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Summer 2009

Do Boston Charters Perform Better?

Fifteen years after the first charter school opened in Boston, a research team led by Professor Tom Kane released a highly publicized study that shows that charter schools outperform other public schools in the city, including pilot schools.

"Fifteen years ago, the charter school movement in Massachusetts was launched to see if new models could lead to gains in student achievement," says Kane, faculty director of the school's Center for Education Policy Research. "The results of this study suggest that charter schools in Boston are making a significant difference."

"Unfortunately, the results for pilot schools are more ambiguous and deserve further study," the report states. Results were positive for English language arts in elementary school, but not math. In middle school, the study found that pilot school students "may actually lose ground relative to traditional public school students."

Until now, despite standardized test scores and school rankings, there had been little agreement over whether charter or pilot schools in the city actually produced better results or whether one (or both) should be expanded. Part of the skepticism, the authors write, comes from the fact that families volunteer to attend both types of schools and because of the belief that these schools "shed" low-performing students and keep only the best. Developed in the early 1990s, both charter and pilot schools are similar in their goals -- to improve student progress and help close the achievement gap. Both operate with a high degree of flexibility when it comes to curricula, budgets, and staffing. However, pilot schools, which were started by Boston Public Schools and the Boston Teachers Union, remain part of the local school district and are continuing to grow -- seven new schools are slated to open this September; charter schools have independent advisory boards, are mostly nonunion, and report directly to the state. Some cities like Boston are nearing the local cap on the number allowed, despite long waiting lists.

Using data from the state, Kane, Jon Fullerton, Sarah Cohodes, and the team were able to follow individual students over a four-year period. They looked at their achievement prior to entering a charter, pilot, or regular public school, as well as their achievement in one of those schools. This allowed them to "compare charter and pilot students to traditional public school students who had similar academic achievement and other traits during an earlier school year." Since students in Boston are assigned to schools based on a lottery, the researchers also compared the outcome of those students who got into a charter or pilot school to those who applied but did not get in. This made the study unique, says Kane.

"At the time of admission, the only difference between applicants who were offered admission and those who were not was a coin flip," he says. "The fact that there are large differences in subsequent performance suggests that the charter schools were indeed having an impact. The next step is to identify what's working in charter schools that can be transferred back into the traditional public schools to improve student achievement."

The authors stress that this report was not intended to uncover how charter and pilot schools could change test scores, or which approach is most valuable, particularly in individual schools. They also state that many factors can impact a school's success, not just the fact that one is a "charter" or a "pilot": student/teacher ratio or the use of tutors, for example.

A couple of weeks after the report was released, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, who has resisted expanding charter schools in favor of proposed "readiness schools," reversed course and proposed raising the cap on how much a school district could spend on charter schools, from 9 to 12 percent. His proposal also requires new charter schools to enroll more special education, low-income, and limited English students.

--To read the full study, visit wpdev.gse.harvard.edu/ ~pfpie/pdf/InformingTheDebate_Final.pdf.