Dozens of studies have found black and brown students in urban charter schools make substantially more academic progress than otherwise similar students in traditional public schools; literature suggests achievement in district-run schools increases in response to competition from charters; and Fordham’s new study confirms the logical implication of those two strands: an increase in the percentage of students in a community who enroll in charter schools leads to systemic gains.
“It is a myth that charter schools are better than public schools,” asserted Julian Castro, former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, in the last Democratic Presidential debate.
To which a frustrated Senator Cory Booker replied: “We closed poor-performing charter schools, but dagnabbit, we expanded high-performing charter schools.”
That a black man who expanded educational opportunity for black children felt obliged to defend his record speaks volumes about the state of the education debate in this country—and whose preferences the candidates are tracking. Recent polls have revealed a decline in support for charter schools among white Democrats—but not among black and Hispanic Democrats—most of whom don’t have the privilege of buying an expensive house in a good school district.
Frankly, after three years of “support” from the likes of Trump and his Secretary of Education, Betsy Devos, it’s amazing there are any white Democrats who still support charter schools. But perhaps those that do remember that Barack Obama also did. Or perhaps they are at least dimly aware of the extant research on this subject, by which I mean the dozens of studies that have found black and brown students in urban charter schools make substantially more academic progress than otherwise similar students in traditional district-operated public schools, as well as the smaller but equally potent literature that suggests achievement in district-run schools increases in response to competition from charters.
Though it may be lost on those with a bad case of impeachment brain, the logical implication of those two strands of research is that an increase in the percentage of students in a community who enroll in charter schools should lead to systemic gains—that is, to an overall increase in achievement across all public schools—including those in traditional public schools. So to test that hypothesis, in a recently published study, I analyzed the relationship between the rising “charter market share” in hundreds of school districts across the country and the average reading and math achievement of all publicly enrolled students in those districts.
The results were instructive. In general, higher charter market share is associated with significant achievement gains in reading, as well as suggestive gains in math. Moreover, when the data are broken down by race, it’s clear that these gains are highly concentrated among black and Hispanic students. For example, in the twenty-one largest cities in the country—places like Detroit, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C.—our estimates imply that moving from 0 to 50 percent charter market share among black students is associated with an increase in average reading and math achievement of at least half a grade level for all black students. (And the same is true of “Hispanic charter market share” and Hispanic students’ overall achievement.)
By the standards of the field, these are monumental gains—the kind some Democratic candidates hope to achieve with huge funding increases. Yet at this point, they should come as no surprise. In recent years, the evidence that charter schools have benefits for students of color has become increasingly clear, to the point where denying it is a bit like denying the science of climate change (which Republicans are increasingly likely to accept). And of course, the stakes of the charter school debate are also extremely high, which is why it’s critical that more Democrats acknowledge the evidence on charters and vote accordingly.
Yes, it’s a myth that charter schools are “better than public schools.” But only because charter schools are public schools, whose considerable success in performing a vital public service—educating our most disadvantaged children, while sparking improvements in major urban districts—should be celebrated accordingly.
When considering the available options for gifted high-school kids, the Advanced Placement (AP) program may not be the first thing that comes to mind. That’s too bad because AP might be America’s most effective large-scale “gifted and talented” program at the high school level. That’s a conclusion we reached while researching and writing Learning in the Fast Lane: The Past, Present, and Future of Advanced Placement, published last month by Princeton University Press.
Gifted programs come in many forms in U.S. schools (and many issues come with them!), but the overwhelming majority of them take place—if at all—in elementary and middle schools. At the high-school level, smart kids have generally been left to fend for themselves by choosing individual courses that suit them, angling for the liveliest or most demanding teachers, accelerating when they can, possibly applying to selective magnet or “exam” schools aimed at students like themselves—often with a special focus such as STEM education—or supplementing their own education with outside experiences and online offerings.
For many gifted high schoolers, the smart move is finding some way to take college-level courses. Increasing options abound, including dual enrollment, its “early college” variants, or the smaller International Baccalaureate, to name a few. But the largest of all is the six-decade old AP program, now operating in about 70 percent of American high schools. Some five million AP exams were taken by three million students last May. Almost two out of five graduates will have taken at least one such exam while in high school.
While all these approaches serve gifted kids in different ways, we identify five reasons why they and their parents and counselors, as well as school leaders and state and local policymakers, should take AP seriously as the premier source of G & T education at this level.
First, it comes with built-in quality control and guaranteed rigor, thanks to how the College Board operates it. In close consultation with university professors, as well as veteran high school instructors, the Board prepares a “framework” for each of its thirty-eight subjects. It reviews every would-be teacher’s course syllabus before approving it as an AP class. And its three-hour exams, while intimidating to some, are expertly formulated, rigorously (and anonymously) evaluated according to a detailed nationwide rubric, and scored on a time-honored five-point scale that, according to the American Enterprise Institute’s Nat Malkus, hasn’t been dumbed down even as the program has grown exponentially. In contrast, dual enrollment (in its many forms), though booming in many states and certainly a viable way to engage with challenging learning experiences, suffers from highly variable content and rigor. Only occasionally does it hold a candle to AP’s nationwide quality control, and the community college “adjuncts” who often teach it may not be the world’s most stimulating instructors.
