Expert Commentary

Creating “no excuses” (traditional) public schools: Evidence from Houston

2011 study from Harvard University examining whether techniques used to raise scores in charter schools can be successfully transplanted to traditional public schools.

Teacher and students (iStock)

Despite much scrutiny of racial achievement gaps in the United States, educational outcomes for minorities remain significantly below those of their white counterparts. Programs such as urban charter schools and Teach for America have had modest success, but researchers have yet to determine which aspects of these interventions are most important, and how they might be broadly implemented in public schools.

A 2011 study by Harvard for the National Bureau of Economic Research, “Creating “No Excuses” (Traditional) Public Schools: Preliminary Evidence from an Experiment in Houston,” examines charter schools with practices such as a focus on discipline and an emphasis on reading and math to understand which factors contribute most to the reduction of black-white achievement gaps. As an experiment, five practices — increased school time, better human capital, more student-level differentiation, frequent use of data to inform instruction and a culture of high expectations — were implemented in nine of the lowest performing non-charter public schools in Houston during the 2010-2011 school year.

The study’s findings include:

  • Middle and high school students improved their math test scores by 28% of a standard deviation on average, and up to 74% of a standard deviation for 9th graders who received two-on-one tutoring.
  • Consistent with other research, reading scores did not improve on par with math scores; in fact, pooled scores for both middle and high school students showed no improvement on average, relative to other Houston public schools.
  • The experiment was relatively expensive, costing approximately $2,042 per student, the equivalent of 22% of the average per pupil expenditure and similar to “no excuses” charter schools.

Though much work remains to be done on improving reading scores, the study notes, these “results provide the first proof point that charter school practices can be used systematically in previously unsuccessful traditional public schools to significantly increase student achievement in ways similar to the many successful ‘No Excuses’ charter schools.” The largest barriers to transplanting these best practices, however, may be the lack of talented labor willing to work in inner city schools, and the marginal cost per student of the reforms, which many public schools cannot afford.

Keywords: inequality, children, African-American, poverty, race, charter schools

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