New, rigorous research demonstrates the effectiveness of public charter schools in raising student performance and closing achievement gaps in urban areas.
“The Effects of New York City’s Charter Schools on Student Achievement,” led by Stanford University economics professor Caroline Hoxby and released in September, found evidence of substantial long-term academic benefits for students in these independent public schools of choice.
“The big challenge for researching [New York City] charter schools is the students are not very much like students who attend traditional public schools,” Hoxby said. “They tend to be poorer, more minority, more single-parent households, [and have] parents with very little education.”
The study overcame the problems of intrinsic student differences by using what is considered the “gold standard” research method. Students who entered a public charter school through lottery selection were directly compared with students who lost the lottery and ended up attending a traditional neighborhood public school.
Hoxby found charter school students demonstrated greater learning than their third- through eighth-grade counterparts in four key subject areas: reading, math, science, and social studies. Attending a charter school for the elementary and middle school grades resulted in an average test score improvement of 30 points in math and 23 points in reading.
These gains represent a remarkable narrowing of the achievement gap between the average student in poverty-stricken Harlem and the affluent suburb of Scarsdale, with charters closing 86 percent of the math gap and 66 percent of the reading gap from kindergarten through eighth grade, Hoxby said.
Advancing the Debate
Democrats for Education Reform Executive Director Joe Williams said the study’s findings have “made it much harder for the opponents of charter schools to use research as one of their weapons against it.”
Hoxby noted the results of her study, while significant, were somewhat less positive than those found by similar gold-standard studies of charter schools in Chicago (2008) and Boston (2009). The New York City study was the most comprehensive of its kind, covering more than 90 percent of students who attended a charter school between 2001 and 2008.
Hoxby believes state and local policymakers can glean lessons from the study for education reform in other cities.
“Charter schools in New York City are fairly typical of charter schools that serve urban areas” nationwide, she said.
Charter efforts in New York City are aided by a state law that allows a variety of authorizers and a relatively high degree of school-level autonomy. Only Arizona, California, Minnesota, Utah, and the District of Columbia have friendlier charter school policies, according to the Center for Education Reform.
Williams says the next hurdle is empowering high-quality charter school operators such as KIPP, Achievement First, and Uncommon Schools to expand their efforts.
“Some of what they need is extra flexibility to open new schools, staff new schools, and house new schools,” Williams said. “I see replication as the next big thing.”
Ben DeGrow ([email protected]) is a policy analyst for the Independence Institute, a free-market think tank in Golden, Colorado.