More Evidence on Charter Schools

(Photo: Alex Starr)

Writing at Slate, Ray Fisman reviews the latest research on the efficacy of charter schools.  The study focuses on students at six Boston schools that had previously demonstrated an ability to improve students’ test scores on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System.  This time, however, the researchers wanted to evaluate whether the schools really improved student outcomes or just mastered the art of “teaching to the test.” Here’s the breakdown:

The study examines the college readiness of Boston public school students who applied to attend the six charter schools between 2002 and 2008, with projected graduation dates of 2006–2013. In just about every dimension that affects post-secondary education, students who got high lottery numbers (and hence were much more likely to enroll in a charter school) outperformed those assigned lower lottery numbers. Getting into a charter school doubled the likelihood of enrolling in Advanced Placement classes (the effects are much bigger for math and science than for English) and also doubled the chances that a student will score high enough on standardized tests to be eligible for state-financed college scholarships. While charter school students aren’t more likely to take the SAT, the ones who do perform better, mainly due to higher math scores.

The upshot of this improvement in college readiness is that, upon graduation, while charter and public school students are just as likely to go on to post-secondary education, charter students enroll at four-year colleges at much higher rates. A four-year college degree has historically meant a better job with a higher salary, making a spot in one of Boston’s charter schools a ticket to a better life for many students. (We’ll presumably know in a few years whether things actually turn out that way in the longer run for the cohort the researchers are following.)

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  1. Brian O'Connor says:

    I would be very surprised if charter schools did not have a higher percentage of students going on to four-year colleges. Considering that students with special needs are rarely admitted to charter schools, or are matriculated out due to the stress of the AP focus of these schools, charter schools already have a significant advantage over typical public schools in terms of high performing students. Moreover, these lotteries are many time paired with entrance exams that students are required to pass prior to admittance. So, schools that steal the top 1 or 2 percent of the highest achieving students very well should have higher college entrance and completion rates.

    Quite frankly, even if these students did not attend a charter school, they would very likely move on to college.

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    • Enter your name... says:

      They aren’t comparing those who attended the charter school to those who didn’t.

      They are comparing those who “applied” and had the opportunity to attend (regardless of whether they actually did attend or not) to those who also, equally, “applied” and did not have the opportunity to attend (regardless of what school they eventually attended). The sole difference between these two groups is whether or not their name was randomly drawn out of the bucket sooner or later in the lottery.

      You should read http://www.masscharterschools.org/myths which directly says that in Massachusetts, there are no entrance exams or other ways to cherry-pick students. Either everyone who wants to attend gets in, or—if there isn’t enough space—everyone who wants to attend has an exactly equal chance at getting in, with no favoritism and no rules against students with special needs.

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    • SFBear says:

      Nope, the study authors seem to do a good job making sure they compare apples to apples.
      The study “controls for risk sets, 10th grade calendar year dummies, race, sex, special education, limited
      English proficiency, subsidized lunch status, and a female by minority dummy”.

      http://www.tbf.org/~/media/TBFOrg/Files/Reports/Charters%20and%20College%20Readiness%202013.pdf

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  2. Rich says:

    It seems that this study is a bit misleading. Really all it is showing is that good schools have good outcomes, not that charter schools have good outcomes. Not exactly a mind blowing result. What is clearly true is that all schools need to improve and the distinction between charter and traditional is a red herring.

    The troubling thing for me is the lack of sharing between charter and traditional schools. The initial intent of charter schools was to be a lab for testing new practices and identifying effective ones that could be disseminated back into the traditional schools. I have not seen much evidence of that happening.

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    • James says:

      Is there really a lack of SHARING between public and charter schools, or are the public schools just not interested in improving on their traditional practices?

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      • Rich says:

        Wouldn’t that still constitute a lack of sharing? I did not post anything about the causes of the lack of sharing. But would it not be wise to encourage and perhaps require a sharing of best practices?

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  3. Tom says:

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    • Enter your name... says:

      They’ve told you everything that you need to know about the population, which is this:

      All the students in this population were randomly assigned to one of two groups: those who were randomly assigned a lottery number that made admission to the free charter school possible, and those who were randomly assigned a lottery number that made admission to the free charter school impossible.