Second, AP tends to attract a high school’s keenest and most enthusiastic teachers, who find valuable colleagueship, professional development, and intellectual encouragement from a nationwide network that includes peers in thousands of schools, as well as university professors. It’s not unusual to hear teachers remark that an AP institute or summer workshop rejuvenated their work as educators with some going back year after year for more. This can only be good news for the gifted students in their classrooms.
Third, AP is well understood by almost every college in the land, both in the admissions process and when it comes to course placement. At the admissions office, AP success is often viewed as evidence that an applicant has both ability and mastery of college-level academic work. When it comes to placement, a “qualifying score” (3 or higher) on AP exams generally means that students can at least waive introductory college classes and move on immediately to more challenging ones. Often they can establish actual degree credit upon entry and thereby accelerate and/or enrich the undergraduate experience, and perhaps save some money. Moreover, unlike credit earned via dual enrollment, AP credit is broadly portable to public and private colleges around the country.
Fourth, the AP classroom-and-exam experience, besides almost always challenging and stimulating students, actually confers skills and study habits that prepare them for college and beyond. Its courses can be an antidote to senior-year boredom, pushing able pupils to their academic limit and providing a source of stimulation and rigor that they may not find in their other courses.
Fifth, AP provides advanced, college-level coursework to a widening population of students. Entry has been democratized in recent years, and more diverse young people from many backgrounds have been encouraged to enter its classrooms. Once upon a time, the program was generally the preserve of a privileged few. Now, however, able students from every demographic take advantage of its rigorous coursework and externally-validated exam, both to see themselves as “college material” and to show what they can really do. Save for exam fees—which states, districts, and philanthropists often cover—there’s no cost to students.
But AP isn’t all peaches and cream. While its democratization is a key asset in equalizing opportunity in America, it doesn’t always work as intended. It sometimes brings kids into AP classes who aren’t very well prepared for—or enthusiastic about—the challenges of these courses, and who can prove challenging for teachers and frustrating to fellow students. A lot still rests on the quality of instructors, which can depend on the quality of professional development they received, whether those teachers felt compelled to take on the course, or simply whether they lack the capacity or motivation to impart the deep analysis and creative thinking necessary for effective AP instruction.
Access isn’t perfect, either, especially if one attends a small or rural high school. Even schools in sizable cities typically offer just a selection from the full AP menu. (Online offerings can lengthen that list, but it’s not quite the same.) Access within a school may be limited, too, whether because of capacity issues—not enough teachers, classrooms, schedule flexibility—or because entry into AP classes remains “gated,” i.e., requires a teacher recommendation, course prerequisites, or a certain GPA. Like all gifted programs, mindsets need to be changed throughout the system about who should take part in AP and how best to ensure that all kids who would do well in its classrooms are given seats there and helped to succeed.
Finally, we need to note that a few dozen colleges, mostly the elite private kind, are less and less willing to confer actual credit on the basis of AP results or any other work done in high school, and may even require scores of 5—instead of the traditional 3—before honoring AP in making course placements.
All that said, Advanced Placement remains the closest thing America has to a quality, large-scale “gifted and talented” program at the high school level. The time is at hand for educators and advocates to recognize that and embrace the opportunities it provides to deliver the kind of education that high-ability young people need and—we earnestly believe—deserve.
Pop quiz: When was the first law providing for public education in America enacted? It’s true that the Bay State passed the first universal education law in 1852, but the very first law put down its roots two centuries earlier, also in what became Massachusetts. In the 1640s, Puritan settlers began laying the foundation for our modern education system by squarely taking aim at “ye old deluder, Satan.” The act entailed a focus on reading and writing so that every student could succeed (i.e., read the Bible). Witchcraft was afoot, and the Puritans were hellbent on extinguishing each and every one of the devil’s minions.
Considering that today’s education debate is far less grisly—definitely fewer hangings and stonings, and I’m pretty sure that reports of burnings are apocryphal—we might begin to appreciate how far we’ve come in the intervening period. AEI’s Rick Hess gave a great history lesson last week as part of the organization’s Leadership Network summit in Washington, D.C. Examining education as a vehicle for opportunity, Hess began by surfacing some of the tensions that arise in our education debate when we don’t understand the problems that our predecessors tried to solve, and in many cases did.
According to Hess, education pundits have been debating school reform for years, long before any of us got involved. Educators and advocates often take this for granted, and when they do it obscures what were once exciting and innovative reforms. From students in age-defined grades to the nine-month calendar, we often ignore or are oblivious to the reasons behind today’s apparatus. For example, efforts to reform teacher compensation have recently hit a wall, and those involved have been pilloried for attempting to undermine the consistency and stability afforded by step-and-lane pay scales. But if there’s criticism to be levied, it should include not coming to the issue with a greater sense of history.
