Roland Fryer Identifies Five Habits of Successful Charter Schools

Harvard economist (and Freakonomics friend) Roland Fryer has a new paper out (full version here) that takes a look at the specific successful habits of charter schools. Along with co-author Will Dobbie, Fryer collected “unparalleled data” on 35 elementary and middle charter schools in New York City by conducting extensive interviews and videotaping classrooms.

Their results are fairly counter-intuitive. They showed that traditional solutions like class size, per-pupil expenditure, and the number of teachers with advanced degrees are not correlated with effectiveness, and in fact, “resource-based solutions” actually lowered school effectiveness.

Instead, they found five qualities that made up about 50 percent of a charter school’s effectiveness.  These are:

1. Frequent teacher feedback
2. Data driven instruction
3. High-dosage tutoring
4. Increased instructional time
5. Relentless focus on academic achievement. 

For example, a high-achieving charter middle-school teacher gets feedback 13.42 times per semester, versus 6.35 times at other charter schools. Similarly, high achieving middle-schools test their students 4 times per semester, compared to 2.4 at other schools.

Perhaps even more interesting, these qualities remained paramount to a successful charter school despite different styles of environment, such as “Whole Child,” “No Excuses” (like KIPP), and teacher-retention.

Leave A Comment

Comments are moderated and generally will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive.



View All Comments »
  1. John B says:

    “They showed that traditional solutions like class size, per-pupil expenditure, and the number of teachers with advanced degrees are not correlated with effectiveness, and in fact, “resource-based solutions” actually lowered school effectiveness.”

    But all of the above things greatly increases the amount of money spent on education–which is the goal of the NEA, AFT, etc. Money and power-not student achievement, are the goals of the unions and their political friends.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 27 Thumb down 20
    • Greg says:

      So you’re saying that charter schools (which are private businesses) are superior to public schools, in part because teachers unions are more focused on money than charter schools?

      Wow. Pots and kettles.

      Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 22 Thumb down 17
      • John B says:

        Charter Schools are public schools operated under authority of the state. They are exempt from some of the public school rules, have smaller beaurocracies, often pay teachers higher salaries because they do not have to give m0ney to teacher’s unions (which is really money laundering for certain politicians).

        Contrary to teacher’s union talking points, charter schools have to take children with special needs. special ed, disabled children, etc. Charter schools select children by lottery, meaning they have to teach whoever is selected by chance. Most charter school students are primarily minority children who now have an opportunity to succeed.

        These are the facts, but it is easier to make false claims.

        Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 27 Thumb down 13
      • Tony says:

        Charter schools are non-profit organizations. They are just as much “private businesses” as organizations like Habitat for Humanity, The Salvation Army, United Way, and the American Cancer Society.

        I don’t think most people would argue against a statement like “good teachers should be paid more.” But district schools waste the majority of their money on overhead, and then they base teacher firing and compensation decisions solely on the number of days the teacher has worked at that organization. Charter schools pay, on average, higher salaries to teachers, but they use better metrics to measure performance (what good is feedback if it has no bearing on an employee’s salary or job security?) and then keep the good ones and fire the bad.

        Thumb up 6 Thumb down 2
      • James says:

        John B, I would be interested to see some facts on your claim that Charter teachers get paid more. In my state, Charter teachers make 1/3 less than their peers at traditional public schools. I hope you are not mixing Charter with Private schools.

        Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0
      • Enter your name... says:

        That’s not true for all of them.

        Some charters are run by for-profit businesses. Some are run by non-profits.

        Some pay higher teacher salaries. Some pay lower salaries.

        Some select children by lottery (but only from among voluntary applicants, which almost never include students with severe or expensive disabilities).

        Some select children by other methods, including first-come, first-served, or only taking the “best” students (however the school defines “best”. For example, they might accept students based solely on their performance skills, or students who are already bilingual, or students whose parents who commit to volunteering several hours a week in the classroom, which pretty much guarantees them a population with wealthier, education-focused two-parent families).

        There is no “one thing” that all charter schools are.

        Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 10 Thumb down 2
    • twobeef says:

      Having smaller class sizes often leads to more frequent teacher feedback, because a teacher has more time to respond to each individual student, though it’s clear that A doesn’t necessarily lead to B.

      Additional tutoring outside of the standard school day requires having extra tutors on staff (more money) or in teachers having enough free time during the day to perform one-on-one tutoring.

      Increased instructional time is either requiring your current teachers to work longer days, or it requires you have more teachers on staff (more money).

      I’m not sure those dirty unions are so far off.

      Thumb up 5 Thumb down 1
  2. Joe J says:

    Not surprising in the least. the things that don’t matter are actually pushed by teachers unions. i.e. higher teacher degrees, as barriors to entry to give better job security. More money= higher pay, smaller class size= more teachers needed.

