More than scores

New research takes an in-depth look at Chicago charter schools — and finds good news beyond test scores

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Charles Wiriawan

Most of what we know about the effectiveness of charter schools has come from scrutinizing testing data. That’s frustrated some who see the focus on test scores as too narrow. Now, a major study recently released by the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research joins a growing body of research that moves beyond tests to judge charters.

This analysis focuses on charter high schools in Chicago, which now educate over a fifth of Chicago high school students. The main takeaways: charter schools seem to help students in the short- and long-run, but those schools also have higher student turnover.

“Test scores are important, but so are other things,” said Julia Gwynne, one of the study’s authors.

The study’s findings will provide grist for both supporters and critics of charter schools. It also offers a number of important takeaways for national charter school observers.

The study shows that one of the larger charter high school sectors in the country is having big positive effects on students.

Attending a charter high school in Chicago led to substantial improvements in test scores, high school attendance, college enrollment, and college persistence.

These effects were relatively big: charter students were in attendance about eight more days on average and scored a full point higher on the ACT (which is out of 36 points). They were nearly 20 percentage points more likely to enroll in a four-year college, and also much more likely to persist in college through four semesters.

“The college enrollment rates are quite high – I would put that at a very sizable difference,” said Gwynne.

Source: UChicago Consortium of School Research

(It’s worth pausing here to note that although charters had a big edge in getting students to college, the college persistence for both sets of students was fairly low, echoing a national trend.)

These are not just raw comparisons of performance: the authors control for a variety of factors that might affect student performance in high school, including poverty, eighth grade test scores and attendance rates, and special education status. This strongly suggests that differences between students are caused by the quality of their schools. The study largely uses data between 2010 and 2013, although the paper goes further back to assess college outcomes, focusing on students who entered high school between 2008 and 2010.

These results are consistent with another recent study showing that Noble, a large charter network in Chicago, led to a big boost in college attendance.

On one important measure charter students were on par with district kids: high school graduation rates were essentially identical.

Interestingly, the results from this study are quite similar to research on Boston’s charter schools. Students there saw big gains in test scores and four-year college enrollment, but the same or lower high school graduation rates.

It’s among the first studies to document a common criticism lobbed at charter schools: high rates of student attrition.

There’s a big caveat to these findings: students are much more likely to leave a charter high school than a district one.

The natural question when considering the two main findings from the study — better outcomes but higher transfer rates — is whether one causes the other. That is, do Chicago charters just get better results because only more successful kids stick around? No, at least not directly.

To measure the effects of charters, the study follows students over time. Charter schools are judged by the performance of all students who start ninth grade at a charter — even if they subsequently transfer out. This is a common technique among researchers and means that the estimated charter impacts are likely conservative.

Still, the paper adds weight to a criticism that has dogged charters across the country: that they push kids out who are struggling or who have behavior problems. There have been a number of anecdotes to support this, but previous studies in a few districts, including New York City and Denver, had generally found little evidence that students leave charters at high rates.

Generally, low-achieving students in Chicago charters were more likely to transfer out than high-achieving ones — but that pattern was also true in district schools. Charter high schools had high attrition rates among both high- and low-performing kids.

The research does not show why students were more likely to leave charter schools.

Source: UChicago Consortium of School Research

The study highlights that even in a successful charter sector, there are some really low-performing schools.

It’s often heard in the charter school debate: charter success varies significantly from school to school. This is hardly surprising; it’s true of district schools too. But the Chicago study finds that on measures like test scores and college enrollment, charters vary even more than district schools in their impact on students.

That means there are more really good charter schools, but also more bad ones, even as on average the charters are better. (There is some evidence that is true of charter schools in Arizona, North Carolina, and Texas.)

Source: UChicago Consortium of School Research

The findings suggests that policymakers should be wary of judging a school by its sector, and that they need to be especially vigilant for struggling charter schools.

The study hints at — though doesn’t definitively explain — why some charter schools are successful.

The latest research can’t show why, overall, Chicago’s charter high schools seem to be high-performing, but it can point to ways they differ from district schools.

Charter high school teachers reported a higher sense of trust and collective responsibility among colleagues. Charter students said their schools were more engaged in helping them plan for life after high school, and teachers said there were greater expectations for college attendance. The schools also had tougher requirements for moving on to the next grade and for graduating high school.

Perhaps surprisingly, charters had a similar number of school days as the district.

Charter schools may have certain advantages over district schools. For instance, charter teachers report that parents are significantly more involved in schools; this may be a reflection of how charters work with parents, but it could also be about the families who select charters (or both).

The fact that charter schools have higher transfer rates may also matter, as does the finding that those students usually end up in district schools. Other research has shown that students entering school mid-year can hurt the performance of their peers, which might be a particular challenge for Chicago’s neighborhood schools.

