Mass. Charter Schools Outperform Their Peers

Published March 1, 2009

Massachusetts charter schools are outperforming traditional public schools in both math and English, a new study shows.

The study was sponsored by the state’s education commissioner and the Boston Foundation, a community organization devoted to bettering the city and region. The work was conducted by researchers from Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The team will soon probe the issue more deeply, as the current study was only preliminary. The next study will try to identify what caused the difference between charter schools and their traditional school counterparts, said J.C. Considine, spokesman for the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

The results of the study, released in January, sparked discussion throughout Massachusetts, with some calling for a statewide cap on the number of charter schools—currently limited to 120—to be lifted.

“We need to do a better job of understanding the lessons from charter schools and sharing the lessons with traditional public schools,” Considine said. “To date, we really haven’t seen that take place as often or as much as we’d like.”

New Collaboration

Considine said the state education commissioner, school superintendents, and charter school association will likely work together after the next study. They intend to share techniques that have brought success within their schools and expect to work to develop stronger communication between charter schools and traditional schools, he said.

“Some of the ideas are conferences where we can share ideas, visits to some of the stronger schools, developing descriptors of the stronger curriculums,” Considine explained.

David Trueblood, a spokesman for the Boston Foundation, said the study has received attention from lawmakers and policy analysts.

“It has certainly stirred up the conversation,” Trueblood said. “It has partisans and opponents all over the place talking. It hasn’t moved the markers either way, but it has sparked an enormous amount of conversations.”

Trueblood said he hopes the study will catalyze larger school reform efforts.

“I think we were really impressed with how well charters came through,” Trueblood said. “We’d like to see the cap removed, and we’d like to see more charters.”

Multiple Choices

Massachusetts parents are clamoring for more charter schools. Approximately 21,000 students statewide are on waiting lists to get into one.

“Hopefully, some day there will be no waiting list,” Trueblood said.

The study also has captured attention because of its unique, comprehensive approach toward comparing the schools—always difficult to do, Considine said. Much of the report is devoted to explaining the research techniques employed.

“I think there was a lot of interest in this report,” Considine said. “We haven’t to date really been able to answer the question [of whether] charter schools [are] living up to their promise.”

Trueblood said the Boston Foundation hopes the study will result in more choice for parents.

“Every family should have as many options, as many opportunities as it takes for them to feel that they’re making the right decision about how to get their kids the education they need,” Trueblood said. “Traditional schools have been very successful; so have pilot schools; so have charter schools. It’s good to have sort of a basket of choices.”

Jillian Melchior ([email protected]) writes from Michigan.

For more information …

“Informing the Debate: Comparing Boston’s Charter, Pilot and Traditional Schools,” by Atila Abdulkadiroglu et al., The Boston Foundation, January 2009: http