Contrary to much public rhetoric, the evidence for expanding charter schools in urban areas is stronger than ever. To be sure, the research is less positive for charters operating outside of the nation’s urban centers. And multiple studies suggest that internet-based schools and charters that serve mostly middle-class students, perform worse than their district counterparts, at least on traditional test-score-based measures. But charters needn’t work everywhere to be of service to society.
The Education Gadfly Weekly: The case for charter schools is stronger than ever, so why are they on the ropes?
The Education Gadfly Weekly: The case for charter schools is stronger than ever, so why are they on the ropes?
Contrary to much public rhetoric, the evidence for expanding charter schools in urban areas is stronger than ever. To be sure, the research is less positive for charters operating outside of the nation’s urban centers. And multiple studies suggest that internet-based schools and charters that serve mostly middle-class students, perform worse than their district counterparts, at least on traditional test-score-based measures. But like the technologies behind renewable energy (which work poorly in places where the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine) charters needn’t work everywhere to be of service to society. And these days, society needs all the help it can get, which is why the evidence on urban charter schools is worth revisiting and absorbing.
The evidence on urban charter schools
In general, the most rigorous studies of charter schools rely on data from the randomized admissions lotteries that are conducted when individual schools are oversubscribed, which ensure that research resembles a natural experiment.
With few exceptions, these lottery-based studies have found that attending oversubscribed charter schools is associated with higher achievement in reading and math—especially in large, human-capital-rich cities such as Boston, Chicago, and New York City. For example, a 2011 study of the Promise Academy charter schools in the Harlem Children’s Zone found the effects of attendance in middle school were “enough to close the Black-White achievement gap in mathematics,” while the effects in elementary school were “large enough to close the racial achievement gap in both mathematics and [English language arts].”
Obviously, if all charter schools were so effective, there would be little to debate. But unfortunately, those that are popular enough to make use of admissions lotteries are likely atypical. Consequently, although lottery-based studies may tell us something important about the schools in question—and, perhaps, about the potential gains associated with the policies that allow them to do their work—this research tells us little about the overall performance of urban charter schools.
In an effort to overcome this limitation, many recent studies have used a statistical technique known as “matching” to compare the academic trajectories of students in charter schools to students in traditional public schools with similar characteristics and levels of academic achievement. For example a 2012 study that used matching found that students in Milwaukee charter schools made more progress in English language arts (ELA) and math than otherwise similar students in traditional public schools, as did a more recent study of students in Los Angeles charters.
Although there are many approaches to matching, perhaps the best known in education circles is the virtual control record (VCR) method developed by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University. CREDO has used the VCR method in recent years to generate an extensive collection of national, state-, and city-specific estimates of the “charter effect.” For example, in a 2015 analysis of charter performance in forty-one urban locations, CREDO estimated that students who attended a charter school in these cities gained an average of twenty-eight days of learning in ELA and forty days of learning in math per year. (For the purposes of this discussion, 180 days of learning can be thought of as the progress the average American student makes in the average school year.) Students who enrolled in an urban charter school for at least four years gained a total of seventy-two days of learning in ELA and 108 days—over half a year’s worth of learning—in math.
Notably, these gains were concentrated among low-income Black and Latino students. For example, Black students in poverty gained forty-four days of learning in ELA and fifty-nine days of learning in math per year. Similarly, Latino students in poverty gained twenty-five days of learning in ELA and forty-eight days of additional learning in math. And students with English-language-learner status gained seventy-nine days of learning in ELA and seventy-two days of learning in math.
Nationally, ELA and math achievement gaps between White students and Black and Latino students are roughly two grade levels. So while most charter schools aren’t erasing racial achievement gaps, the average urban charter is putting a sizable dent in them.
Charters and traditional public schools
Since the goal of public education is to serve all students effectively, one key question is whether the success of students in charter schools comes at the expense of their peers in traditional public schools. Yet contrary to the assumptions of many charter-school opponents, there is little evidence that this is the case.
