Charters & Choice

I have two requests. The first is modest. The second is…well, let’s focus on the first for the time being.

Please go to your calendar and block off thirty minutes. You can call the item “Districts and the Achievement Gap.” It’s easy work; you’ll just need to do look at some pictures.

A new project by a team of researchers associated with Stanford’s Center for Education Policy Analysis has produced a database that includes school district test scores, poverty rates, and racial demographics (report on the database’s creation here).

short article in the New York Times explains some of the findings that emerge when you start analyzing the data. But the major contributions of the article are its two interactive graphics.

The first displays the well-known relationship between family income and student achievement: Students from more affluent families have higher average achievement levels. The upshot, per the article, is that “children in the school districts with the highest concentrations of poverty score an average of more than four grade levels below children in the richest districts.” The graphic allows you to search for any traditional school district in America. I did a quick comparison of one of New Jersey’s highest-performing and one of...

Editor's note: This post is the fourth in an ongoing discussion between Fordham's Michael Petrilli and the University of Arkansas's Jay Greene that seeks to answer this question: Are math and reading test results strong enough indicators of school quality that regulators can rely on them to determine which schools should be closed and which should be expanded—even if parental demand is inconsistent with test results? Prior entries can be found herehere, and here.

I think we’re approaching the outline of a consensus, Jay—at least regarding the most common situations in the charter quality debate. We both agree that closing low-performing schools is something to be done with great care, and with broad deference to parents. Neither of us wants “distant regulators” to pull the trigger based on test scores alone. And we both find it unacceptable that some states still use test score levels as measures of school quality.

I think you’re right that in the vast majority of cases, charter schools that are closed by their authorizers are weak academically and financially. Parents have already started to “vote with their feet,” leaving the schools under-enrolled and financially unsustainable. Closures, then, are akin to euthanasia. That’s certainly been our experience at...

Previous research has found that oversubscribed urban charter schools produce large academic gains for their students. But are these results related to test score inflation (defined by one assessment expert as increases in scores that do not signal a commensurate increase in proficiency in the domain of interest)? In other words, do these schools merely figure out how to prepare their students to do well on the high-stakes exam, or are they contributing to real learning writ large?

To explore this question, a recent study examines state testing data from 2006 to 2011 at nine Boston middle school charters with lottery-based admissions. By exploiting the random nature of the lottery system, prior studies have found that these schools produce substantial learning gains on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS).

To carry out the analysis, author Sarah Cohodes breaks down the learning gains by the various components of the state assessment—akin to how one might disaggregate overall gains by student subgroup. A math assessment might contain several different testing domains (e.g., geometry versus statistics), with some topics being tested more frequently than others. Cohodes’s hypothesis is as follows: If the gains are attributable to score inflation, we might expect to see stronger results on...

A sixth grader in Mountain Brook, Alabama, can be considered one of the luckiest in the country, enrolled in a district where he and his classmates read and do math three grade levels above the average American student. But a child of similar age in Birmingham, just five miles north on Route 280, would be in considerably worse shape; there, kids perform 1.8 grade levels below average. So how could a ten-minute drive transport students to a different educational galaxy? Well, look at some numbers compiled by a team of Stanford researchers: Mountain Brook is 98 percent white, with a median household income of $170,000. Birmingham is 96 percent black, with a median household income of $30,000. Sometimes the figures speak for themselves.

John Bel Edwards, the recently elected Democratic governor of Louisiana, has had an eventful few months. After being inaugurated in January, he’s wrangled with state lawmakers over their leadership selection process and hustled to patch a huge crater in the budget. But his education agenda, largely aimed at curbing the growth of the state’s charter sector and cutting funding for voucher students, has run aground over the last few weeks. After the state’s newly...

This is the first in a series of essays marking the twenty-fifth anniversary of America’s first charter school law. These commentaries are informed and inspired by our forthcoming book (co-authored with Bruno V. Manno), Charter Schools at the Crossroads: Predicaments, Paradoxes, Possibilities, to be published this fall by Harvard Education Press. Read the other essays here, here, here, and here.

Next month marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the enactment of America’s first charter school law, which Minnesota Governor Arne Carlson signed on June 4, 1991. This statute birthed a sector that has become not just a source of new schools for kids who need them, but also a structural reform of public education’s governance and delivery systems. It’s as close as K–12 schooling has come to what Clayton Christenson calls “disruptive innovation.”

