the web at:

About The Think Twice Project
The Think Twice project provides the public, policy makers and the press with timely, academically sound reviews of selected think tank publications. It is a collaboration of the Education Policy Studies Laboratory at Arizona State University and the Education and the Public Interest Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder and is funded by the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice.


The mission of the Great Lakes Center is to improve public education for all students in the Great Lakes region through the support and dissemination of high quality, academically sound research on education policy and practices.

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