Do charter schools work?

Tuesday, May 28th, 2013

Do charter schools work? Yes, but there’s no magic involved:

An entire field of education research aims to assess whether students are better off at charter schools than in the public system. The latest findings, based on six well-regarded charter schools in Boston, released Wednesday by the Boston Foundation and MIT’s School Effectiveness and Inequality Initiative, adds to the accumulating evidence that at least a subset of high-performing charters are measuring up to the movement’s early aspirations of giving disadvantaged kids a shot at a better life. The study shows that the Boston schools’ students did better on SAT and Advanced Placement tests and are vastly more likely to enroll at four year colleges — and to do so on scholarship — than otherwise identical students in the Boston public school system.


Numerous studies have used this lottery method to analyze the impact of charter schools on standardized test scores, and by and large they report similar findings: Charters in rural or suburban areas don’t do any better than public schools, while in urban areas they are associated with greater test score improvements in math and language. But another important point from past studies is that there is enormous variation in the effectiveness of charter schools. There are some great ones but also some real duds.


The study examines the college readiness of Boston public school students who applied to attend the six charter schools between 2002 and 2008, with projected graduation dates of 2006–2013. In just about every dimension that affects post-secondary education, students who got high lottery numbers (and hence were much more likely to enroll in a charter school) outperformed those assigned lower lottery numbers. Getting into a charter school doubled the likelihood of enrolling in Advanced Placement classes (the effects are much bigger for math and science than for English) and also doubled the chances that a student will score high enough on standardized tests to be eligible for state-financed college scholarships. While charter school students aren’t more likely to take the SAT, the ones who do perform better, mainly due to higher math scores.


The secret of many charter schools’ success isn’t a mystery: longer hours and additional school days, which are part of a “no excuses” philosophy that emphasizes frequent testing and often requires even longer days from charter school teachers. When public schools integrate these elements — as in a pilot project run by Harvard economist Roland Fryer in Houston, early evidence suggests those schools are seeing the same gains as high-performing charters.

I’m always amazed by how little innovation we see in education — not just how little effective innovation, but how little anyone diverges from the accepted public-school model.


  1. Ross says:

    This is a joke, right?

    “…The secret [is]: longer hours and additional school days…. frequent testing and….even longer days…”

    That does not sound like a radical divergence.

  2. LL says:

    Precisely. Public education is a monoculture. When i say public I include the private ones that can’t, due to government rules or said culture, get out of the jail. After all, the teachers come mostly from the same places.

    Besides, the whole text is a testament to that entrenched educative culture. It is enough to go to this part: “There are some great ones but also some real duds.”
    Why the surprise?

    For example, why is a 50% score good enough for all learning subjects? Why isn’t 80% the lower limit in some? Can anyone use math with only a 50% score? Software certification requires 90%…

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