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Explaining charter school effectiveness

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The debate over charter schools shows few signs of receding as a central component in the discussion about improving U.S. public education. While proponents see charter schools as a vital source of innovation in public education, opponents feel they are largely ineffective and operate at the expense of large numbers of students. To complicate matters, previous research about the impact of charter schools on student achievement has uncovered mixed results.

A 2011 study from MIT for the National Bureau of Economic Research, “Explaining Charter School Effectiveness,” collects results from more than two dozen Massachusetts charter schools to examine the “heterogeneity in the effects of charter schools across demographic groups and between urban and non-urban areas.” The researchers — Joshua D. Angrist, Parag A. Pathak and Christopher R. Walters — examine data from 2001 to 2010 provided by schools relating to students’ race, gender, class and standardized test scores, among other factors. The study also looks at differences between schools that grant student slots by lottery and those that are open-enrollment.

The study’s findings include:

  • Charter schools in urban areas raised achievement levels well beyond those of other non-charter urban schools and even helped students exceed non-urban achievement levels in math. The data show that urban charter schools are “most effective for minorities, poor students, and low baseline achievers, so part of the urban charter advantage can be explained by student demographics.”
  • By contrast, charter schools in non-urban areas did not boost achievement in either English language arts (ELA) or math, and even resulted in lower student achievement than traditional non-urban public schools in some cases.
  • Among urban charter schools, larger standardized test score gains were realized by those schools that were over-subscribed that had well-documented lottery records as compared with “under-subscribed urban charter schools with poor lottery records.”
  • The authors conclude that the effectiveness of over-subscribed urban charters, as compared to under-subscribed ones, is due to the fact that they typically employ a “no excuses” approach to education. Its characteristics include an extended school day, a strong focus on discipline and a traditional curriculum centered on reading and math skills.

The authors conclude that the “large negative estimates of non-urban charter impacts reported here raise the question of why, despite their unimpressive achievement effects, many of these schools are over-subscribed. One possibility is that parents misjudge the consequences of non-urban charter attendance…. It’s also possible that non-urban charter schools generate gains that non urban families value more than the skills measured by the MCAS, especially in view of the fact that most non-urban students do reasonably well in any case.”

The study also notes that more established charter schools were found to have better results in terms of student achievement as compared with newer schools. In addition, schools that began as charters were found to have better results than those that started as traditional public schools and later became charters.

Tags: municipal, children, charter schools

    Writer: | Last updated: March 27, 2012

    Citation: Joshua D. Angrist, Parag A. Pathak, Christopher R. Walters. "Explaining Charter School Effectiveness," August 2011, NBER Working Paper No. 17332.

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    Analysis assignments

    Read the issue-related Washington Post series titled "Fixing D.C.'s Schools: The Charter Experiment."

    1. What key insights from the series and the study should reporters be aware of as they cover public education issues? What are the salient research findings and the ongoing ambiguities?

    Read the full study titled “Explaining Charter School Effectiveness.”

    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.

    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?