    Too bad with the unions being so powerful these observations will never be allowed to be implimented in schools.

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 13 Thumb down 11
    • G says:

      I don’t think it was the unions that kept you from being able to spell “barrier” or “implemented”.

      Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 24 Thumb down 17
      • al says:

        i would like to point out that fitzgerald was a poor speller, and that your jab was quite unnecessary in this context of good-spirited debate.

        Thumb up 7 Thumb down 3
  3. G says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

    Disliked! Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 17
    • Burt Mustin says:


      I doubt what I say will have an effect on your position, but in a rational, adult conversation you can’t just make up facts.

      My children go to a charter school in New York City, and just two hours ago I was in one daughter’s classroom waiting for her class to return from science (in Kindergarten, by the way – science every day!), where I was going to assist the class in their chess lesson (again, in Kindergarten)

      While I waited, a young girl from my daughter’s class with autism (apparently somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, although I am no expert) was receiving direct, TWO-ON-ONE tutoring with a special computer paid for by the charter network (not the DOE) and was learning how to use a mouse, describe the behavior of what was happening in the computer lesson, and laughing loudly whenever she made a new accomplishment.

      To say that charter schools don’t accept special needs children is simply untrue. I have spent countless hours at hearings and meetings with you friendly anti-charter folks, and I keep hearing two major objections — one, that charters don’t accept special needs children, which is a goofy thing to hang your hat on since it is quite easily proven false, as I have just demonstrated; and two, that charters aren’t public, which is also ridiculous. Just because charter schools legal structure includes a non-profit corporation to run things is nowhere same thing as equating charters with GE or Halliburton.

      Charter schools are free and funded by my taxes (which are way too high, thank you corrupt, union-backed New York politicians), they are almost always located (as they should be) alongside other public schools, and they are approved and overseen by the DOE and the state. How is that not public?

      There is no profit motive, no shareholders, no purpose other than to give my daughters an amazing education that they would not be getting if anti-charter advocates had their way. If you want to oppose charter schools that is certainly your right, although the status quo has given us 30+% of New York City students not even completing high school, massive failures affecting the most economically disadvantaged populations, and huge benefits and power for a ridiculously large ‘Corporation’ known as the teachers union.

      I sincerely believe that you are on the wrong side of history and that if all schools emulated what the high-performing charter schools were doing then there would be no need for them in the first place. Instead you want to maintain your tenure and your political power and your rules that prevent schools from getting better. Truly that cannot be the best thing for kids.

      Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 25 Thumb down 0
    • Tony says:

      I think Greg’s right that most charter schools, on average, do not have the scale to provide full services to special needs kids.

      However, in the school district I worked in (major urban school district), charter schools in the city were “taxed” by the school district to pay for special ed kids, above and beyond the allocation charter schools were given to provide for these kids they were given by the state (they are given the allocation based on number of total, i.e., special ed + non-special ed, students, rather than number of special ed kids because the state doesn’t want to incentivize schools characterizing kids as special needs to get more money).

      So in the case of my school district, say that the state provides $500 per student for a school to set up a special needs program. The school district was charging all the charter schools $1,000 per student to provide the special needs services to each of the charter schools.

      Another interesting thing to note is that the school district is spending way more than its special ed allocation on its special ed programs (maybe this is because the government does not provide enough money for special ed students, or maybe it is because my school district is very inefficient providing services for special ed students – it’s kind of an area that most people in charge don’t understand so they approve many expenses since they don’t want to be seen politically as being cheap on the most vulnerable students). So money that is supposed to pay for the education of non-special ed students in district schools is effectively being taken away to pay for special needs students at the school district.

      Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0
      • Michelle N. says:

        I just toured a charter school today where the school hired a specialist for one child. This will cost twice what the school will receive from the feds for this child but the school is committed to helping every child. They also have a school psychologist and an intervention specialist. I think most charter’s take everyone-you may have a particular school in mind that did not but I would say that is the exception-not the rule.

        Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0
  4. BigFire says:

    re: John B
    Correct. The goal of NEA and teacher’s union is NEVER about the kids. It’s always about getting more benefit and money for the member.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 17 Thumb down 8
    • BSK says:

      And it differs from other unions in that respect how? How much do the auto workers’ union care about fuel efficiency or car safety? Why do we hold teachers’ unions to a different standard than other unions?

      Thumb up 6 Thumb down 2
      • James says:

        Some of us don’t. That’s why we drive Hondas and Toyotas.

        Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1
      • Joe J says:

        They don’t differ from the UAW, except that they have done a much more successful public support/ advertising campaign. Claiming that the teachers unions ONLY care about the kids education, and anyone who doesn’t give them more money therefore hates kids or education.

