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Replicating Effective Charter School Practice

A conversation with Sarah Cohodes about whether we can transcend the charter school debates in order to identify what works and how to make it transferable.

In general, charter schools don't perform too differently from traditional public schools, says Teachers College Assistant Professor Sarah Cohodes, Ed.M.’11, but some successful urban charters are showing huge gains for low-income minority students, offering the promise of closing achievement gaps. But as Cohodes points out in our latest episode of the Harvard EdCast, there are simply too few charter schools in the country to actually make a meaningful impact on that gap – even if all charters adopted the practices that seem to work.

The debate around charter schools often misses the questions that interest Cohodes most: What can we learn from these schools, what practices are key to their success, and can those practiecs be replicated elsewhere?

“It’s a situation where we know more about how charters are doing, but a lot of what politics are about is not about the educational experiences of children in school,” she says. “It’s about what’s happening for adults in terms of teachers, what’s happening in terms of funding, what’s happening in terms of unionization, what’s happening in terms of support or lack of support for traditional public school districts…. I think we’ve seen a lot of change. A lot of information but think there is still not a settled political question. A lot is about politics and not what’s happening in school.”

Some of the consistent gains, particularly among low-income minority students at urban charter schools, are a result of the cultures of high expectations and behavioral norms, frequent feedback for teachers, tutoring, longer school days and years, and data-driven instruction, Cohodes says.

Of course, charter schools have the flexibility in regulations to develop such policies and practice that traditional public school may not always have. “There’s nothing magic about being a charter school it just so happens that these are the people who put together these practices, and had the regulatory ability to make longer days,” she says.

Cohodes — recently on campus to deliver a PIER Seminar at the Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard University — is asking the question of whether those practices can be applied in public school to the same success. To date, efforts to take charter school practice and apply it in traditional public schools has had mixed results. In some cases, she says it’s just as successful in the traditional public school, but those gains aren’t always actualized in other attempts.

“An open question is it about implementation or about those practices not able to be translated into the new context for whatever reason,” she says. “It’s possible you bring in charter organization to reconstitute a school, but a school is a community and network of people who’ve been doing things one way for a long time and it’s very hard to change people.”

No matter what efforts a school undertakes, says Cohodes, they require total buy-in from an organization. “It’s also [about] what are our options available. It’s better to try these things than do nothing or close a school or hire a new principal and say it’s going to magically change,” she says. 

In this episode of the EdCast, Cohodes talks about her research exploring charter schools and whether we can replicate effective charter school practice into traditional public schools.


Jill Anderson: I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast. 

Teachers College Assistant Professor Sara Cohodes used to think charter schools were a bad idea. Then she began looking at the data and noticed how some students, particularly low-income, minority students at successful urban charter schools, were making huge gains. Those gains showed great promise to shift the long-standing achievement gap in America. 

But to make that meaningful impact, those effective charter school practices would need to be replicated in traditional public schools. Sarah spoke with me about this need and how could we move beyond our focus on the type of school and more on figuring out what works in education. This is something that's incredibly challenging considering the highly politicized and divisive nature of charter schools in America. So I wanted to know where things currently stand with the issue and whether anything has changed enough that would open up the field to that. 

Sarah Cohodes

Sarah Cohodes: So I think we know a lot more about how charter schools are doing. And some people are very surprised when I tell them that the best research we have says that on average, charter schools perform no differently than traditional public schools, which given how much conversation is in the public debate, many people think it's either a lot better or a lot worse or something like that. And that's what's driving the conversation in terms of the politics. But on average, charter schools perform about the same as traditional public schools. 

The research also shows pockets of very high performance in a certain group of charters, and we can talk more about what those charters look like. But I think this is a situation where we know more about how charters are doing, but a lot of what the politics is about is not about the educational experiences of the children in school. It's about what's happening for adults in terms of teachers, what's happening in terms of funding, what's happening in terms of unionization, what's happening in terms of support or lack of support for traditional public school districts. 

Traditional public school districts also have changed a lot over the past 15 years, potentially in response to some of this pressure from charter schools. Many districts are becoming districts of choice as well or founding their own schools that look more similar to charter schools. So I think we've seen a lot of change. There's a lot of information. But I think that there still is not a settled political question. I think a lot of it's about politics and not about what's actually happening in the schools. 

Jill Anderson: And is that what drew you to studying them, that there's so much out there? 

Sarah Cohodes: I started studying them because of my job, a million years ago, I worked at Harvard as an employee. And my boss, Tom Kane, was working on a project on charter schools. And I was the research assistant on that project. 