In fact, most of the “spillover” effects that charter schools have on the traditional public schools in their vicinity appear positive—or at worst, neutral. To wit, a recent review of the literature on this question identified nine studies that found positive effects, three that found negative effects, two that found mixed effects, and ten that found no effects whatsoever. As that summary suggests, evidence that charter competition has salutary effects on district-run schools has now been detected in a wide variety of contexts, from the dense urban cores of Milwaukee and New York City to the sprawling suburbs of Florida, North Carolina, and Texas.
Logically, if urban charter schools have a positive effect on their own students’ achievement and a neutral or positive effect on other students’ achievement, it follows that their overall effect on student achievement must be positive. So to test that hypothesis, a recent Fordham report examined the relationship between the “market share” of local charters—that is, the percentage of publicly enrolled students in a geographic school district who attend a charter school—and the average reading and math achievement of all students (including those in traditional public schools). Overall, that analysis suggested that an increase in the former was associated with an increase in the latter, especially in Black and Latino communities and in the largest urban areas. In other words, at least when it comes to charter schools in America’s biggest cities, a rising tide really does lift all boats.
Beyond academic achievement
While most parents expect their children to leave school with a mastery of critical academic skills and knowledge, the ultimate success of an education lies in the degree to which it empowers students to thrive in adulthood. Consequently, to gauge the true efficacy of charter schools, researchers need to get beyond test scores—if and when they can.
Fortunately, a growing number of studies allow us to examine the relationship between enrollment in charter schools and long-term, real-world outcomes. For example, one evaluation of a high-performing “no excuses” charter school in Chicago found that, compared to their peers, lottery winners were “10 percentage points more likely to attend college and 9.5 percentage points more likely to enroll for at least four semesters.” Similarly, in a follow-up study of the Harlem Children’s Zone’s Promise Academy, researchers found that the same students who had previously experienced large test-score gains were also “14.1 percentage points more likely to enroll in college.” Furthermore, admitted female students were “12.1 percentage points less likely to be pregnant in their teens,” while male students were “4.3 percentage points less likely to be incarcerated.”
Other lottery-based studies encompass multiple schools. For example, one study found that attending an oversubscribed Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) middle school between 2008 and 2011 had a positive effect on post-secondary enrollment. Similarly, a 2016 study found that charters increased pass rates on Massachusetts’ high-school exit exam, leading to “a substantial shift from two- to four-year institutions.” Finally, a recent study of the Democracy Prep charter network found that it boosted students’ odds of voting in the 2016 election by six percentage points.
Like the lottery-based studies of charter schools’ impact on achievement, this research doesn’t necessarily generalize to all charter schools. However, at least two studies have used matching techniques to estimate the long-term effects of charter attendance for entire cities or states. The first, a 2011 study of charter schools in Florida and Chicago, found that “among students who attended a charter middle school, those who went on to attend a charter high school were 7–15 percentage points more likely to earn a standard diploma than students who transitioned to a traditional public high school,” as well as “8–10 percentage points more likely to attend college.” The second, a more recent study of charter schools in North Carolina, found that students who attended a charter high school were “less likely to be chronically absent, suspended, be convicted of a crime as an adult, and more likely to register and participate in elections.”
In short, although the literature on charter schools’ long-term effects is still developing, the early evidence—like the two studies mentioned above—is extremely encouraging as well as highly consistent with the evidence on charter schools’ short-term effects on academic achievement.
In the absence of compelling alternatives, the claim that charters exacerbate segregation has become opponents’ most potent line of attack. Yet the evidence for this claim is mixed.
To wit, a recent literature review identified ten studies of charter schools and racial integration, including two that found they increased integration, five that found no significant effect, and three that found that they decreased integration (i.e., increased or at least preserved segregation). Meanwhile, in the most comprehensive analysis to date, researchers at the Urban Institute found that higher charter market share was associated with a small increase in racial segregation within the average school district. However, that same study also found that charter schools reduced segregation between school districts. Consequently, when the analysts looked at segregation across entire metro areas, they found no significant effects.
For some charter skeptics, even the faintest whiff of “re-segregation” is the end of the conversation. But for several reasons, it really shouldn’t be.
First, American schools are already highly segregated, so it’s not like charters are derailing an otherwise successful program of racial integration.
Second, much of the most segregation that is most visible to students takes place within outwardly diverse schools, where pre-existing achievement gaps can and do lead to highly segregated classrooms insofar as math and other subjects are tracked.