        The UAWs main complaint is that it’s not fair, they were promised huge retirement benifits, in a deal made many years ago and it’s being welched on, because that much money would bankrupt the company.

        Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0
  5. Mayuresh says:

    So charter schools that are more effective focus more on academics (point 3,4 and 5) rather than sports and extra-curriculars. They teach more, they make the students study harder and leave them too exhausted at the end of the day to get themselves into any kind of trouble on the streets.
    Where else do we see this kind of education system? Yes, in Asia. Do we want American kids to be like Asians when they grow up? With good academics but low social skills? Maybe we want our poor to be like that, hence most charter schools cater to poor neighborhoods.

    The fact of the matter is:
    1. Charter schools emphasize on academics at the cost of extra curricular activities
    2. Charter school students spend more time learning, have a higher learning burden and spend more time in school than others
    3. This additional time results in them performing better on standardized tests for math, reading and writing, just like many Asian schools
    4. For most inner-city kids, higher test scores leading to a hard major (like economics, science, math, business as poopsed to soft majors like Art history, English literature in Africa, Film Making, Pottery, etc.) at a better college are the only way to escape poverty and enter the middle / upper middle class. Yes, this strategy may give the US less basketball /football players and less artists, actors, etc. but it gives the poor kids a much better statistical chance of succeeding in life (read: escaping povery) than if they would have invested their time in sports.

    So the results of the finding should not surprise us one bit. Poor parents clearly prefer charter schools to regular inner city schools. Why not make all (or most) inner-city schools charter schools, so people do not have to enter a lottery to get their kids admitted.

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 12 Thumb down 9
    • Xian says:

      I would rather have students with high academics and low social skills. Than low academics and high social skills, plus I have yet to meet athletes with better social skills than an academics, especially the ones I see interviewed on television; their ability to articulate is found lacking.

      Thumb up 4 Thumb down 3
    • rick says:

      I don’t quite follow where you draw your conclusions for your points 1 and 2. Nothing in the article talks about trade offs between academics and and extra curricular activities. Do you have a source? Not that my data point is significant but two of my kids went to magnet schools (not the same as charter) that were within traditional high schools. They had full range of extra-curricular activities and were challenged with additional course content and high academic standards.

      Second I don’t particularly follow why high academic achievement means lower social skills or artistic ability. My son is now studying architecture and civil engineering and is an accomplished artist. My daughter participated in theater the whole time she was in HS.

      Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
      • Jen says:

        Magnet schools within comprehensive schools DO have a far higher ability to deliver extra-curriculars to students.

        Google around and you will find many charters without gyms for instance. The kids might walk to another building and call it PE or do a yoga or workout videotape in a classroom.

        My oldest was in a magnet in a HS as well and benefited enormously from the wealth of options for sports, activities, electives, clubs, theater, etc. My next child is in the spin-off school — the magnet has now become its own smaller, more grades school. He gets to shuffle around to another school that has an auditorium for the plays and musical. Sports teams are combined across three schools and held at the school with the most participants OR the facilities with enough room. This involves extra bus rides and often no “late bus” options. Only some kids receive bus passes for transportation to and from school, so the other kids are stuck trying to carpool or having to pay for city buses to attend extracurriculars.

        Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0
    • Reid says:

      Why do we assume that focusing on academic achievement automatically means that it comes at the expense of other things? There seems to be a view that:

      1. students can’t be good at everything (i.e. a focus on one thing must result in a cost to something else);
      2. schools can’t use the existing instructional time they have available to them to focus on the most demonstrably effective instruction possible to raise academic standards (as rigorous academic standards must be accompanied by extra time, or that time devoted to admin tasks can’t be redirected);
      3.simply having the students involved in processes outside the classroom automatically means that they get better at social activities, athletics etc.

      I am not sure that any of these prove to be born out.

      Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0
  6. Jason says:

    The hard part about these findings is that the identified qualities are also “resource-based”.

    1) Frequent teacher feedback and 2) Data driven instruction require allocation of administrative staff time, more time for teacher professional development, and IT investments to support these practices.

    3) High-dosage tutoring requires human capital and additional management to ensure effectiveness.

    4) Increased instructional time is obviously expensive. Schools like KIPP pay overtime.

    5) This one may be the X factor, not requiring more resources per se, but also hard to quantify.

    So far, charter schools (and some of the most innovative district schools) benefit from being a small segment of the population – they can compete for the best teachers who are willing to put in extra time for minimal extra pay. I taught in one of these schools when I was 23, and I actually liked trading extra hours with the kids for less paperwork on academics and discipline problems (the kids were the same, but our approaches meant fewer problems that had to be written up). However, I could not teach in one of these schools now – the pay and the hours don’t fit with having a family.