Then I went to grad school myself and became a co-author, and then I became a professor and was starting to be an author of my own papers. But the original impetus to look at charter schools was coincidence, but a happy coincidence, because I had been interested in them before that work assignment came around. 

And I came into it always thinking that charter schools were horrible. And I came from a family of-- my mom was a teacher. My grandfather was a teacher and a guidance counselor who felt very strongly about joining the union and saw charter schools as being very anti-union. And that was my perspective coming in. 

And then I did the research, and I saw that the particular group of schools we were looking at-- we were looking at charter schools in Boston-- were having really huge impacts on kids. And I had to change my worldview. I like to tell the story because I like to be able to tell people that sometimes, research actually matters and can change people's minds. The research changed my mind and made me think that, wow, this is really working for some kids. Is this an option that can work for more kids? Is it an option that should work for more kids? Who am I to stand in front of a parent and say, you shouldn't have this option that is working for your kid? 

And then it was an accident that got me started on the charter school research, but the questions that I'm really interested and excited about are thinking about charter schools as laboratories. What can we learn from them? The charter school sector I don't see being large enough to make huge differences in the US without traditional public schools adopting practices from the charter school sector or responding to the charter school sector. In some cities-- DC, Detroit, New Orleans-- charters are a predominant option. But in many places, charters just don't have a large enough share in order to make huge differences in terms of changing test score distributions, even if they are very effective for the kids that are in them. 

And so the big question for me now is, what do we learn from those schools? What practices are key to their success? Can those practices be replicated in other contexts? And how do we take some of this original inspiration for charters, which was around both the potential effect of competition but also around this idea of innovation, and look to those things to learn about things that work for kids? 

Jill Anderson: I want to just put aside the whole political-- I know it's hard to do with this because it is a very divisive topic, but I do want to talk about what you pointed out was that this works really well for some kids. And your research has found that particularly for low-income, minority students in urban areas, that charter schools have shown some really good results. So do you want to talk a little bit about that? 

Sarah Cohodes: So there is research, based usually on charter school lotteries-- so charter schools that have more students who want to attend than there are seats available offer their seats in a public lottery where some students get in and some don't by random chance. Researchers and social scientists get really excited about this because that's analogous to a randomized controlled trial. We can compare the students that got in to the ones that didn't. And we're confident that any effects that we reveal are the true effect of the charter school and not a result of being the type of family that would send their kids to a charter school. 

So we have evidence based on those lotteries from Boston, from New York, from New Orleans, from Denver, looking at KIPP schools, all of which are showing large test score gains, and in the cases of Boston and New York City, also gains in terms of college readiness and college-going behavior, that these schools have big effects for kids, and that these schools are serving children who are urban, who are Black and Latino, who are in places where their alternative options are not performing super well. And all of those features are places where we've seen charter schools have successes. Have we studied every single charter school? No, but there is a consistent pattern emerging showing that to be the case. 

Jill Anderson: One of the things-- I think the criticism you always hear about charter schools is they're just teaching to the tests. And in your study, you did point out that it did show college enrollments and things like that beyond just test gains. Because it sounded to me like what was really impactful in the schools that you were studying was the culture of high expectations and no-excuses policies that seem to be having a greater effect on these kids. And so can you talk a little bit more about what these no-excuses policies look like in the charter schools and why that might be? 

Sarah Cohodes: So I can definitely say that I have visited these schools. I've talked to the school leaders. But I'm by no means a qualitative researcher. We've done surveys around school practices. And even some of the charter schools are starting to step away from the no-excuses phrasing. But some of the things that we see in these charter schools consistently are this culture of high expectations and behavioral norms, frequent feedback for teachers, tutoring, longer school days and years, and data-driven instruction. 

We don't know yet which, if any, of those practices are what's making a difference. I think that if you visit any of these classrooms, you see that there is an enormous amount of time spent on task. The kids are always working. The teacher is always working. And I don't think it takes a rocket scientist to think that if you are spending more time in learning activities, perhaps you are going to learn more. 

I think that there is a worry about narrowing the curriculum, focusing only on tested subjects. We have some evidence around college gains. There's some evidence that gains in science are just as large. But I think the biggest concern that people have is the strict disciplinary atmosphere and suspending kids perhaps more frequently. And I think that is a huge concern and something that the schools themselves are starting to confront and evolve and say, can we keep up this culture of high expectations, but with slightly different expectations around behavior [INAUDIBLE] and still have classrooms where time is spent on task, but not have punishments for kids who are not dressing according to code or have their hair in a different hairstyle? I think that is appropriate. I think it makes sense to think about how to evolve those policies and maintain the high academic standards, but also have some room for individuality and students to express themselves as well. 