The study does not look at financial differences across the sectors, including the role of outside money in supporting charter schools, nor does it examine school discipline or student suspension rates.

“What our next steps should be — really understanding best practices in high-performing charter schools is probably at the top of the list,” said Gwynne, the researcher. “To really understand what’s happening on the ground, you need to send researchers into schools.”

Are Children Learning

Memphis schools in most need of growth see gains, but vast majority of students still not on grade level

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Principal Melody Smith discusses how students at A.B. Hill Elementary grew significantly in test scores.

Three years after one elementary school joined Shelby County Schools’ flagship school improvement program, Principal Melody Smith says growth is proof their efforts are working.

“We came together we battled, we cried, we fought tooth and nail, but in the end we kept our students in the center,” Smith told teachers as they reviewed the results a week before school began.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Teachers at A.B. Hill Elementary discuss what makes an ideal school.

A.B. Hill Elementary School, which is part of the Innovation Zone, went from less than 5 percent of students reading on grade level last year to 15 percent in state test scores released Thursday. That jump earned the South Memphis school the state’s highest ranking in growth, but the scores also mean about 85 percent of students still don’t meet state requirements.

The iZone’s two dozen schools have been heralded for how much students have grown since 2012, especially when compared to the state-run Achievement School District, which heavily relies on private charter organizations to boost test scores, and scored the lowest in student growth.

But the challenge is far from over, and school leaders are looking for ways to improve faster.

State leaders generally look at three years of data before determining if academic strategies are working. And in the past three years, the state’s switch to online testing has been tumultuous, which has caused some district leaders and state lawmakers to question the results. But on national tests, Tennessee was held up as a model for student growth compared to surrounding states in a recent Stanford University study — even while the state is still in the bottom half of test scores nationwide.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Antonio Burt became assistant superintendent in July over the Innovation Zone and other struggling schools within Shelby County Schools.

Only three schools in the iZone — Westhaven Elementary, Cherokee Elementary, and Ford Road Elementary — have more than 20 percent of students reading on grade level. By comparison, 16 schools surpassed that in science, five in math, and four in social studies.

“There was a lot of movement in our elementary schools,” said Antonio Burt, the district’s assistant superintendent for schools performing poorly on state tests. But “we’re going to need a laser light focus on our high schools and our middle schools.”

The district created the iZone to boost student achievement in schools performing the worst in the state, all of which are in impoverished neighborhoods. The state Legislature allowed principals to have much more autonomy on which certified teachers they could hire, pumped about $600,000 per school for teacher pay incentives, and added more resources to combat the effects of poverty in the classroom, such as clothes and food closets.

Now, entering its seventh year, the iZone is still outshining the state-run district, and students are still showing more growth compared to their peers across the state who also performed poorly last year. Nine schools in the iZone got the state’s highest ranking for growth, compared to just five last year when the state switched to a new test. (Scroll to the bottom of this story to compare test scores and growth for iZone schools.)

Of the 23 schools in the iZone last year, seven of them were high schools. None of the high schools had more than a third of students on grade level or above in any subject. Four of them — Raleigh Egypt, Melrose, Mitchell, and Hamilton — saw significant growth in at least one subject. Last year was Raleigh Egypt’s first year in the iZone under Shari Meeks, who previously was principal at Oakhaven Middle School.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Clothes closet at A.B. Hill Elementary School in Memphis.

Burt said “the first big thing” that will be done to combat low reading scores in middle and high schools will be to strengthen curriculum. Adding curriculum for younger students played a part in boosting test scores that contributed to growth, leaders said.

Also, new reading specialists will teach a separate class for students who are the furthest behind on top of their normal English class. Before, teachers were responsible for catching up those students, or specialists would take them out of class to work on reading skills.

At the district level, Burt said science, social studies, math, and English advisors will be working more directly with teachers. And principal coaches will have more say in how and where those advisors concentrate their efforts.

Inside the school, Smith, the principal at A.B. Hill Elementary, said having teachers practice more difficult lessons in front of each other helped spur more ideas on how to make the curriculum work for their students.

Teachers said collaboration with others was key to figuring out the best way to improve test scores there. It was common for teachers to invite each other to sit in on lessons and give feedback.

“We would debrief with each other all the time,” said Brenda Pollard, who taught fourth-grade English and social studies. Now she says the foundation has been laid for higher achievement.

“It can be done,” she said. “We’re living proof it can be done.”

Below is a table of how iZone schools fared on state tests. Fields labeled “4.9” were hidden in state data, but are likely below 5 percent.

tar heel trivia

New education research? A good chance it’s from North Carolina.