Third, some research suggests that, because it “decouples” housing and education markets, school choice makes it more likely that White parents will move into “racially segregated urban communities.” In other words, even if charters lead to slightly less diverse schools, their arrival may mean that neighborhoods become more diverse.
Finally, it is simply a fact that many “racially isolated” charters achieve exceptional results for the students they serve. And of course, there is a huge difference between forced segregation and allowing families to opt out of a system designed by and for the White majority: Students and parents at an all-Black or all-Hispanic charter school that defies society’s expectations of failure are hardly modern-day Bull Connors.
Critics of the research
As should be obvious, much of the pro-charter argument depends on the validity of the methodologies upon which researchers have relied (and of CREDO’s methodology in particular). So given how much is at stake, it’s worth taking a moment to understand the various criticisms of CREDO’s approach, most of which can be summarized in two points.
First, critics claim that CREDO’s estimates could be biased by unobserved differences between students in charter schools and students in traditional public schools. In other words, it’s possible that the students in charter schools make more progress than “otherwise similar” students (i.e., students with similar demographic characteristics and prior achievement) in traditional public schools because of factors that are hard to measure, like unusually involved parents.
Second, critics argue that even if CREDO’s estimates are unbiased, they might not generalize to other locations or higher levels of charter market share. For example, if the 25 percent of Boston’s Black students who are enrolled in a charter school are above average, easier to teach, or otherwise different from the rest of the city’s Black student population, the same schools that are seemingly serving these students so well might struggle to replicate their results with the other three-quarters of that population. And of course, insofar as the extraordinary success of Boston’s charter schools depends on conditions that are not replicable—such as the city’s unusually deep reservoir of human capital—it may be difficult to reproduce this success in other locations.
For each of these criticisms, there is a compelling counterargument. For example, when the federal Institute of Education Sciences (IES) evaluated non-experimental methods for studying charter schools, it found that matching studies generated “impact estimates that are not significantly different from the experimental estimates.” Other attempts to assess the validity of matching approaches have reached similar conclusions. And in general, it’s difficult to overlook the similarities between CREDO’s estimates and those generated by other quasi-experimental or experimental studies. Like the CREDO studies, for example, those studies find large positive effects for disadvantaged students and students of color, a stark gap between the performance of urban and non-urban charter schools, and strikingly positive results in major cities such as Boston and New York, but mixed or negative results in states like Arkansas, and Ohio (though not when online schools are excluded) all of which suggests that CREDO’s estimates should be taken seriously.
As for the second criticism, although our knowledge of the opportunities and challenges associated with an exclusively charter-based system is thus far limited to the experience of New Orleans (which made the switch almost overnight following Hurricane Katrina), we now have quite a bit of experience with “charter-heavy” systems, where charter market share is somewhere between 15 percent and 45 percent. And in general, the evidence collected in such environments suggests that the returns associated with higher charter market share do not necessarily diminish as charter market share increases. For example, one rigorous analysis found that the “average effectiveness of Boston’s charter middle school sector increased...despite a doubling of charter market share.” And CREDO’s 2015 estimates for cities like Detroit and Washington, D.C., were highly positive, despite the fact that charter schools enroll more than a third of the students in these cities. Finally, the evidence suggests that New Orleans’s leap of faith led to substantial gains for students—although it’s not clear how much smaller those gains would have been if the city had stopped at 50 percent or 75 percent charter market share instead of going all the way.
Obviously, even if one takes CREDO’s estimates at face value and accepts that there is room for growth in most places, it’s still the case that charter performance varies by location. But what this criticism often overlooks is that charter policy also varies by location. So at best, this line of reasoning is a double-edged sword. After all, nothing but politics prevents states and localities from adopting smarter education policies.
Improvements over time
Collectively, the research discussed makes a compelling case for expanding charter schools in urban areas. Yet that case would be incomplete without a final, critical, and frequently overlooked point: Charter schools (and urban charters in particular) have improved since the movement’s inception—even as their numbers have increased—and will probably keep improving in the coming years.
