Advantage Charter Schools Narrow Learning Gap

Published May 1, 2001

In a significant demonstration of how choice-based school reform can result in the creation of an effective, replicable learning environment, Advantage Schools on March 28 reported that students in its 14 charter schools across the country had achieved a striking 9.1 percentile point gain in National Percentile Rank (NPR) during the 1999-2000 school year.

That gain–across all grades and subjects–is particularly notable since the company’s schools serve predominantly urban students from disadvantaged families.

Model for Closing the Gap?

Advantage schools that educate primarily African-American and Latino students from low-income families posted some of the strongest gains in the system, which suggests the Advantage school design may be a promising model for addressing the persistent gap in academic achievement between America’s minority and Caucasian students.

For example, at the New Horizons Community Charter School in Newark, New Jersey–where 86 percent of the students are African-American–K-2 students gained 35 percentile points in reading during the school’s first year, with an average gain of 15 percentile points for all grades and subjects. At the Renaissance Advantage Charter School in West Philadelphia, where 98 percent of students are African-American, students gained nearly 12 percentile points on average across all subjects and grades during that school’s first year.

According to the company’s “Annual Report on School Performance: 1999-2000 School Year,” scores for students in grades K-2 jumped 18.8 percent on the nationally normed Woodcock Reading Mastery Tests.

Older Students Achieve Well, Too

Students in the higher grades also gained significantly against their peers nationally during the school year.

Advantage students in grades 3-7 gained on average 6.2 percentile points across all subjects on the Stanford Achievement Test (SAT-9). Students in grades 3-7 showed an average gain of 8.9 points in language, with gains of 5.4 and 4.5 NPR points respectively in reading and mathematics.

As remarkable as the gains themselves is their consistency throughout the Advantage schools network. According to the annual report, across the whole network of Advantage schools “there were no statistically significant declines in any grade or subject, and statistically significant gains were reported in 19 of 24 subjects across all grades.”

“The Advantage school design works,” said Advantage Schools’ co-founder and chairman Steven F. Wilson. “We believe that we have a replicable, scaleable approach to urban public education that rapidly and reliably elevates student performance.”

How Advantage Schools Work

Working within the constraints of the charter school per-pupil funding allowance, the Advantage school design involves the following elements:

  • rigorous academic standards;
  • a classical liberal arts education;
  • proven methods, particularly Direct Instruction for elementary reading, language, writing, spelling, and mathematics;
  • a safe and orderly learning environment, strengthened by a structured character and ethics curriculum;
  • superior teachers and intensive professional development;
  • a high level of parental involvement;
  • school uniforms; and
  • a longer school day (7 1/2 hours) and school year (200 days).

“The Advantage design is based on research and proven practices,” noted Theodor Rebarber, Advantage co-founder and chief education officer. “When combined with a talented faculty and fidelity to the model, you achieve results.”

At 25 to 30 students, Advantage class sizes are relatively large, although most of a student’s day is spent in smaller working groups of 7 to 15 students. Wilson views the quality of classroom instruction as the model’s critical success factor. With poor quality instruction, students become bored, and boredom leads to discipline problems regardless of class size.

“In our view, behavior and instruction are inseparable,” explained Wilson. “Everything flows from good instruction. If you have good instruction, you have a high level of student learning, and you have an orderly classroom.”

Who the Schools Serve

Advantage serves a substantially higher percentage of students from economically disadvantaged families (71 percent) than do American public schools on average (33 percent). Further, Advantage schools include a substantially higher percentage of economically disadvantaged students (71 percent) than do typical inner-city elementary schools (52 percent).

Although disadvantaged students typically score far lower on nationally normed tests than do students from more affluent families, Advantage aims to lift this performance sharply over time, using the change in test scores as the measure of how well students are learning.

The Advantage philosophy is that effort, not ability, determines success and that all students, not just the exceptionally talented, can achieve to high standards. As students gain academic success against the challenging Advantage curriculum, parents report increased self-confidence and enthusiasm for learning.

Based in Boston, Advantage Schools was founded in 1996 by Wilson and Rebarber, whose vision was to create a new generation of outstanding public schools that would enable all students, regardless of their socioeconomic background, to benefit from a rigorous academic. Advantage now is one of the nation’s leading education management companies.

The company presently manages 15 public charter schools in eight states and the District of Columbia, with a total enrollment of over 9,000 predominantly urban students from disadvantaged families. New Advantage-managed schools are opened with students only in grades K-5 and then are expanded by one grade each year until a complete K-12 education is provided. Currently only one school is K-8, with several at K-7. According to Wilson, there will be a two-year hiatus before the schools add their first high school grade.

For more information . . .

The full text of the Advantage Schools “Annual Report on School Performance: 1999-2000 School Year” is available on the company’s Web site at