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Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform.

Education Opinion

The Proof is in the Etouffe: 75% of Rigorously Studied Urban Charter Markets Work

By Neerav Kingsland — January 24, 2012 4 min read

Note: Neerav Kingsland, chief strategy officer for New Schools for New Orleans, is guest posting this week.

An Open Letter to Urban Superintendents in the United States of America Part II

The Proof is in the Etouffe: 75% of Rigorously Studied Urban Charter Markets Work

There is a paucity of high-quality studies on urban charter markets. In my review of the research, I found rigorous studies on twelve cities (I only used studies included in this 2011 meta study or in the CREDO 16 state study). This limited sample size makes the results more illustrative than definitive.

But, for what it’s worth, here’s the headline: charter schools outperformed traditional schools in every urban city except for Washington, DC; Chicago; and Philadelphia--and in all three of these cities results were similar across charter and traditional schools.

Superintendents--especially those of you who are Reformers--this research, admittedly limited, should give you pause. In 75 percent of cities studied, Relinquisher strategies proved effective. And in the other 25 percent of cities, results were no worse.

Results of the Nation’s First Charter School District--New Orleans

In 2009, CREDO (the Center for Research on Education Outcomes) conducted a study of charter schools across 16 states. CREDO found that only 17 percent of charter schools outperformed traditional schools. Opponents of charter schools often cite this study as evidence that charter schools should not be spread.

In 2011, we commissioned CREDO to conduct the exact some study in New Orleans, where around 80 percent of students attend charter schools. The results: New Orleans outperformed the previous study by nearly a factor of three (48 percent vs. 17 percent) in terms of the percentage of charter schools outperforming traditional schools. Our high-performing charters outnumbered our poor-performing charters by nearly 2:1.

Some more data: before Hurricane Katrina, 78 percent of public school students in New Orleans attended a school designated as “failing” (as rated by our 2011 state performance standards). In 2011, 40 percent of students attend failing schools. We expect to reduce the percentage to fewer than 5 percent by 2016.

In terms of the percentage of students attending failing schools, that will be 80 percent to 5 percent in a ten-year period.

New Orleans also decreased its performance gaps against state averages by more than half--closing the proficiency performance gap by 13 percentage points from 2005 to 2011. In 2011, the city’s schools posted the highest student performance scores to date--maintaining its #1 ranking in growth across the state for the fourth consecutive year.

In summary, the largest charter market in the nation is also one of the most successful. The Relinquishers of New Orleans empowered families and educators to achieve unprecedented gains in student learning.

Other Urban Charter Markets that Work

Rigorous studies conducted on eight other cities--New York, Boston, San Diego, Indianapolis, Milwaukee, Denver, Memphis and Nashville--found charter schools to be outperforming traditional schools. However, in each of the cities charters serve less than 10 percent of the student population. As such, the studies tell us much about charter school effectiveness, but less about ability of these charters to scale and serve all students in a city. But, at the very least, these studies show that developing charter markets can increase student achievement across diverse urban areas.

If you are a superintendent of one of the cities, which some of you happen to be, the path to becoming a Relinquisher may be already (partially) paved. If you are not a superintendent in one of those cities, you may wish to study their successes.

Urban Charter Markets that Have Yet to Make a Difference

In Washington, DC, nearly 40 percent of students attend charter schools, but their performance does not significantly differ from the students of traditional schools. Relinquishers, this should give us pause--unlike New Orleans, Washington, DC, greatly increased charter market share with little effect. The city is rich with talent and funding, and yet charter schools deliver mediocre results. Similar results were found in Philadelphia. In Chicago charter schools actually achieved statistically positive results in math, but of the two studies conducted on Chicago, one found a negative effect in reading, so I have included Chicago in this list.

Urban Charter Markets that Don’t Work

Rigorous studies that find negative charter school effects in an urban area do not exist. I am sure, however, that charters perform worse than traditional schools in some cities. Still, no rigorous research confirms this. Reformers of all stripes--this might be an avenue worth pursuing to support your case.

In Summary

The research, while limited in scope, demonstrates this: charter markets can work.

Specifically, in New Orleans, the nation’s only charter district, relinquishing power to educators and parents triggered what might be the greatest transformation of an urban school district in the modern education era.

Let Me End with a Chart

Now time to get to the chart of the day:

In 1991, Manmohan Singh became Finance Minister in India, a country of a billion people and a thousand languages. In 1992, income began to skyrocket, in large part due to his policies. Singh now serves as the Prime Minister of India.

Manmohan Singh is one of the greatest Relinquishers of the modern world. Over the past 20 years, his work in transferring power to India’s citizens--especially its entrepreneurs--improved the well-being of hundreds of millions of Indians and resulted in a near doubling of income over a 15 year period.

The primary strategy Singh used--devolving power away from government operation--can, and should be, applied to our education system as well.

Superintendents, the evidence for relinquishment may be broader than you think.

Part III tomorrow.

Take care,


--Neerav Kingsland

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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