The first half of this claim is difficult to contest. For instance, after breaking down previously collected achievement data according to school year, CREDO estimated that students in urban charter schools gained twenty-four days of learning in reading and twenty-nine days of learning in math in 2008–09. Yet by 2011–12, it estimated that these figures had increased to forty-one days for reading and fifty-eight days for math. Similarly, meta-analyses of the lottery-based and quasi-experimental charter-school literature suggest a gradual improvement in overall performance. For example, a 2008 review of seventeen lottery-based and value-added studies found “compelling evidence that charter schools underperform traditional public schools in some locations, grades, and subjects, and outperform them in other locations, grades, and subjects.” Yet in 2018, the same authors concluded that charter schools had positive effects in the elementary and middle grades, with no statistically significant effects in high school.
While the reasons for this improvement are complex, it stands to reason that it is at least partly attributable to the inevitable learning process that occurs whenever a new idea is introduced. After all, thanks to nearly two decades of research, we now know quite a bit about what sorts of charter schools work best, for whom, and under what circumstances. For example, another landmark CREDO study (as well as other research) suggests that non-profit “charter management organizations” (CMOs) are, on average, higher performing than for-profit networks or independent “mom-and-pop” charter schools. And numerous studies have found that “no excuses” schools have a particularly positive effect on Black students’ achievement. Finally, as noted previously, we know that charter schools in urban areas outperform those in rural and suburban districts, especially when it comes to serving Black and Latino students.
Though it’s unlikely to persuade the critics, one obvious implication of all this research is that we should allow high-performing CMOs like KIPP, Success Academy, and IDEA to expand their footprints in major urban areas. And in fact, that’s more or less what’s been happening in places where charter schools in general have been allowed to grow: Since 2015, according to the National Association for Charter School Authorizers, the share of newly created charter schools run by for-profit entities has fallen from 20 percent to around 10 percent, while the share of new schools run by CMOs has increased to 40 percent.
Once one starts looking for them, signs that states and localities are learning from one another’s experiences are everywhere. For example, at least half a dozen cities have now adopted common applications that make it easier for parents to choose from and apply to multiple schools. Or take Texas, which historically has had a relatively low-performing charter sector. In 2013, the Lone Star State boosted funding for its charter schools while also moving to close its lowest performers. Following the law’s passage, CREDO’s estimate of Texas charter schools’ effect on math learning went from negative seventeen days per year in 2013 to positive seventeen days per year in 2015, with even larger gains for poor students and the state’s ever-expanding Latino population.
This improvement is too recent to be reflected in CREDO’s national estimates, as are the widely recognized improvements in several other states’ charter sectors. But the more important point is that, even after twenty-five years of “learning” on the part of both states and localities, charter-school policy in most places is far from optimal. To wit, a 2018 study found that, once the cost of facilities and other unavoidable expenses was taken into account, charter schools received 27 percent—or about $6,000—less per pupil than traditional public schools. And in more than a dozen major urban districts—including Atlanta, Baltimore, Cleveland, Detroit, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, Oakland, and Washington, D.C.—it has been estimated that charter schools receive anywhere from 25 percent to 50 percent less revenue per pupil than traditional public schools. In other words, urban charter schools are achieving their remarkable results despite spending far less money per pupil than their district counterparts.
Just imagine what they could accomplish if that weren’t the case.
Renewing the promise of charter schools
In recent decades, education reformers have experimented with numerous approaches to boosting the achievement of disadvantaged children— from reducing class sizes, to insisting that teachers receive “National Board Certification”, to investing heavily in failing schools. Yet ultimately, most of these ideas were abandoned because they were politically untenable or, in hindsight, unscalable or ill-conceived. In contrast, the case for charter schools has only strengthened over time—and the experiences of places like New Orleans, Newark, and D.C. suggest we have only begun to realize their potential.
Precisely why urban charter schools work so well for students of color is difficult to say. In theory, freedom from district bureaucracies and teacher-union contracts should allow them to make better hiring decisions, appropriately reward strong performance, and part ways with ineffective teachers when necessary. But it’s also possible that more intense competition between schools encourages them to make better use of their resources, or that the periodic closure of low-performing charter schools leads to a gradual improvement in quality. Or perhaps allowing more school choice improves the “match” between students and schools in ways that disproportionately benefit at-risk students. Since research supports each of these theories, the best possible answer to the question of causal mechanisms may simply be “all of the above.”
