Charter Schools and the Roadmap to College Readiness

May 22, 2013

New M.I.T. Study Shows Charter High School Students in Boston Outperform Peers

Researchers from M.I.T. unveiled a new study Wednesday showing that  students at six charter high schools in Boston outperformed their peers in traditional public high schools between 2002 and 2009, scoring higher on the MCAS and SAT exams, taking more Advanced Placement Courses, and qualifying in greater numbers for merit-based Adams scholarships to Massachusetts universities and colleges.

The study’s lead author, economist Parag Pathak, told the audience at a Boston Foundation “Understanding Boston” forum how his team had carefully controlled for the effects of charter schools by closely matching students from the Boston Public Schools who won seats in six Boston independent charters with those who did not. Charters, which are credentialed by the state and are publicly funded, are required by law to conduct lotteries open to everyone if they have more applicants than they can accommodate.

The study of 3,474 students found that charter school attendance:

  • Lifted SAT scores by a little over 100 points in English and 51 points in math; and even more dramatically for special-education students
  • Significantly boosted state MCAS scores in English and math, with students scoring “advanced” at a much higher rate than peers in district schools
  • Markedly increased the rate at which special-education students met state competency standards
  • Made it twice as likely that students would qualify for the Adams Scholarship, which provides free tuition to a Massachusetts college or university
  • Caused a marked increase in the likelihood that students would take at least one Advanced Placement exam.
  • Was associated with a higher rate of 4-year college enrollment

The findings, prepared for the Boston Foundation and the New Schools Venture Fund, were released in an “Understanding Boston” report titled Charter Schools and the Road Map to College Readiness: The Effects on College Preparation, Attendance and Choice.

“This report adds another chapter to the growing body of rigorous academic research on the relative performance of different kinds of public schools,” said Boston Foundation President and CEO Paul S. Grogan, who noted that young people can’t participate in the state’s knowledge economy if they don’t have some post-secondary education. “Those who don’t have the skills to further their education are in deep, deep trouble.”

The Boston Foundation has been a vigorous supporter of charter schools and is part of the Race to the Top Coalition advocating for changes to state law so that more charters can be created in the Commonwealth’s lowest-performing districts. But it has also invested heavily in the Boston Public Schools and believes in a two-track strategy of simultaneously improving the public schools while “growing our successful charter-school movement,” Mr. Grogan told the audience.

Boston School Superintendent Carol Johnson noted that district officials “will be reading this study thoroughly and thinking about its implication for the work that we do. “There are lessons in this study for us to learn, but there are lessons that we’ve been learning over time – that schools with flexibility and resources can make a difference. That high expectations matter. That we need to give leaders the tools to be successful.”

During a discussion after the report was presented, expert panelists offered their perspectives on the findings and State Rep. Alice Peisch, the House Chair of the Joint Committee on Education, briefly commented on education-reform measures pending in the Legislature. “The real question is, how do we get what works to the broadest possible number of students so we can close the gap for everybody?” she asked.

Thomas Kane, a professor of education and economics at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a former executive at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, showed the audience a chart comparing the difference in performance between Boston students who attended a charter and those who applied but did not was almost as great – 26 percent – as the 32 percent gap between the average performance in the Boston and Brookline public schools.

“Parents [who applied to charters] made a bet based on their instinct and their hopes, but now that we know these schools had an impact, it’s up to leaders in Boston to make sure there’s access to them,” he said.

Kamal Chavda, the assistant superintendent for data and accountability in the Boston Public Schools, praised the researchers’ methodology, but noted that “only charter schools that have a lottery” were selected for study and that in itself added bias to the results. However, he said, the district “is taking this to heart. We understand that there are lessons to be learned.”

James Peyser, a partner in the New Schools Venture Fund, called the report “groundbreaking” but cautioned, “We have such a long way to go to achieve the aspirations the charter movement was founded to attain.”