      That’s the only initial difference between the two groups. Following the standard scientific method, when you take a large group of subjects and randomly assign individuals to one of two groups, and then treat the groups differently, you are then entitled to assume that any future difference between the two groups is likely to have been caused by the differences in the way that you treated them, rather than in pre-existing differences. That’s the point behind randomized controlled trials.

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      • Rich says:

        The real problem is that they cherry picked the Charter Schools. If the Charter Schools were picked at random that could tell you more about Charter vs. Non-Charter. This is essentially saying that good schools are good… Not exactly mind boggling.

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  4. Steve says:

    I would be highly interested in seeing a Bill James-esque take on this situation. There needs to be some form of a SAT+ (akin to the ERA+ and OPS+) that can adjust students’ performance for the context of their life situation.
    Also, there is a tendency to group these three criteria together:
    -Chartered Schools
    -Unionized vs. Non-Unionized Teachers (many, but not all, charter schools are non-unionized staffs)
    -School Choice

    While all three of these elements can have an affect on a student’s school experience, we need to be sure which element we are analyzing.

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  5. Kim J says:

    1) To what degree do charter schools promote the vision that their students will go to college?
    2) What sort of effect does getting into a “special” school have on how the child sees him or herself?
    3) What are the student/teacher ratios of the charter and regular schools in the study?
    4) What effect does working in a charter school have on the self-esteem of the teacher, and does this change how he or she teaches, feels about students, or approaches material?
    This country is known the world over for being the seat of innovation. The more we move away from the free, inclusive, public education system that this country was built upon, the faster we will be out innovated and out smarted by other countries who paid attention to our original model.

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    • Enter your name... says:

      > 2) What sort of effect does getting into a “special” school have on how the child sees him or herself?

      If this is a significant positive factor, then everyone should get to attend a “special” school.

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      • Steve says:

        That’s the theory behind school choice. Whether or not the schools are actually “elite”, if the people who attend them and work there believe that they are special there could definitely be benefits. This is also known as the Pygmalion effect.

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  6. Mayuresh says:

    The ideal way to test would be to randomly select 50% of the students in a given population and put them in Charter schools while the rest go to normal public schools. Any student that is forced out of the charter school for reasons of non-performance / special needs etc. should count as a drop-out and still appear in the denomiantor while calculating college attendance percentages. That would be the real test to see if a charter school is better, else it is just a case of kicking out the most vulnerable students and then claiming success by pretending that the good students are good because of your intervention

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  7. Allen says:

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    • Gabe says:

      yeah, God forbid they try to make sure their teachers get paid a decent salary…

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    • RGJ says:

      So you believe competition will increase complacency? In one of the most measured fields in our society, that is ridiculous.

      The best answer to our school challenge is nationwide vouchers. Let the family choose the best school for their children, and force all public and private schools to compete for students.

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    • Enter your name... says:

      A lot of charter schools are non-profit organizations controlled by the parents (just like a lot of private schools), which have less of an incentive to “maximize profits” (just like a lot of private schools).

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  8. Olivia says:

    “Moreover, these lotteries are many time paired with entrance exams that students are required to pass prior to admittance.”
    Actually that’s not true. Charter schools by definition are open to anyone and do not discriminate on any basis. The lottery system, while not all that fair, is not paired with any sort of testing. If it does then you’re probably talking about a private school. Charter schools receive tax dollars and therefore are not allowed to turn students away based on any sort of academic standards or exams.

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    • Enter your name... says:

      You’re right about the situation in this study, but some other states permit charter schools to use admission criteria other than random lottery numbers. For example, my friend’s child is graduating from a charter school this month that only accepts students who are considered “academic failures”. There’s another in my area that requires 50% of the students to speak Spanish at home (to the disgust of the many, many non-Latino families who want their children to be bilingual: the waiting list for English-only speakers is far longer than the waiting list for Spanish-only speakers). But, as I said, that’s not the case in Boston.

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