Despite what many may have heard, the growth of charter schools is not out of control. To the contrary, where growth has been permitted, it is completely under the control of disadvantaged populations that can now exercise their right to pursue a better education. And despite the overheated rhetoric that dominates public conversation, the truth is that charter schools enroll a modest percentage of students in most major cities. For example, in New York City, they enroll just one in five Black students and one in ten Latino students. Yet at the start of the 2019-20 school year, nearly 50,000 families in the Big Apple were denied a place in a charter school.
Nationally, roughly one-quarter of Black students and perhaps one in six Latino students in urban districts attend a charter school. So how much progress could we make by expanding charter market share for these groups?
Although any concrete estimate is subject to criticism, our back-of-the-envelope arithmetic suggests that moving from 25 percent to 50 percent charter market share in urban areas could cut the achievement gap in half for at least 2.5 million Black and Latino students in the coming decade. And of course, with more equitable funding, improved oversight, and an expanded role for truly high-performing networks, the dividends might be even larger.
So what are we waiting for?
Editor’s note: This was first published by National Affairs.
The negative partisanship animating this year’s presidential contest notwithstanding, charter school advocates will have their hands full no matter who prevails. That was the glum consensus from panelists last week during a plenary session hosted by the Colorado League of Charter Schools as part of the organization’s annual Leadership Summit. (I serve on the League’s board of directors.) Moderated by the National Alliance’s Todd Ziebarth, the conversation featured Dr. Howard Fuller, California charter association head Myrna Castrejón, and Fordham’s Mike Petrilli.
Ziebarth set the stage by providing some context for the headwinds facing charter schools, which have enjoyed bipartisan support at the national level going back to President Clinton and the creation of the federal Charter Schools Program. However, since the 2018 midterms, House Democrats and the current administration have made hostile moves against the program, and both Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren were particularly critical of charters on the campaign trail. According to Ziebarth, organized opposition to charters is “wider, deeper, and more threatening than we’ve ever seen it.” Federal policy aside, the key question is what next month’s election portends for state legislative races: Could we have another wave of anti-charter lawmakers—most vividly among Democrats—eager to advance unfriendly legislation?
Charter schools have always faced opposition, but the dogfight they find themselves in now was long in the making according to Fuller, who also talked about the racial issues that must be considered within a larger struggle for social justice. He underscored a lack of foresight among charter advocates, complacency, and a struggle to effectively tell the stories of the children benefitting from charters, thus allowing opponents to define charter schools as being “polite cousins of segregation” and anti-public education. Fuller sees a difficult road ahead:
When I look at this election, I’m looking at a choice between a man who don’t give a damn about my life and another man who doesn’t care about something that I’ve fought for all of my life… I think that we’re going to have to decide who we want to fight and what the fights are going to be… We have to organize ourselves to be prepared to fight [regardless of who wins].
For his part, Fuller has already cast his vote for Biden, despite his chilly posture toward charters, and is prepared to push back, especially if Democrats win unified control of the federal government.
Petrilli largely agreed with Fuller’s diagnosis of the political problems plaguing the sector. To be sure, charter schools are in a better position than other parts of the reform agenda (e.g., standardized tests and accountability) thanks to a constituency of millions of families. Charters have also done a better job in responding to the pandemic than most urban school districts have. If Americans decide to turn the page next month, there’s a hope for a return to some semblance of normalcy where the two parties again fight for the center instead of retreating to their respective corners. Without Trump in the picture, it might help reduce the incentives Democrats currently have to reflexively reject charters and choice, plus his defeat might pave the way for a sizable federal relief bill that would benefit all public schools. Still, growth and expansion seem far less likely in the near term as charter schools will continue to be on the defensive.
Castrejón further raised the alarm, calling California a “canary in a coal mine” in the battle over school choice. She agreed with Fuller that the forces of resistance and repeal have been executing upon a playbook that’s been in the works for some time. Couching the state of play as an “asymmetrical war,” Castrejón minced no words in describing the well-funded and formidable adversary that are the teachers unions, but she also sounded an optimistic note in citing polling data showing continued and strong public support of charters—especially among Black and Hispanic families—in spite of the unions’ negative campaigning.