This is worth celebrating—and charter advocates across the country have planned many festivities and events. But as we applaud this movement and the bold Minnesota lawmakers who launched it, let’s also recall what led up to it and, one might say, made it almost inevitable.

The onset of chartering was no lightning bolt. This audacious innovation had multiple ancestors and antecedents. School choice...

Dave Yost

I am a conflicted man.

Professionally, I lead Ohio’s auditing staff, a team of financial experts whose job it is to verify that tax dollars are being properly spent and to root out any misuse or theft of public money. That includes charter school spending.

Yet personally, I’m a strong proponent of the charter school movement. I believe in the lifetime benefits of school choice and affording all parents the ability to choose the school that will best serve their children.

My friends sometimes question how I can be so tough on charters when I personally support them. The answer, I tell them, is simple: We don’t play favorites. We can’t. We shouldn’t. Doing so would erode the public’s trust in our office, which we must faithfully and ardently protect. To ignore the misdeeds of the few problem charters would stain the great work of many. Turning a blind eye to the problems in a charter school, or any school, would mean that we failed our children, which is never an option.

It’s a conflict that public officials often face when their official duties require them to make decisions running counter to their personal beliefs.

The mission of the auditor...

The Leicester City edition

On this week’s podcast, Mike Petrilli and Robert Pondiscio talk Trump, the role of test scores in determining school quality, and the opt-out movement. During the Research Minute, Amber Northern explains how the threat of NCLB sanctions reduced teacher absences.

Amber's Research Minute

Seth Gershenson, "Performance Standards and Employee Effort: Evidence from Teacher Absences," Journal of Policy Analysis and Management (April 2016).

A few weeks ago, I argued that policy change is not the only path to education reform, floated five other approaches for improving educational practice, and promised to flesh them out in future posts. Here’s my attempt at the first of those five strategies, just in time for National Charter Schools Week: “Build a new system via charter schools, education savings accounts, or similar mechanisms” as an alternative to today’s traditional, ossified one.

What does that have to do with educational “practice”? Everything!

John Chubb and Terry Moe explained it well in Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools (1990):

Our analysis shows that the system’s familiar arrangements for direct democratic control do indeed impose a distinctive structure on the educational choices of all the various participants—and that this structure tends to promote organizational characteristics that are ill suited to the effective performance of American public schools. This social outcome is the product of countless individual decisions, but it is not an outcome that any of the major players would want or intend if acting alone. It is truly a product of the system as a whole, an unintended consequence of the way the system works.

Our perspective also suggests that, absent...

Editor's note: This post is the third in an ongoing discussion between Fordham's Michael Petrilli and the University of Arkansas's Jay Greene that seeks to answer this question: Are math and reading test results strong enough indicators of school quality that regulators can rely on them to determine which schools should be closed and which should be expanded—even if parental demand is inconsistent with test results? Prior entries can be found here and here.

It’s always nice to find areas of agreement, but I want to be sure that we really do agree as much as you suggest, Mike. I emphasized that it should take “a lot more than ‘bad’ test scores” to justify overriding parental preferences. You say that you agree. But at the end, you add that we may have no choice but to rely primarily on test scores to close schools and shutter programs—or else “succumb to ‘analysis paralysis’ and do nothing.”

This is a false dichotomy. If all we have are unreliable test scores, we don’t have to make decisions based on them or “do nothing.” Instead, we could rely on local actors who have more contextual knowledge about school or program quality. So if the charter board, local...

The federal Charter Schools Program (CSP), which provides seed money for charter start-ups primarily through competitive state grants, got an upgrade in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) in December. Around the same time, CSP got a 32 percent funding boost from Congress. At its highest funding level ever, the program is primed to help states grow their charter sectors—a worthy goal considering that over a million students nationally wait for open seats in charter schools. The new program prioritizes strong authorizing practices and equitable funding for charters, and it attempts to influence state policies toward those ends.


Formed just three years into the nation’s charter movement, CSP embodies Washington’s bipartisan commitment to charters and is responsible for helping launch or expand over 40 percent of today’s operational charter schools. CSP was first created in 1994 as an amendment to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 via the Improving America’s Schools Act. At its outset, it was a bare-bones initiative that made competitive grants available to states to host their own sub-grant competitions (for which new start-ups or conversion schools could apply). Requirements were minimal: State applicants merely had to have a charter law, and school applicants had to adhere to the...