Boston Foundation report reveals how charter schools close the achievement gap

New research expands ’09 report establishing ability of charter school students to outperform peers at traditional schools in middle, high school

Boston – Disadvantaged students who attend Boston’s charter schools showed significant improvement compared to peers at more traditional schools and a new report released today by the Boston Foundation identifies time spent in school as the critical factor driving that improvement.

On average, a student at a charter school in Boston will receive the equivalent of at least 62 full school days more school time over the course of a 180-day school year than his or her counterpart in traditional schools, the cumulative effect of two-plus hours more instruction time per day. And that is before adding extra days in the charter school year.

That is a key finding in the report, titled  Out of the Debate and Into the Schools: Comparing Practices and Strategies in Traditional, Pilot and Charter Schools in Boston . It was released today at an Understanding Boston forum at the Boston Foundation. The report was researched and written by a team from the American Institutes for Research and commissioned by the Foundation.

“This report affirms what many have experienced: Massachusetts has created a powerful national model for charter schools with lessons that can be extended to every school,” said Paul S. Grogan, President and CEO of the Boston Foundation. “Now we know how to close the achievement gap, and that is an accomplishment of historic significance. This is a game-changing report with a recipe for academic achievement.”

This new research follows a ground-breaking report published by the Boston Foundation in 2009, titled  Informing the Debate: Comparing Boston’s Charter, Pilot and Traditional Schools , which sparked national media attention when it was published. That research report was done by a team from Harvard, MIT and Duke that constructed a methodology to measure the impact of attending a charter school on students by identifying students similar in significant ways, one of whom was admitted by lottery to a charter school and one of whom was not. Subsequent performance by these paired students left no doubt of the dramatic impact of charter school experience—measures drawn from performance in standardized tests showed that a typical student in a Boston charter school closed in on performance levels shown by a student in the highly regarded suburban Brookline schools in the course of two years of middle school.

The research that informed that report was subsequently duplicated in New York City, which obtained the same significant record of improvement in performance for the charter school students.

That original Boston Foundation report raised an important question: what exactly elements in the charter schools drive this improvement? That is the question the new report was commissioned to answer.

Summary of findings
The most dramatic finding of the new report was in the area of time. A longer school day for students and teachers in a Boston charter school means that charter students receive on average 378 more hours—the equivalent of 62 more traditional school days—in the course of a 180-day school year. And charter schools typically have more than 180 days in their academic year, on average offering 192 days in their year. This stood in stark contrast to traditional Boston schools which were identified in a recent report by the National Council on Teacher Quality as having one of the shortest work days in the country, compared to similar urban districts.

The additional time was seen as especially significant because the autonomy that distinguished individual charter schools enables each school to design a program—create a culture—that is focused on professional development by staff and faculty and on the practices of mentoring.

Charter schools also report that they require academic supports during the school day for some or all students. Far fewer principals in traditional schools offered this kind of support, 15 percent in traditional schools versus 50 percent in charters schools. Far fewer traditional schools also required before- or after-school remediation, school enrichment, weekend academic support and summer school for their students.

The researchers determined that the autonomy elements of extra time and control over scheduling allows principals in charter schools to make the strategic connections that result in mentoring, academic supports and out-of-school academics. That is, they can build in more professional time for teachers without taking that time from instruction time.

Principals at charter schools also reported the ability to hire the qualified staff they wanted in high rates. This was also seen at ‘high performance” traditional schools. Both sets of schools reported being able to hire staff and faculty who shared a common set of values and philosophies to their own, which promoted the development of a school-specific culture.

When asked about the positive impact of this freedom to hire faculty and staff, charter principals and head of high-achieving traditional schools, reported that staff members trust one another, share a focus on student learning and take ownership of the overall climate of the school and of student performance. They also reported in high-achieving schools across the different types—charters, pilots and traditional—that teachers use formal strategies, such as collaborative planning time focused on adapting to classroom and student needs and collective professional development. One result was the ability to fully integrate students’ prior knowledge and past experiences into the classroom, to continuously improve the curriculum and instruction methods.

Emphasis on the autonomies
The report underscores the key importance of autonomy as a defining structural element in successful schools. The specific autonomies deemed the most important included:

  • Staffing: Having the freedom to hire staff that fit the needs of the school and who share a common values and teaching philosophy, thus creating creative, trusting atmospheres.
  • Scheduling and time: Longer school day for teachers and students with a focus on core subject areas and increased time for mathematics, reading and writing.   
  • Governance and leadership: Distributed leadership that builds on the strengths of the school staff and addresses the needs of students.
  • Curriculum and instruction: Shared and consistent instructional strategies among staff throughout the school, as well as adequate supports and instructional strategies for special student populations, including special education and LEP students. 
  • Professional development: Focus on professional development that builds the collective skills of teams of teachers or the whole school.
  • Budget: Identification of creative ways to access resources that support students and staff.


Recommendations
The report concludes with recommendations for educational leaders and policymakers as they work to improve all schools for all students. These included:

  • Grant autonomies while creating provisions for support, monitoring outcomes and holding schools accountable for performance of students.   
  • Increase school time.  
  • Allow for flexible school staffing and structures with greater freedom granted to principals to build their staff to fit their philosophy. 
  • Create school-level systems for routinely monitoring student needs.
  • Look for opportunities to engage teachers in decision-making. 
  • Provide professional development to school leaders on effective distributed leadership models that capitalize on the strengths of the school staff.

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The Boston Foundation, Greater Boston’s community foundation, is one of the oldest and largest community foundations in the nation, with assets of $682 million.  In Fiscal Year 2009, the Foundation and its donors made over $95 million in grants to nonprofit organizations and received gifts of over $81 million. The Foundation is made up of some 900 separate charitable funds established by donors either for the general benefit of the community or for special purposes.  The Boston Foundation also serves as a major civic leader, provider of information, convener, and sponsor of special initiatives designed to address the community’s and region’s most pressing challenges.  For more information about the Boston Foundation, visit www.tbf.org or call 617-338-1700.