Educational practices of the most successful charter schools could meaningfully reduce the nation’s racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps—but only if these practices are adopted in a significant number of public schools, according to a new synthesis of existing charter school research by Sarah Cohodes, Assistant Professor of Education and Public Policy at Teachers College.
National studies have found that, on average, charter school students perform at about the same level as students who attend traditional public schools. But Cohodes’s article, “Charter Schools and the Achievement Gap,” highlights that urban charter schools serving low-income and minority students – a number of which share a “no-excuses” philosophy – produce significant gains in test scores. By itself, however, the charter school sector is simply too small to make much of a dent in achievement gaps nationally, Cohodes says – even if all charter schools followed “no excuses” practices.
“To make significant progress in reducing the achievement gaps, we need to focus not on the type of school – charter versus traditional public – but on the practices used in the most successful charter schools,” says Cohodes, discussing her article, which comprises the entire current issue of the journal The Future of Children (published online on February 6).
“To make significant progress in reducing the achievement gaps, we need to focus not on the type of school—charter versus traditional public—but on the practices used in the most successful charter schools.”
The expansion of K-12 charter schools and the use of “no excuses” tactics are polarizing, often politicized issues among educators, policymakers and parents. Proponents of charter schools, which are publicly funded but run by private nonprofit or for-profit entities, see them as a good alternative for students who are dissatisfied with traditional public schools, while those who want to contain charter expansion believe they draw talent and scarce resources away from regular public schools.
The “no-excuses” model emphasizes high expectations for academics and behavior, longer classroom time, intensive tutoring, data-driven instruction, frequent testing, and frequent teacher observations. The model’s supporters believe the extra academic work and discipline in urban schools that primarily enroll students of color, such the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) and Uncommon Schools, are largely responsible for their performance gains. The model’s critics fault “no excuses” policies for being too rigid and too focused on test preparation and test results, and not enough on deeper learning and creativity.
Cohodes collected and summarized rigorous research on charter schools from the past decade, focusing on studies that used charter school lotteries as a tool to compare students who were offered a seat at a charter to those who were not. She tied together these studies to make an argument about the potential of charter schools to help close the achievement gap. In comparing charter and traditional public schools in urban and nonurban locations, Cohodes found that “no-excuses” charters in urban communities such as New York, Boston, Denver, and New Orleans produced the largest advances in standardized math and reading test scores.
Cohodes writes that traditional public schools could adopt the policies and practices of successful charter schools – such as intensive tutoring or frequent teacher observations and feedback – to reach a much wider population of struggling students and “drive a meaningful reduction in achievement gap in the United States.”
“In some cases,” she writes, “these charter schools have quite large effects, such that attending one for three years produces test-score gains that are equivalent to the size of the U.S. black-white achievement gap.” And the benefits can extend beyond school performance, she notes. Evidence from charter schools in Boston, Chicago, and New York City shows that more students at these schools took Advanced Placement tests and achieved higher A.P. and SAT scores. They also had higher rates of four-year college enrollment, and lower rates of pregnancy and incarceration.
Cohodes isn’t sure that all aspects of the “no-excuses” policies, such strict disciplinary policies, are good for all students. But she believes her research should serve as “proof that it’s possible for a school to have a transformational effect on individual students’ academic trajectory.”
Sarah McLanahan, Editor-in-Chief of The Future of Children, agrees. “If we really want to make a difference in the achievement gap, here’s the evidence,” she says. The journal is jointly published by Princeton University and the Brookings Institution.
The first public charter was established in Minnesota in 1993 with a mandate to experiment with new teaching techniques while being freed from strict oversight by state and local school boards. The concept took off, and in the last 10 years, 300 to 400 new charter schools have been created each year. Today, 43 states and Washington, D.C. allow charter schools, and some 7,000 of them serve more than 5 percent of students in the United States.
Despite their robust growth, charters enroll too few students to meaningfully affect the national achievement gap, and it isn’t practical to add enough charters to make a difference, Cohodes writes. Instead, traditional public schools could adopt the policies and practices of successful charter schools – such as intensive tutoring or frequent teacher observations and feedback – to reach a much wider population of struggling students and “drive a meaningful reduction in achievement gap in the United States.”
“Any interventions that are built around using charter schools to close the achievement gaps should focus not on the type of school but on the practices that work in the most effective charter schools,” writes Cohodes, “Given the relatively small size of the charter sector, if charter-based interventions are to have large-scale impacts in the United States, we would likely have to intervene in traditional public schools.” – Patricia Lamiell
The study was covered by two education publications: Education Dive K-12 posted this story: Study finds link between 'no excuses' policies and success, and The 74 Million posted this story: New Analysis: ‘No-Excuses’ Charter Schools Produce Huge Gains for Kids — and Could Close the Achievement Gap