Section 1

Reading the Research

Updated 2015

Why research on charter schools matters

K–12 education can often be highly politicized and hotly contested.1 Charter schools are a particularly charged subject in K–12 education policy and reform. Research on charter schools has grown over the past decades as charter schools have expanded across the country. The scope and scale of charter school research continue to grow as more data become available.

Research on charter schools can help generate new information, uncover problems and point toward solutions. Findings from research can help foster a more civil dialogue and a more informed debate about how to improve education for all children, whether they attend a charter school or not.

This guide to research summarizes and explains research on charter schools across key topics, including Student Achievement, Diversity and Inclusion, Teachers and Teaching, Innovation, Finances, Governance and Regulation, Charter School Operators, Families and Public Opinion. The guide is designed to help research play a more meaningful role in how policymakers, journalists and communities think about charter schools and about children’s education generally.

However, research on charter schools can itself be the subject of vigorous debate. This guide includes research that has generated controversy. It attempts to explain some of those debates without taking sides. The section below outlines some research concepts and challenges to keep in mind as you read our guide and as you encounter new research on charter schools.

Terms and concepts to help understand the research

Some challenges researchers face studying charter schools

How to spot good research and how to interpret findings carefully

Research has sometimes been produced and interpreted to serve the political goals of advocates for and opponents of charter schools.7 Asking a few questions can help readers decide how seriously to take a study’s findings:

For more detail on how to read, report on and use research with care, see the nonpartisan Council of State Governments’ "A State Official’s Guide to Science-Based Decision-Making”8 and the U.S. Department of Education’s What Works Clearinghouse.9 A recent article in The Atlantic describes some of the ways that journalists, policymakers and practitioners can avoid “oversimplifying or overstating” the results of education research studies.10 Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center has a useful primer on statistical terms used in research studies.

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