The conversation further explored the current political dynamics, from the intraparty divide on the issue among Democrats to the success of charter opponents in establishing front groups who masquerade representing the interests of students and families. He wasn’t on the panel, but my friend and 50CAN EVP Derrell Bradford previously offered an assessment that encapsulates the current mood:
This is an amazingly dangerous moment for charter schools. To be straight about it, the teachers unions right now are not OK with coexistence any more, though there may be a few places they will have to live with charters as they are currently arrayed. But to the extent that they can stop or end not just the growth but the existence of charters, they will.
Colorado is one of those few places, as our governor, Jared Polis, founded not just one, but two charter schools, and he may be the only Democratic governor who not only supports charters, but deeply understands and appreciates them. Charter advocates outside of Colorado who don’t have a friendly governor or supportive legislative majorities face longer odds, but based on what the panelists shared, November will reinforce the need for charter proponents to prepare for the worst and hope for the best.
For a number of years, Ohio’s charter school sector has been more of a punchline than an exemplar in national debates about charters. The criticisms, though sometimes exaggerated, were not entirely unwarranted. Low-performing charter networks grew unchecked, and the irresponsible practices of ECOT, a massive online school, became front-page news. Recognizing the quality control problems, we at Fordham have long pressed for stronger charter accountability. In 2006, we partnered with NACSA and NAPCS to issue a set of recommendations aimed at strengthening state charter law. Seeing evaluations indicating that more needed to be done and appalled by news of startup failures, we redoubled our efforts eight years later by releasing a paper with Bellwether Education Partners that urged further reforms.
With the backing of Governor John Kasich and bipartisan support in the legislature, Ohio lawmakers heeded the call for course correction and enacted landmark charter legislation in 2015. It strengthened oversight of charter authorizers, eliminated loopholes that allowed low-performing schools to escape accountability, and added more transparency around charter operators’ practices and finances. We believed the reform package would improve performance by ridding the sector of chronic poor performers and building the public confidence needed for high-performers to thrive.
Five years later, we are seeing signs of the hoped-for improvement. The accountability reforms have incentivized charter authorizers to act on behalf of students by closing dozens of low-performing schools (one being the aforementioned ECOT). On the other end of the spectrum, with stronger guardrails in place, Ohio is now boldly supporting the growth of quality charters. In a brand-new initiative, Governor Mike DeWine and Lieutenant Governor Jon Husted proposed and shepherded through the legislature a program in 2019 that now provides up to $1,750 per low-income pupil in supplemental funding for high-performing charters.
More good news arrived this week in the form of a rigorous empirical study. Mindful that the goal of these policy reforms is higher pupil achievement, we commissioned Ohio State University professor Stéphane Lavertu to gauge the effectiveness of Ohio charter schools in recent years. Dr. Lavertu’s evaluation relies on anonymous, student-level data provided by the Ohio Department of Education to study the impacts of charters from 2015–16 through 2018–19.
His analysis finds that the performance of Ohio’s charter sector has indeed improved in recent years. Combining brick-and-mortar and online schools, overall charter effects were null in English language arts (ELA) and negative in math in 2015–16. Three years later, effects in ELA moved to positive and to null in math. Put another way, in the most recent year of data, Ohio charter students outperformed demographically similar district students in ELA and held their own in math. It’s possible that these improvements would have occurred without reform, but as data from states like Texas and Arizona tell us, ensuring that low-performing schools close—one of the aims of Ohio’s charter reforms—can drive sector improvements.
The results are all the more encouraging when the focus is narrowed to general-education, brick-and-mortar charters. When online and dropout-recovery schools are omitted, the benefits of conventional charter schools—those that educate two in three Ohio charter students—emerge with much greater clarity. Consider the following findings:
- In grades 4–8 brickand-mortar charter students make significant gains on both state math and ELA exams when compared to district students of similar backgrounds. Black students make particularly strong progress. In fact, as the figure below shows, their results drive the positive overall impacts. Based on annual gains averaged across both subjects and accumulated over five years, Lavertu estimates that the average Black student who attends a brick-and-mortar charter from grades 4–8 moves from the 25th to 40th percentile in statewide achievement.
