A new study says that for most charter schools their ultimate success or failure can be predicted by year three of a school’s life.

The report from Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO), Charter School Growth and Replication, found that charter schools, as they age or replicate into networks, are very likely to continue the patterns and performance set by their early years of operation.

“This report’s findings challenge the conventional wisdom that a young underperforming school will improve if given time," says Margaret Raymond, CREDO’s director and the study’s lead author. "Our research shows that if you start wobbly, chances are you’ll stay wobbly. Similarly, if a school is successful in producing strong academic progress from the start, our analysis shows it will remain a strong and successful school.”

The study analyzed charter schools from their launch through their fifth year, then through initial replication and finally as operators grew into charter management organizations with multiple schools. It found that charter schools have varying quality in their early years that carries through as they mature. Some charters have attained high levels of performance at the outset, disproving the notion of a universal rocky start-up period.

Those charter schools that eventually grow into charter management organizations carry forward their initial levels of performance, the study says. The finding highlights the need for diligence in choosing which charter schools are encouraged to expand into networks, CREDO concludes.

“We found that the majority of new charter schools reach an initial level of performance, reflected in student academic progress that is largely predictive of later quality, Raymond says. "With these findings, we hope to eliminate the conventional wisdom that schools can outgrow a shaky start or that `all schools struggle’ in their early years."

The first part of the study followed thousands of charter schools from their inception through five years of operations. The second part analyzed 167 charter management organizations and the 1,372 schools they operate. In addition, CREDO analyzed the impact on student learning in 410 charter schools that are affiliated with 38 different Education Management Organizations (EMOs). EMOs are organizations that contract to provide school operations to independent charter schools and charter management organizations.

Among the implications derived from the study:

  • Careful due diligence by charter school authorizers is needed during the approval process. "Regular and uniform monitoring of charter school performance can lead to early identification of underperforming schools," the report's executive summary says. "While we worry that a shorter first term for charters would adversely affect the incentives to operators to open schools, the findings support the use of performance data at the end of the third year of operation to, if warranted, put schools on notice and to begin to document the case for action in the fourth or fifth year."
  • Most authorizers have limited resources, so they should deploy them where they have the highest impact is desirable. "The temptation to focus on the lowest-performing schools is not supported by this analysis," the summary states. "These findings begin to make the case for additional leeway to be granted to high-performing schools, especially after two years of such performance. These schools, with nearly incredible reliability, are likely to remain high performing in future years."
  • Poor first-year performance cannot be overlooked or excused. "For the majority of schools, poor first-year performance will give way to poor second-year performance," the report says. "Once this has happened, the future is predictable and extremely bleak."
  • Permission to replicate a charter school should be based on absolute performance of the flagship school, not its performance relative to existing public schools. "There is suggestive evidence that some authorizers are approving expansion applications on fragile grounds," the executive summary says.

Read Volume I of the report (PDF)

Read Volume II of the report (PDF)