A new report on the superior performance of Boston’s charter schools got me thinking about a comparison with Kentucky’s Jefferson County Public Schools.
Both Boston and Jefferson County are large, city-based school systems, but I honestly thought the student demographics in Boston would give that city a notable advantage over the Louisville area schools in any comparison of educational performance. After all, if Boston’s students were richer and less diverse than Jefferson County’s, any argument about Boston’s charter schools would fall on deaf ears in the Bluegrass State.
But, when I checked the actual data, boy did I turn out to be wrong!
The real student demographics in Boston and Jefferson County indicate the Kentucky school system actually should have huge advantages in any comparisons (click the “Read more” link to see details on demographics).
That made Boston’s and Jefferson County’s new reading and math proficiency rates from the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) Trial Urban District Assessments (TUDA) especially troubling. Basically, Boston beat up on Jefferson County although the student demographics strongly indicate this should have gone the other way.
For the three primary races in both cities – whites, blacks and Hispanics – Boston outperformed Jefferson County in every area except Hispanic reading. And, many of those differences are statistically significant.
Jefferson County didn’t have enough Asian/Pacific Islanders to get NAEP scores reported. And, neither city had enough American Indian/Alaskan Native citizens to get scores for that racial group, either, so no comparisons are possible there.
However, the overall message is stunning. Jefferson County had advantages that should have led to it universally outscoring Boston’s schools. That simply didn’t happen.
But, could Boston’s charter schools have played much of a role in the NAEP results?
I didn’t find information on the percentage of Boston’s children who attend charters there, but the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association reports that a 2010 change in Massachusetts law allows charter enrollment to run at 18 percent of all enrollment.
Also, it sounds like the charters quickly grew to absorb that allowed growth, and the growth was centered in high needs areas (Which I assume includes Boston). So, it looks like the enrollment in Boston’s charter schools is large enough to have an appreciable impact on the overall NAEP scores above.
That raises a new question: just what does Boston’s charter school performance look like?
How about this quote from a recent 2013 Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) study on Massachusetts charters:
• The average growth rate of Boston charter students in math and reading is the largest CREDO has seen in any city or state thus far. At the school level, 83 percent of the charter schools have significantly more positive learning gains than their TPS counterparts in reading and math, while no Boston charter schools have significantly lower learning gains.
Yes, this is the same CREDO organization that reported in 2009 that only a small percentage of charter schools outperformed traditional public schools across the country. The CREDO crowd does not hand out praise for charters lightly.
CREDO isn’t alone with praise for Boston’s charter schools, either. Another report on Boston’s charters, using a random-sample-like, lottery-based study method I think is superior to CREDO’s, also was released by a research team from MIT and Harvard in 2013.
Here are some of that report’s astonishingly good findings based on the MCAS test, which is the Massachusetts state assessment program:
• Each year spent at a charter middle school boosts MCAS scores by about a fifth of a standard deviation in English Language Arts (ELA) and more than a third of a standard deviation in math.
• High school gains are just as large.
For those of you who are not into the standard deviation “stuff,” a table found in the CREDO study mentioned above indicates those middle school scores would equate to about an extra 7.2 months of extra learning in English and over a year of extra learning in math. Wow!
Here are some more findings from the MIT/Harvard team:
• Charter enrollment produces gains on Advanced Placement (AP) tests and the SAT.
• Charter attendance roughly doubles the likelihood that a student sits for an AP exam and increases the share of students who pass AP Calculus.
• Charter school attendance also increases the pass rate on the exam required for high school graduation in Massachusetts, with especially large effects on the likelihood of qualifying for a state-sponsored college scholarship.
• Charter attendance induces a clear shift from two-year to four-year colleges.
The teachers unions have raised a fuss that charter schools supposedly under-enroll learning disabled students, so this last MIT/Harvard finding was particularly noteworthy:
• We also report estimates for a special education subsample, a group well represented at Boston’s charter high schools. With the exception of Adams Scholarship qualification and a possible delay in high school graduation, special education students seem to get as much or more from charter attendance as does the general applicant population.
This is EXACTLY the kind of performance we need in the many low-performing schools found in Louisville. If we had the option to convert them to charter schools using a well-crafted law such as that in Massachusetts, we could boost performance not only in Kentucky’s largest city, but also in other areas where education chronically underperforms in the Bluegrass State.
Why do our legislators keep fighting the obvious? Well-designed charter school programs benefit those who need it the most, students who are traditionally under-served by the standard public school system. We need to start thinking about what is best for kids, not adults, in our schools.