Charter schools shine in new study. Now what?

Exactly what will it take for state leaders to raise the cap on Massachusetts charter schools, which have thousands of students on waiting lists clamoring for a chance to escape the mediocre classrooms that define too many of the state's urban district systems?

By any measure, the new study released today should end the argument over the effectiveness of charter schools, which operate independent of district systems and without the constraints of collective bargaining contracts. Yet unyielding state education leaders show no sign that they will let rigorous evidence get in the way of dug-in resistance to more charters.

The study, sponsored by The Boston Foundation and carried out by researchers from Harvard and MIT, looked at student achievement among Boston students in charter schools, pilot schools, and traditional district schools. The report found that charter school students consistently outperformed their peers in regular district schools. Pilot schools, which operate within the Boston system but have more charter-like autonomy than traditional schools, did not fare well in the study, with pilots actually performing worse than district schools in some cases.  

The study broke important new ground by dealing with one of the most common criticisms leveled at claims of charter school success: That their students perform better because those who seek slots at charters differ in ways that affect achievement from those in traditional schools and not because of any actual effect of charter schools. The researchers controlled for the possibility that charters attract more motivated students by comparing those who won seats through charter school lotteries with those who sought admission to a charter school but lost the lottery. (Oversubscribed charter schools must offer seats using a random drawing.) The achievement premium at charter schools persisted even under this more controlled model.

Harvard professor Thomas Kane, the report's lead researcher, presented the findings this morning at a Boston Foundation forum.  Perhaps the most compelling piece of data he offered was a comparison of the three types of Boston schools with those in affluent Brookline, a system regarded as one of the state's best. By the 8th grade, the mean MCAS math scores for Boston charter schools students were nearly the same as those of Brookline 8th graders. 

Akamai Technologies CEO Paul Sagan, who was part of a panel at the morning forum, decried the state cap on charter schools, which is preventing new charters from opening in Boston and other cities. "We are denying kids year in and year out a shot at that, and that is disgraceful," Sagan said.

Teachers unions and municipal leaders, who say charter schools drain money from district school budgets, have been powerful forces against lifting the charter school cap. They must have been heartened by remarks delivered at the forum by the state's new education commissioner, Mitchell Chester. He said the state has done a bad job of taking lessons from successful charter schools and importing them into traditional district classrooms. But he inexplicably then declared that he didn't come to discuss state policy on charter schools. "I'm not going to enter the debate on should the cap be lifted," Chester said.

If not now, with the release of data strongly supporting the value of charter schools, then when? 

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

Chester seems to be following the script laid down by Gov. Deval Patrick and his education secretary, Paul Reville. They have resisted the call for more charters and are pushing instead for the development of so-called "readiness schools," which would operate within district systems and mimic many aspects of the Boston pilot schools. 

Charter schools are by no means the only answer to the yawning achievement gap that is the central challenge facing U.S. public education. But they are emerging as an important part of the answer, one that has been embraced by President-elect Obama and by school leaders in big urban districts across the country. Sensibly, Sagan and Boston Foundation president Paul Grogan voiced support this morning for raising the charter cap and experimenting with "readiness schools." Adopting aggressive reforms and embracing school models with a clear track record of results in closing the achievement gap is indeed the civil rights issue of our time. It's an issue that Gov. Patrick and his education team seem in danger of ending up on the wrong side of.