Akin to civil service employees, teachers today are paid primarily based on seniority and credits or degrees earned. How, one must ask, did this come to pass? The answer: slowly and gradually. Two hundred years ago, teaching was a male-dominated profession in the United States, which is hard to believe, given today’s imbalance the other way. Opening it up to women was a process born of necessity (i.e., men were too expensive, and there weren’t enough of them to staff the number of schools required to make education universal), but it entailed considerable injustices along the way (e.g., women being paid far less than men, black teachers far less than white). In 1921, Denver and Des Moines became the first cities to pay teachers on a single salary schedule. For the first time, a measure of fairness was introduced into the system, although paying more for graduate degrees, mostly held by male high school teachers, continued to skew the field.
Back then, step-and-lane pay was a huge step forward for the profession. Like Hess, I like to think that if I were alive at the time, I would have hailed and endorsed that reform effort. Today, however, step-and-lane pay doesn’t make sense given what we’ve learned over the past century and how employment trends have evolved. Hess argues that a fundamentally nineteenth century system can’t be right for the twenty-first century, but having a productive conversation on reform will remain elusive if we don’t frame things in their proper context. Else reformers risk being viewed as tourists, dabblers, and dilettantes who are unserious about educational improvement. As the clichéd caveat goes, those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.
Regardless of whether reformers choose to heed Hess’s argument, it should certainly give pause. The probing questions he offered had all of us in the room reconsidering our assumptions. A further case in point: Considering how much enthusiasm, investment, and disappointment there has been for education technology, how many realize there were exactly zero computers in America’s classrooms as recently as 1960? How does the ongoing debate on school funding square with the four-fold increase in per-pupil spending since the 1970s? In light of what we know about obstacles to employment, especially for our more marginalized populations, why do college degree requirements for entry-level jobs continue to escape scrutiny?
There’s much to be said about perspective, and how it’s in increasingly short supply these days. Personally, I’ve been engaged in this work for over twenty years and I’ve seen my fair share of well-intentioned efforts fly off the rails. It’s been a long and strange trip thus far, but it was helpful to be reminded that those who came before me helped to pave the way here. Halloween aside, we no longer have witches in our midst, but there are still plenty of challenges. In addressing them, what Hess suggests is a little less chest pounding and a lot more humility and historical grounding.
A new report published in Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis investigates how access to advanced high school math and science courses affects postsecondary science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) enrollment and degree attainment, and how this relationship between the two differs by race and gender.
The researchers use data from the Missouri Department of Higher Education to track fourteen cohorts of students, numbering more than 14,000 between 1996 and 2009. They obtained the student records of full-time, first-time graduates from a Missouri public high school who matriculated to a four-year Missouri public university within two years of completing high school. For their analysis, they classify students’ intended and final majors as either STEM or not to examine initial enrollment and degree attainment rates in STEM over time.
The number of students who declared a STEM major upon college entry increased by 20 percent, or 5 percentage points, and this growth was relatively consistent across racial and ethnic groups. Attainment of a STEM degree increased by about 23 percent overall, but black and Hispanic students experienced an alarming 13 percent drop during the study period.
When examining access to high school STEM courses in the state, the researchers calculated the number of math and science courses available per one hundred students and saw only a slight uptick near the end of the 1996–2009 period, for an overall growth of about 6 percent, primarily driven by an increase in advanced math offerings.
Using regression analysis, the researchers find no evidence of a correlation between STEM course access and college matriculation rates overall. But when looking by subgroup, postsecondary initial enrollment for white and male students are somewhat more responsive to changes in access to high school STEM courses, relative to black, Hispanic, and female students, although all of these effects are small. This suggests that expanding STEM course access in high school could actually widen postsecondary STEM enrollment gaps by race and gender.
Counter to the common belief that a lack of access to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics courses is a barrier to entry and success in those subjects in college, this study finds that changes in course access do not causally affect postsecondary STEM outcomes. Increasing access to these courses has—at best—a neutral effect on STEM postsecondary outcomes. However, the study doesn’t imply that we should stop all efforts to promote such coursework or interest in high school. It just means that if our goal is to have students pursue a career in STEM, then we perhaps should focus our energy away from increasing course offerings and more towards strengthening professional development for STEM teachers, improving STEM facilities and instructional materials, or increasing access to, and support for obtaining, internships and apprenticeships in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Because broad efforts to expand access to these courses in high schools may exacerbate existing race- and gender-based imbalances in the STEM field, policymakers and district and school administrators should take care as they try to push more students to pursue STEM and consider investing in higher quality existing resources, rather than a higher quantity.
SOURCE: Rajeev et al., “High School Course Access and Postsecondary STEM Enrollment and Attainment,” Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis (September 2019).
On this week’s podcast, Dan Goldhaber, the director of CALDER, joins Mike Petrilli, David Griffith, and Amber Northern to discuss what rigorous research says about identifying, developing, and retaining effective teachers.
For a summary of the key questions we asked in this discussion and some of the most important studies we touched upon, please see this accompanying blogpost.