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Education, Human Rights, Inequality, Race

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

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Teacher and students (iStock)Teacher and students (iStock)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

    Writer: | Last updated: August 24, 2012

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    Newswriting and digital reporting assignments

    1. Write a lead, headline or nut graph based on the study.
    2. Spend 60 minutes exploring the issue by accessing sources of information other than the study. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study but informed by the new information. Does the new information significantly change what one would write based on the study alone?
    3. Compose two Twitter messages of 140 characters or fewer accurately conveying the study’s findings to a general audience. Make sure to use appropriate hashtags.
    4. Choose several key quotations from the study and show how they would be set up and used in a brief blog post.
    5. Map out the structure for a 60-second video segment about the study. What combination of study findings and visual aids could be used?
    6. Find pictures and graphics that might run with a story about the study. If appropriate, also find two related videos to embed in an online posting. Be sure to evaluate the credibility and appropriateness of any materials you would aggregate and repurpose.

    Class discussion questions

    1. What is the study’s most important finding?
    2. Would members of the public intuitively understand the study’s findings? If not, what would be the most effective way to relate them?
    3. What kinds of knowledgeable sources you would interview to report the study in context?
    4. How could the study be “localized” and shown to have community implications?
    5. How might the study be explained through the stories of representative individuals? What kinds of people might a reporter feature to make such a story about the study come alive?
    6. What sorts of stories might be generated out of secondary information or ideas discussed in the study?

    Study analysis

    Read the study titled “Creating "No Excuses" (Traditional) Public Schools: Preliminary Evidence from an Experiment in Houston.”

    1. What are the study's key technical term(s)? Which ones need to be put into language a lay audience can understand?
    2. Do the study’s authors put the research into context and show how they are advancing the state of knowledge about the subject? If so, what did the previous research indicate?
    3. What is the study’s research method? If there are statistical results, how did the scholars arrive at them?
    4. Evaluate the study's limitations. (For example, are there weaknesses in the study's data or research design?)
    5. How could the findings be misreported or misinterpreted by a reporter? In other words, what are the difficulties in conveying the data accurately? Give an example of a faulty headline or story lead.

    Read the issue-related New York Times article titled "Troubled Schools Try Mimicking the Charters."

    1. What key insights from the study and article about the research should reporters be aware of as they cover education reform issues?