Which Charter Sector is Better: Denver or Detroit?

In education reform circles, the Denver charter sector is held up as a success story.

Detroit’s charter sector, on other hand, is held up as a cautionary tale of authorizers run amok: mediocre schools, over supply, and no accountability.


Yet, if you review CREDO’s urban charter study, the data tells a different story (one that is easy to see given that Denver and Detroit are right next to each other when you arrange cities by their first letter).

When compared to local district schools, Detroit charters perform better than Denver charters.

See below for math (purple) and reading (beige) marginal effects.

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In reading, the Detroit charter sector has 2x the effect of Denver’s charter sector!

More interesting data: the performance curve in Detroit is also better (the bands, starting from the left, are: worse than district, equal to district, better than district).


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93% of Detroit charters are equal to or better than the district in math and 96% are better or equal to the district in reading!


What’s going on here?

Well, Denver’s traditional schools are probably better than Detroit’s traditional schools, which brings the Denver charter effect down.

That being said, Denver’s charter sector has a ton going for it that Detroit doesn’t: Denver is a talent magnet; there are multiple high-quality CMOs; and Denver has closed down many low-performing charters.

The Denver ecosystem is ripe for the scaling of high-performing charters.


A few reflections:

1. Reform narratives are often tethered to the status of individuals and organizations rather than the actual data.

2. Given that parents in Detroit can’t enroll their children in schools in Denver, we should not decry a charter sector that is providing families better options than what they would otherwise have access to.

3. Test scores aren’t everything, so we shouldn’t solely judge a charter sector based on CREDO data.

The world is ever complicated.

7 thoughts on “Which Charter Sector is Better: Denver or Detroit?

  1. David Osborne

    Very interesting. I believe you are correct that Denver’s traditional public schools perform much better than Detroit’s–hence the spread between charter and traditional schools is wider in Detroit. The other variable that may be at play is that 32 percent of Denver students are English language learners; their primary language is not English. I would imagine that figure is lower in Detroit. That could account for the wider spread in reading/ELA than in math.
    David Osborne

  2. Ciro Curbelo

    Incredibly full of insight. Thanks. If parents zoned schools are worse, who am I to block a choice that is incrementally better for them?

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