Jill Anderson: So the big question is, how do we take this successful charter school practice and use it in a traditional public school? Are there models out there of this being done, and how has it worked? 

Sarah Cohodes: There are researchers saying let's do these practices and do them in the traditional school context. So in Chicago, a group of researchers out of the Crime Lab, I believe, at the University of Chicago did a very intensive tutoring program and found huge effects, especially for minority men, in terms of their outcomes. And so they specifically looked to the charter school practice and said, can we replicate that model and do it successfully? 

The other thing that I think we see is using charter management organizations to help and participate in school turnaround efforts, so schools that have been identified either by state or by local accountability regimes as needing some sort of reconstitution bringing in charter school organizations to manage those transitions. And the research on that right now is mixed. So there's some research in Boston and New Orleans done by some of my collaborators showing that those takeovers were just as successful as traditional charter schools, but there has been some other research looking at the Tennessee-- I believe they call it the achievement zone-- and some other research looking at school turnaround in Atlanta that has not necessarily shown the same gains or has shown that those gains may be successful in some areas and not in other areas. 

And what I think is an open question is, is it about implementation, or is it about those practices not being able to be translated into the new context for whatever reason? So it's totally possible that you bring in this charter school organization to reconstitute a school, but a school is a community and a network of people who have been doing things in one way for a long time. And it's very hard to change people. [INAUDIBLE] has tons of research on this and the idea that you would need the whole school to buy into this transition. And I think that's something that's very hard. And I think in some places, it has been successful, and some places haven't. I do think it holds promise as a way to reconstitute schools that are performing very poorly, but it has not been a slam dunk. 

What are our options available? I think it is better to try these things than to do nothing or close a school or just hire a new principal and say it's going to magically change if we hire somebody new at the top. I think this is a potential model. But I also think it's really hard work, and it's harder than opening up a new school and advertising and saying, this is what we're offering-- if you're interested, come sign up-- as opposed to going to an existing school and saying, we're going to change the culture, and we're going to change the expectations here. 

Jill Anderson: I mean, politically-- I know I said we were going to put politics aside, but it's kind of hard to do when it comes to this issue. Because I guess part of me wonders, with such a hard line that's been drawn between charter schools and traditional public schools, is there a resistance to trying what might work? 

Sarah Cohodes: There's nothing magic about being a charter school. It just so happens that these are the people who put together these practices, and they had the regulatory flexibility to have those longer days. And some part of me wonders if they weren't branded as a charter school organization, but were branded as a school turnaround organization, would that make a difference? 

And I think that some of these organizations are changing to think of themselves not as charter management organizations, thinking of themselves as education organizations, school turnaround organizations. And I think that is a potential helpful pathway. But no matter what you call it, no matter who it is, you somehow need to change the behavior of an organization, which is really hard work. 

Jill Anderson: One of the things that struck me when I was looking at some of your work was these successes, but the fact that there are just not enough charters out there to really make a large-scale change that would go across the country in terms of closing the achievement gap. And so I wonder, where are you on this in terms of do we open more charters? Do we try to share the practice? Getting back to what charter schools were actually created for in the first place. 

Sarah Cohodes: So I think that's something that is really appealing to me is the idea of replicating what is successful, be it a charter school, be it a traditional school. We now have the tools where we can say, is this school making a difference in the academic trajectories of children? We can account for the fact that different schools have different populations who may come in more prepared or less prepared. 

We have a lot of tools available, and that can help us understand who it that is successful. And then we can start to think about what are the practices of those schools. Who is leading those schools, and can those schools be replicated? And whether they're replicated as new charter campuses or new traditional public school campuses or going into existing schools and reconstituting them, I am agnostic. I am more interested in changing the lives of kids than in what the format of that is called. And so I'm hopeful about learning what works and trying to replicate those practices. But I also want to acknowledge that that work is very hard, and the work of changing organizations, as we talked about earlier, is really hard work. And it's not clear just in terms of the numbers game whether major change can happen that is just around opening new schools as opposed to changing schools that exist now. 

Jill Anderson: Well, thank you so much, Sarah, for coming on. 

Sarah Cohodes: Thank you for having me. 

Jill Anderson: Sara Cohodes is an assistant professor of education policy and economics at Teachers College. I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast, produced by the Harvard Graduate School of Education. 


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