Figure 1: Annual impact on achievement by race/ethnicity and prior achievement (2016–19)
Note: The figure displays the annual impact of attending a brick-and-mortar charter school on student achievement in grades 4–8. Estimates listed above the bars are in standard deviations and are statistically significant if the bars are solid.
- Though fewer in number than elementary and middle schools—just fiftynine compared to 232 schools in the grade 4–8 analysis—Ohio’s general education charter high schools also deliver notable academic benefits. The analysis shows that students’ scores on state English end-of-course exams improve, although gains on math end-of-course and ACT exams are not statistically significant.
- In both grades 4–8 and in high school, brick-and-mortar charters boost attendance and reduce disciplinary incidents. Charter students also receive more hours of instruction, which may contribute to the achievement gains that we observe. The reduction in disciplinary incidents also suggests that brick-and-mortar charters may improve the social-emotional well-being of their students, an important outcome by itself and another likely mediator of improved achievement.
We know full well that some charters are more effective than others, as is also the case with district and private schools. Overall, however, the present study offers compelling evidence that sector performance has improved greatly in recent years, and that attending a typical brick-and-mortar charter school in Ohio benefits students whose families make this choice.
Despite the positive findings, Ohio charter schools still have a way to go before they can be mentioned alongside the nation’s finest charter sectors. What are we doing to keep the momentum going? Here are our three recommendations to state policymakers, some of which may be relevant in other states, too:
1. Maintain strong accountability for charters (as for all public schools). To ensure that the charter sector continues to make progress, the state must stay the course on its 2015 charter reforms. As this report goes to press, accountability policies applying to both district and charter schools have been put on temporary hold due to the pandemic. That’s understandable, even unavoidable. But once the health crisis passes, Ohio should reboot its standard accountability policies, including those designed to hold charters (and their authorizers) to account for results.
2. Remove geographic restrictions on brick-and-mortar charters. Under state law, charters may only locate in certain districts. These restrictions have largely confined Ohio brick-and-mortar charters to high-poverty urban communities. They’ve done much good there, and more quality school options are surely needed in these areas. However, there’s no reason to believe that charters couldn’t serve families well in other parts of the state. In less-restrictive states, such as Arizona and Colorado, charter schools have offered innovative public school options for suburban and rural communities, too. Ohio’s brick-and-mortar charters have proven themselves capable of providing quality options—and it’s time to give families across the state similar opportunities.
3. Support the growth of quality charters. Because charters receive less funding than district schools, replicating great ones has been an enormous resource struggle. As noted above, Ohio now provides supplemental funding to quality charter schools. In the coming year, lawmakers should again appropriate funds for the program, while also making it permanent law. Accountability reforms have purged the charter sector of chronically low-performing schools, yet in order to sustain and build on recent quality improvements, the state needs to reenergize new school formation and replication.
For too long, Ohio’s charter schools have been viewed by many as second-class education options—temporary competition for school districts that are just so-so for kids. But much as opinions about foreign cars changed over time as they proved to be of good quality, it’s high time that outdated perceptions of charter schools evolve, too. Ohio has undertaken a serious turnaround of its charter school sector, and we can now say with confidence that the state’s charters have proven to be equal—if not superior—to their district counterparts. Rather than calling charter schools a “misguided reform,” let’s follow the evidence and recognize them as a key tool in the ongoing fight to help every student reach his or her potential.
Before the coming of the pandemic, pre-K was a hot topic. It was seen by many as an efficient and reliable way of making sure that our youngest learners—especially those from less-privileged backgrounds—were ready to hit the ground running when their time for kindergarten arrived. And while research generally backs up the notion of a readiness boost, especially as compared to children starting kindergarten without the benefit of formal pre-K, many studies have found that the pre-K advantage tends to fade, even evaporate, during the early years of elementary school. New research from a team led by Ohio State University professor Arya Ansari aims to find out whether this phenomenon is the result of fadeout—that is, pre-K students losing ground starting in kindergarten—or a result of students new to formal schooling catching up with their peers.