PHOTO: Creative Commons/Boston Public Library

Barbeque. Basketball rivalries. The Blue Ridge Mountains.

Education research?

It’s something else North Carolina is known for, at least among a subset of social scientists.

“North Carolina has really done something special,” says Amy Ellen Schwartz, a professor and the editor of Education Finance and Policy, an academic journal.

“If you look over the last 20 years and focus on the highest quality work, it’s disproportionately work that comes from North Carolina data,” says Dan Goldhaber, an education professor at the University of Washington at Bothell.

North Carolina students aren’t more interesting or easier to find. But a disproportionate share of education research — and therefore, a disproportionate amount of what we know about how certain policies work — comes out of the Tar Heel State.

That’s because North Carolina has kept track of things like student test scores, teacher demographics, and school accountability data since the ‘90s, and also made that information more accessible to researchers than anywhere else.

It works well for those looking for data. But it also underscores a troubling reality: We know much less about how policies play out in places where data is hard to access — and in some cases, may be kept under lock and key for political reasons. That leaves the public to take the best lessons it can from a state that’s home to just 3 percent of the country’s public school students.

“The problem is that what you really want to do is look at lots of places,” said Schwartz, a professor at the Maxwell School at Syracuse University. “You want to be able to leverage the natural experiments and understand the variation in a way that’s really hard to do in one place.”

Of course, researchers in many cases do work productively with local officials to obtain data. And although it appears that North Carolina is the most commonly studied state in education policy, it is by no means the subject of the majority of academic papers. For instance, seven studies published in Education Finance and Policy over the last two years were focused on North Carolina — more than any other state or district, though over 30 others focused on K-12 schooling in the U.S used national data or data from elsewhere.

North Carolina’s popularity is tied to the fact that it is one of the few states where researchers can get student data (that has been anonymized) from a third party, in this case a research center established in 2000 that operates out of Duke University. In most states, the state education department or other state agency controls that information. Many states and districts lack the resources, streamlined systems, or staff capacity that North Carolina’s center has to meet researchers’ requests.

That center also separates policymakers and the keepers of the data — which may be crucial for ensuring information is made available.

“Not every place wants to open up their data and say, ‘Study what you want,’” said Schwartz. “The risk is that a researcher investigates something or casts it in a way that’s not positive for the school district.”

Goldhaber echoed this. “If you’re talking to somebody who’s involved with politics … they’re going to see everything through a political lens. And that when it comes to evaluating programs and policies, people often don’t see much upside,” he said.

In North Carolina, local researchers realized the importance of tracking students and schools over time, according to Duke’s Clara Muschkin, the faculty director of the data center.

When Goldhaber was studying schools there in the 1990s, he recalled, “There was a real belief that people ought to study these issues, and that was kind of pervasive under Gov. Jim Hunt.”

That extended to research that Hunt’s administration might not like. For instance, Goldhaber was interested in studying whether teachers who attained National Board certification were more effective in the classroom. Hunt was the founding board chair of the organization that awarded those certifications, and Goldhaber’s research had previously shown that certification types didn’t make much difference. But that didn’t stop the administration from providing that data to Goldhaber, who ultimately found North Carolina’s board certified teachers were particularly effective.

It’s impossible to say how often political concerns play a role in keeping data from researchers. When politics is involved, researchers themselves may not know, and if they do, they may not want to publicize it in hopes of eventually working out an agreement. (This reporter has heard frequent complaints about politics getting in the way of data access — but in most cases those are made off the record.)

A more subtle method of interference is when officials decide not to collect data in the first place that researchers might use to reach unflattering conclusions. California, Goldhaber said, is a particular culprit.

The largest state in the country has weakened, or declined to improve, its data systems since 2010, and the information that exists is not readily available to researchers. Governor Jerry Brown has argued that educational data is of little use to teachers and schools, and feeds into a test-focused mentality of schooling.

“You are not collecting data or devising standards for operating machines or establishing a credit score,” wrote Brown in a critique of the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program, which encouraged more data collection. “I sense a pervasive technocratic bias and an uncritical faith in the power of social science.”

Goldhaber has found it difficult to study the state’s education policies.

“There is just basic data that we could not get out of California,” he said, referring to a study he and colleagues are undertaking there.

Some places are becoming more cognizant of concerns about a lack of quality research about their schools. In Washington, D.C., the city council is considering funding an education research group and may make its data widely available to researchers. In California, some advocates and policymakers have pushed for improving its data systems, an idea the state’s likely next governor has backed.

In the meantime, those interested in key education questions — in California, DC, and elsewhere — can always look to North Carolina for answers. That’s largely a good thing, says Goldhaber.

“The fact that we are learning things in North Carolina is tremendously useful for informing policy and practice in other states,” he said.