Charters are answering the call on English language learners

Enrollment numbers increasing, with solid achievement results

THE RESULTS OF a new Pioneer Institute study, “Massachusetts Charter Schools:  Best Practices Serving English Language Learners,” rebut one of the central claims made by charter public school opponents: That charter schools dissuade English language learners (ELLs) from enrolling. The study shows that many charters are both recruiting ELLs and improving their academic outcomes.

One of the key elements of 2010 legislation that expanded the number of charter schools in Massachusetts was a call for charters to increase their focus on ELLs. The legislation enabled charters to more effectively recruit ELLs by requiring that districts share prospective student information. The study profiles three schools that have taken advantage of this requirement and are helping ELLs succeed.

Classroom observations and interviews with school leaders of charters in Lawrence, Lowell, East Boston and Chelsea reveal charter schools’ increasing success at recruiting and retaining ELL students.  At the Community Group’s network of Charter schools in Lawrence, 40 percent of students are ELLs, compared to 30 percent in the Lawrence Public Schools.

Students at the Lowell Community Charter Public School come from 20 countries and speak 23 languages.  Nearly half the school’s students are ELLs, compared to 26 percent in the Lowell Public Schools.

The percentage of ELLs at the Excel Academies in East Boston and Chelsea is less than the surrounding districts, but rising fast.  Four years ago, just 2.5 percent of Boston charter school students were ELLs.  Today the number is 12.5 percent.

The performance of each of the charter schools in the study has earned them the highest possible accountability from the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

The study also points to a number of best practices that are responsible for charter schools’ success with ELLs.  They include individualized instruction within the context of the mainstream classroom, the use of benchmark assessments to inform instruction, and regular and specific types of outreach to parents to help them become more involved in their children’s education.

In addition to the Pioneer report, a new MIT study finds that both special education students and ELLs at Boston charter schools experienced larger test score gains than their Boston Public Schools peers.  In the charters, 141 percent more SPED students and 142 percent more ELLs scored “advanced” or “proficient” on MCAS math tests. 137 percent more charter school SPED students scored advanced or proficient in English and the number was 136 percent more for charter ELLs.

The study finds that SPED students in Boston charter schools are more likely to become eligible for a state merit scholarship and take Advanced Placement tests, and they also score higher on SATs.

The study’s methodology undermines claims by charter opponents that charter schools perform better because they skim more advantaged students.  Author Elizabeth Setren, an MIT researcher, compared charter students to their peers who applied for charters but were not admitted in the lottery used to determine admission.

The new reports continue a drumbeat of research demonstrating the effectiveness of Massachusetts charter schools.  A 2009 study conducted by Harvard and MIT researchers found that charters dramatically outperform their district counterparts and that the academic impact of a year in a Boston charter school was similar to that of a year in one of the city’s elite exam schools.  Earlier this year, a Stanford University study found that Boston charter schools are doing more to eliminate the achievement gap between richer and poorer students than any other group of public schools in the country.

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The studies also come at a critical time in the political battles over charter public schools.  Gov. Baker has filed legislation to raise the cap on the number of charter schools that can be opened in Massachusetts, supporters just announced that they have collected 73,000 signatures to get a question that would allow more charter schools on the 2016 statewide ballot, and attorneys from three leading Boston law firms have filed a suit claiming that the charter cap denies students equal access to educational opportunity.

The data on the Commonwealth’s charter public schools is overwhelming.  Now the question is whether those data matter in the political debate over raising the charter cap.

Cara Stillings Candal is the author of “Massachusetts Charter Schools: Best Practices Serving English Language Learners” and a senior research fellow at Pioneer Institute.