    Scaling up these practices is necessary, but it won’t be done without significant resources. Just look at the many rejected Race to the Top applications that were full of these practices. These proposals would have made schools better, but they would not have saved money. We can disagree about the role of unions, etc., but we need to agree that good schools cost a lot more than we spend right now.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 17 Thumb down 4
    • Rick says:

      Jason, well said. My district in Texas does not have charter schools that I know of but has magnet schools. These are located in underused physical plants where there is a declining enrollment. They specialize in various subject areas (Some examples, International school of arts (music), Design and Technology (academic), Automotive (vocational), etc. Generally students in the magnet schools take 30-60% of their courses from the magnet school faculty and the rest from the home school faculty. Results are great. There is a dedicated administrative and counseling staff for each magnet school. Cost per student is an additional 2000 – 5000 per student. Interestingly enough the highest cost per student increase was in the vocational magnet schools with automotive being the highest.
      Admission is by lottery among the applicants though students must have a teacher recommendation and a counselor recommendation to apply.

      I think the key factors are:
      1. Students in the program are there because they want to be there. Huge in my opinion.
      2. Faculty are there for the same reason.
      3. There is a tremendous amount of support from faculty and administration.
      There is also student tutoring services (students teaching students).
      4. There is a community service volunteer requirement.

      All of this of course takes time and money. Having said that, just throwing money at students that don’t want to be there in the first place won’t help. Ways have to be found to ignite the desire to learn.

      Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0
      • Joe D says:

        Rick, you’ve left out one thing (that everyone else in these comments has, as well): buy-in from the *parents*. From the charter lottery application through daily homework supervision, the parents are interested in the education of these children. *That* is the thing that doesn’t scale well.

        Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0
    • Joe J says:

      “We can disagree about the role of unions, etc., but we need to agree that good schools cost a lot more than we spend right now.”

      Actually no, good schools don’t cost more than we spend now, they actually cost less. If you look at the money spent per student, the worst schools are often the ones which spen the most $ per student.
      Most private schools and charter schools, that do better than public schools cost less per student than the public schools do.

      Thumb up 5 Thumb down 1
      • brian says:

        You need to read the paragraph directly above the one you quoted in Jason’s post. You are making the assumption that charter success teaching 5-10% of students can be scaled to 100% perfectly. The previous paragraph by Jason explains the problems with this assumption quite well.
        Also, a selection lottery DOES NOT guarantee a random sample of students going to charter schools. Why? the local public school has to accept the kids whose parents didn’t enter the lottery.

        Thumb up 4 Thumb down 4
      • Joe J says:

        I don’t know why I can’t seem to repy to brians’ post, but…
        I am not comparing charter schools to public schools when I made the assertion that more $ per student does not make a better school. I am comparing public schools, with the same studenmts and parents as they had before changes in the $.
        I’m just outside of DC and with the Michelle Rhee fight I have had a ring side seat. DC public schools are som of the worst schools in the Nation, they also recieve some of the highest $ per student funding. Rhee came in, made reforms, cut costs and the schools went up in the rankings. Same students, same parents, same buildings/neighborhoods less $ better schools.
        Not to say that paerntal involvement is not a factor, but it is besides the point, more money does not equal better school.
        In the last Mayoral election the Teachers Union spent over $1 million campaigning against Fenty. To put that in perspective, both candidates combined had under $2 million in campaign funding. In return the union recieved a contract with a $70 million raise. 70 to 1 return on investment, not bad. What happened with this more money, schools dropped again in the rankings.

        Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1
  7. Kevin says:

    I would argue that a better title for this article would be Five Habits of Successful Schools.
    It really doesn’t matter if the school is a traditional public school, a public school academy (charter school), or a private school. The best schools are the ones that follow these five habits rigorously.
    I have seen success in all three types of schools and they all have in common the pursuit of excellence through these habits, particularly 1,2, and 4.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 1
  8. Freddy says:

    I am an assistant principal at a public school and have limited knowledge on the operations of a charter school. The only thing I know is that every year I receive one or two students who were dismissed from a charter school, because they could not cut the mustard. Yes, they must take the kids from a lottery but, they don’t say anything about getting rid of that kid once they find out the student won’t assimilate to their strict rules and procedures.

    There are vast differences between public and charter schools and far too many reasons why the public schools are the way they are.

    A serious analysis needs to be done to accurately examine both options.

    Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0
    • lily says:

      all of you are blessed because u know the difference between charter school, public school, private schools and i dont.can somebody explain to me the difference?me,the school i went to in in small african village is the school of life.we learn differently because our realities are totally different from yours.our way is much long as we can self rely,that is took me too long to type this email because my child is teaching me english and some it skills.he is 10 and i will graduate from his school soon but he too will graduate from mine because motherhood is a free school.he is teaching me free because he says that is his way to pay back the lessons i taught day, i am sure i will join one of all the schools you mentioned in your debate.good luck to you all.

      Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0