School & District Management

Study: Urban Charters Outdo Those in Nonurban Areas

By Sarah D. Sparks — September 13, 2011 7 min read
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A new Massachusetts study suggests that charter schools located in urban communities significantly improved their students’ mathematics and language arts performance on state assessments, while nonurban charter schools did not and, in some cases, even appeared to hurt students academically.

The findings come in a working paper, released Aug. 22, by researchers with the Cambridge, Mass.-based National Bureau of Economic Research. In the paper, the researchers trace the greater student academic progress in urban charter schools to the “no excuses” instructional approaches typical of urban charters in that state.

The study comes as a growing number of charters begin to move beyond city centers to compete in often better-performing school districts in suburbs and rural areas. According to the Washington-based National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, charters have been spreading in suburban and rural areas: From 1999-2000 to 2009-10, the number of suburban charters grew from 366 to 1,039, while the ranks of town and rural charters rose from 342 to 1,190. City charters grew from 833 to 2,692 during the same period.

“I think the charter movement is kind of coming of age,” said Alice Johnson Cain, the NAPCS’ vice president of external relations. “Parents want choices, and whether you are a parent in a low-income urban community or an affluent suburb, everyone wants the best possible education for their child.

“To me, part of what’s really important here is we’re taking an honest look at how charters are doing,” she said. “With charters, the whole premise of them is they have more freedom, but with strings attached.”

Charters’ Mixed Record

The Massachusetts study may help explain the mixed record for charter schools’ performance, which has been noted in previous studies by NAPCS researchers and other scholars. For example, a 2009 national study by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes, or credo, at Stanford University, found that while students at 17 percent of charter schools performed significantly better than peers at district schools, the rest showed no difference or even smaller learning gains at charters than at district schools.

The researchers for the Massachusetts study—led by Joshua Angrist, an economics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology—tracked nearly 10,000 secondary school students in the Bay State who participated in entrance lotteries at 24 urban and nonurban charters from 2001-02 to 2009-10,and then compared their scores on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, the state’s accountability test.

Schools by Geographic Locale 2009-10

Although most charter schools are located in urban areas, a growing number of them are popping up in a suburban and rural communities.


SOURCE: National Alliance for Public Charter Schools

Massachusetts’ charter law so far has led to more charter schools in urban areas than in suburban or rural districts. While only 9 percent of the students in a district can attend a charter school, that figure doubles to 18 percent for the lowest-performing 10 percent of districts, all of which are in urban areas.

The researchers found that students attending urban charter schools were more likely to be poor and from a racial minority than those at suburban charters, and that they had considerably lower MCAS scores before attending the charters. In both math and language arts, the urban students previously scored about 40 percent of a standard deviation below the state average for middle and high school, while students in the nonurban charters previously scored, on average, more than 20 percent of a standard deviation above the state average in those subjects and grades.

Yet once students enrolled in charter schools, that initial advantage for students in the suburban and rural charters vanished. Urban charters improved their students’ math and language arts scores from the bottom quarter of the class to the mean for all urban public school students. Black, poor, and very low-performing students showed the greatest improvement.

By contrast, while students attending nonurban charter schools started out with test scores slightly above the average of their peers attending regular public schools, their performance in high school was flat, and in middle school actually regressed to the average.

“The [urban] charters take a population which starts at a low baseline, … so they don’t get above the suburban population, but they do get quite close, and that achievement is remarkable,” Mr. Angrist said.

“In the nonurban schools, there are students there that have relatively high scores with or without charter schools,” Mr. Angrist said, “but the charters add nothing to that and, in some cases, take a relatively high level of achievement and lower it, especially in middle schools. You wouldn’t think parents would welcome that.”

Jed F. Lippard, the president of the Massachusetts Charter Public Schools Association, said he did not find the study’s results surprising.

“The statistical analysis that the researchers did makes sense to me in terms of their salient conclusions,” he said. “It confirmed a lot of what I would have suspected the outcome of the study would have been.”

Mr. Lippard noted that charters that open in higher-performing suburban districts tend to focus on an instructional theme, such as performing arts or language immersion, rather than on a straight college-preparatory track with an intensive test focus.

“I would compare it to building a house,” said Mr. Lippard, who also serves as head of school for Prospect Hill Academy Charter School. “The urban [charter] schools are working on building a foundation for the house, while the suburban schools are working on putting on sunrooms and skylights.”

‘No Excuses’ Approach

That difference in approach accounts for the gap in academic progress, Mr. Angrist said.

More than 70 percent of the study’s urban charter adminitrators said they fully or partially followed a “no excuses” charter model—popularized by national charter groups such as the San Francisco-based KIPP and the New York City-based Uncommon Schools—that focuses on intense math and reading instruction, extended learning time, discipline, and parent involvement. No nonurban charters identified with the approach.

Among the differences the study found:

• On average, urban charter school years lasted five days longer and their school days were 42 minutes longer than those at nonurban charters, with 35 more minutes a day spent on math and 40 minutes more on reading.

• More than 80 percent of urban charters required parents to sign a contract pledging their involvement with the school, compared with 46 percent of nonurban charters.

• Sixty-five percent of urban charters used a formal discipline and reward system, compared with 18 percent of their nonurban peers.

Urban charter schools were also more likely to pay for supplemental tutors and Saturday school for students.

“There seems to be growing consensus around something that makes schools like KIPP unique,” said Robin J. Lake, the associate director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, which is affiliated with the University of Washington Bothell. She referred to the Knowledge Is Power Program, a network of charter schools known for its “no excuses” approach to instruction. “It certainly is related to extended learning time and discipline, but also to very high expectations for kids.”

The Seattle-based center oversees the National Charter School Research Project, which is not affiliated with the Massachusetts study.

Mr. Lippard agreed that his own Prospect Hill charter, which serves 1,150 kindergarten through 12th grade students just outside Boston, in Somerville and Cambridge, follows most of the strategies of the “no excuses” approach.

Yet in suburban charters where he taught before coming to Prospect Hill, Mr. Lippard said, “we could afford not to worry too much about MCAS because we knew the students were going to do pretty well on their own—but here in the urban schools, we can’t afford not to focus on MCAS.”

“Doing well on MCAS,” he added, “is a stamp our students need on their passports that will open doors for them to new opportunities, whereas those stamps are already on the passports of students in a lot of the suburban charters.”

Charter Reasoning

Nonurban charters’ focus may change as the number of charters in those districts rises. More administrators and parents in regular public schools are fighting charters in wealthier and better-performing districts outside New York, Chicago, and Washington.

In New Jersey, the Princeton International Academy Charter School filed suit in August against the Princeton Regional, South Brunswick Township, and West Windsor-Plainsboro Regional school boards for blocking its attempt to open a Mandarin-language dual-immersion charter school.

“These urban schools are seeing this intensive urgency to get these kids who are way behind up to level, whereas the suburban schools are seeing their mission differently,” Ms. Lake said. “I think it’s worth suburban and rural charters’ looking at the urban charters and saying, ‘Could we do with some of that urgency?’ We might have fallen into a bit of complacency. There is a lesson there, but it has to be dealt with carefully.”

This November, the National Charter School Research Project plans to release results of a study of achievement of about 13,000 students attending schools run by 20 charter managers nationwide, comparing the effectiveness of different charter strategies.

“Any time you look at what makes a good school, it’s tempting to want to isolate one or two things, but we’re really finding that it’s a package of things that come together,” Ms. Lake said.

A version of this article appeared in the September 14, 2011 edition of Education Week as Study: Urban Charters Outdo Those in Nonurban Areas


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