New clues on charter school effectiveness
The verdict on charter schools has always been a mixed one. A major study in 2009, for example, by the National Center for Research on Education Outcomes, or CREDO, at Stanford University found that students at 17 percent of charters nationally performed better than students in the district schools where the charters were located, but students in 46 percent of charters did no better than their district peers while students at 37 percent of the charters performed worse.
Such findings have frustrated those looking for clear answers to what works — and doesn’t work — in school reform efforts. A new study of Massachusetts charter schools by researchers at MIT may offer some clues. The study, published last month by the Cambridge-based National Bureau of Economic Research, found that students at urban-based charter schools made clear achievement gains beyond those of their peers in urban district systems, but students at non-urban charter schools showed no gains over their non-urban district peers and, in some cases, performed worse.
Among the reasons cited by the authors as explanations for the better performance of urban charters is their “no excuses” philosophy that combines high academic standards and intensive focus on math and English skills with a longer school day and a strong code of conduct and heavy parental involvement. More than 70 percent of the urban charters reported that they follow such a “no excuses” approach, fully or in part. In contrast, none of the non-urban charters follow the model.
Jed Lippard, the head of the Prospect Hill Academy, a urban charter school with campuses in Somerville and Cambridge, told Education Week [subscription required for full contents] that charters in suburban areas, where students already perform at high levels, tend to focus on themes, such as a foreign language or performing arts, while urban charters are very focused on raising academic achievement in core subjects and preparing students for college. Lippard said in suburban charters where he taught earlier in his career, “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.”
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