A new study offers additional evidence of urban charter schools improving student learning in reading and math.
Researchers at Vanderbilt University’s National Center on School Choice followed students in Indianapolis who switched from traditional public schools to charter schools. The study found the group, which included students from 2nd through 10th grade, made substantial strides in math achievement and smaller gains in reading. African-Americans made statistically significant gains in math, and Hispanics demonstrated significant growth in reading.
“Indianapolis was a district in high need of innovative schools,” said Anna Nicotera, coauthor of the study and director of research and evaluation at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS). “These schools appear to have filled that niche.”
‘Quality Over Quantity’
Researchers looked at testing data from 2002 through 2006, which coincided with an initiative by Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson (D) to authorize charter schools in Indiana’s capital city. The mayor’s office is limited to authorizing five charter schools per year.
“They have chosen to do quality over quantity,” Nicotera said. “They were very strategic in opening and placing schools in locations of need.”
Previous Vanderbilt research published in 2008 found Indiana charter school math instructors pursued lessons in greater depth and rigor and aligned more closely with state academic standards than did their peers in traditional public schools.
Center for Education Reform (CER) research director Allison Consoletti underscored the important role of state legislation in boosting learning. According to CER’s latest rankings, Indiana earns a solid B with the nation’s eighth strongest charter school law.
“It should come as no surprise that Indianapolis charters are showcasing rising achievement levels in their students,” Consoletti said. “It all boils down to the freedom Indiana’s law gives their schools, especially those in the capital city.”
Gains Appear in Year Two
The Vanderbilt study examined the Northwest Evaluation Association’s Measures of Academic Progress (NWEA MAP) scores of 700 students in 12 of the earliest mayor-authorized Indianapolis charter schools. Currently, 24 such publicly accountable schools with greater autonomy over programs, personnel, and finances operate in the city.
Nicotera notes positive learning gains did not appear for most students during their first year attending a charter school. Positive effects of extended enrollment in the newer, nontraditional public programs appeared after at least two years.
“The study and its findings should be taken seriously by school choice skeptics,” said the Indianapolis-based Foundation for Educational Choice’s research director Paul DiPerna, who described the Vanderbilt researchers’ findings as “compelling.”
DiPerna said the study follows the pattern of recent school choice reports designed to root out biases that could call the results into question.
“The new Vanderbilt study appears to be another piece of careful research,” he said.
‘Recipe for Success’
Because Indiana schools discontinued using NWEA assessments in 2006, further longitudinal analysis is not possible. Future research on the academic effectiveness of Indianapolis charter schools likely will be more difficult, Nicotera said.
Still, the results within the four-year period open the door to other promising insights beyond the direct influence of a new educational program, Vanderbilt researchers say. “The act of choosing a school may have provided a positive bump to students who switched to charter schools,” Nicotera and her colleagues wrote in a September 2010 issue brief.
DiPerna says findings on the positive “impact of choosing and switching” show up clearly in research findings on private school voucher programs.
Consoletti says Indianapolis also exemplifies the fact that positive outcomes flow from affording families genuine alternatives that can operate more freely outside the traditional education system.
“When charters are able to shed the bureaucratic trappings of their traditional counterparts, are able to open with a teaching force focused on student performance rather than collective bargaining, and are supported at the highest levels of local government,” she said, “that’s a recipe for success.”
Ben DeGrow ([email protected]) is a policy analyst for the Independence Institute, a think tank in Golden, Colorado.
Anna Nicotera, Maria Mendiburo, and Mark Berends, “Charter School Effects in an Urban School District: An Analysis of Student Achievement Gains in Indianapolis,” National Center on School Choice, Vanderbilt University (September 2010): http://www.heartland.org/schoolreform-news.org/Article/28574