This study looks at a sample of low-income kindergarten students in a large, unnamed school district in an anonymous mid-Atlantic state. The total sample comprised 2,581 children whose family income made them eligible for publicly funded preschool in the year prior. Within the sample, there were 1,334 children who had previously attended pre-K (called “attenders”) and 1,247 “non-attenders” whose first experience in formal schooling was kindergarten. Sixty-two percent of the total sample was Hispanic, 12 percent was Black, 11 percent was White, and 15 percent were another race or ethnicity. This diversity was not representative of either the district or the county and should serve as a flag on at least part of the methodology. While both groups in the sample were eligible for preschool, we have no information on why those who chose to avail themselves of it did so, nor why the others did not. Families of 59 percent of students reported speaking Spanish at home, 17 percent reported speaking English, and 24 percent reported speaking another language. Perhaps those non-English speakers who opted for pre-K were looking for language immersion as much or more so than they were looking for an intro to fractions and sharing.
All students were evaluated across a battery of surveys and tests in both the fall and spring. All children were assessed in English unless they failed the language screener. Significantly for this heavily-Spanish-speaking sample, fall tests for those failing the language screener were conducted in Spanish. However, all children were assessed in English in the spring, regardless of language proficiency score at that time. Students’ academic achievement was measured via Woodcock Johnson III. Executive functioning was assessed via established tests of working memory, inhibitory control, and the like. Teachers answered questions on conduct and peer relationships to measure social-emotional skills. The children were also surveyed on their individual kindergarten classroom experiences, including how they felt about their teacher, their classmates, and their general enjoyment of school.
Consistent with previous research, Ansari and his team observed stronger academic skills and executive function among pre-K attenders at the start of the kindergarten year, as compared to their non-attending peers. But there was also clear evidence that both of these gaps narrowed by the end of kindergarten. All children in both groups demonstrated improvements in their academic and executive function skills. However, attenders made smaller improvements than did non-attenders. By spring, attenders’ initial advantage had been cut by more than half in academic skills and nearly half in executive functioning. Pre-K attenders also lost ground in social-emotional skills, although the differences between the groups was very small in both fall and spring. Overall, the researchers conclude that this gap-closing is primarily a result of non-attenders catching up, not attenders slowing down. They also determined that just one-quarter of this gap-closing was being driven by factors inside the classroom—namely, that many of the skills being learned in kindergarten were easy for non-attenders to pick up once instruction got started for them—and that factors outside the classroom and out of their realm of study must be responsible for the other three-quarters.
However, selection bias, as noted above, cannot be ruled out as a contributor to the findings. While a random assignment study of this type is likely difficult to create, it would be the best way to truly investigate the factors at work here. More rigorous studies have shown that, while low-income students will typically start kindergarten below their higher-income peers—in terms of readiness—with or without pre-K “treatment,” fadeout of the type observed here is not inevitable. One such report in 2017 identified several schools across the state of Florida, which bucked that trend with a vengeance. Success is likely down to the classroom and the individual teacher, and the “special sauce” has proven elusive. Perhaps the teachers in this study simply ignored the readiness level of the attenders and started at the beginning for every child. That could explain both the convergence of academic skills and the observed lowering of social-emotional skills and “elevated levels of conduct problems” among attenders.
Giving kids a great start in kindergarten is too important an endeavor to leave to chance. We cannot simply blame outside factors when we know that kindergarten (and pre-K for that matter) works for some kids and not for others. If the evidence of pre-K fadeout is found in the kindergarten classroom, that is where it must be defined and combatted.
SOURCE: Arya Ansari, et. al., “Persistence and convergence: The end of kindergarten outcomes of pre-K graduates and their nonattending peers,” Developmental Psychology (October 2020).
On this week’s podcast, Mike Petrilli and David Griffith are joined by Doug Lemov and Erica Woolway, co-managing director and chief academic officer, respectively, of the Teach Like a Champion team at Uncommon Schools. They talk about their timely new book, Teaching in the Online Classroom: Surviving and Thriving in the New Normal. On the Research Minute, Amber Northern examines a new RAND survey of teachers about social and emotional learning.
Amber's Research Minute
Laura S. Hamilton & Christopher Joseph Doss, "Supports for Social and Emotional Learning in American Schools and Classrooms: Findings from the American Teacher Panel," RAND Corporation (October 2020).
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