There is a growing body of research on school choice but little hard evidence that it benefits students or spurs school improvement.

“There is an enormous amount that we still don’t know. It is pretty hard to study and the evidence is encouraging but not definitive,” says Brian Gill, co-author of “Rhetoric vs. Reality: What We Know and What We Need to Know about Vouchers and Charter Schools.” Gill is a senior researcher at Mathematica Policy Research, Inc.

Gill contributed to a 2007 RAND Corporation report that found promising student outcomes in Chicago and Florida charter schools. The report, often cited by charter enthusiasts, also found little evidence that top students are funneled into Chicago’s budding crop of small, specialized schools of choice—a major issue that has surfaced in other reports. A Catalyst analysis had similar findings. (See chart )

Some researchers, like Caroline Hoxby at Stanford University’s Hoover Institute, contend that school choice even improves traditional schools by forcing them to compete for kids. But Gill says the jury is still out on that front.

More studied—but no less mixed—is the impact that school choice has on individual students.

Research by Julie Berry Cullen, Brian Jacob and Steven Levitt, for example, tracked students who won and lost lotteries for Chicago’s magnet schools and found little difference in their subsequent academic achievement. On the other hand, Gill’s report shows a clear increase in graduation and college enrollment rates among students who attended charter schools that spanned the elementary and high school grades. (Charters, like magnets, use lotteries for admission.)

Gill says it’s unclear if the benefits he found are a reflection of charter schools or a grade structure that kept kids from having to transition into a new school at 9th grade.

Much of the confusion boils down to the different ways that researchers account for students’ backgrounds and academic abilities. Choice is simply hard to study, Gill says, because students who opt out of traditional schools may have qualities that test scores can’t illuminate.

Gill’s report matches others that show a significant negative effect on student learning in newly opened charters. More research on Renaissance 2010 schools is due out next year when Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach at the University of Chicago publishes a much-anticipated report.

John Easton, director of the Consortium on Chicago School Research, sums it up: “It all comes down to the quality of the education program.”

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