Boston Charter School Demand and Effectiveness

Sarah R. Cohodes, Elizabeth M. Setren, Christopher R. Walters, Joshua D. Angrist & Parag A. Pathak:

Boston charter schools have had many reasons to tout their performance in 2013. Research reports and MCAS scores have shown exceptional progress by charter students. But while we were buoyed by these findings, the Boston Foundation and NewSchools Venture Fund sought to better understand in more detail not only how well charters are working, but for whom.
The answer–or at least the beginnings of it–is described in this report by a team of researchers from MIT’s School Effectiveness and Inequality Initiative (SEII). This is the third in a series of studies examining charter and Boston Public Schools (BPS) student performance. The first, released in 2009, was groundbreaking in its use of individual student data, its research design–which incorporated an observational study–and a lottery analysis. The second report, released in May 2013, examined Boston’s charter high schools and found gains in their students’ MCAS, Advanced Placement and SAT scores compared to their peers in the Boston Public Schools.
This report updates the 2009 study and uses a similar methodology. It examines the performance of all students enrolled in Boston’s charter schools as well as that of important subgroups of high-needs students, including those whose first language isn’t English or who have special needs. Importantly, this report also examines demand and enrollment patterns and finds a changing student population that includes more of these subgroups.
Like earlier studies, this report finds that attending a charter school in Boston dramatically improves students’ MCAS performance and proficiency rates. The largest gains appear to be for students of color and particularly large gains were found for English Language Learners.
At the same time, it is important to note that the analysis showed that charter school students are less likely to have special needs or to be designated as English Language Learners. While that gap has narrowed since the passage of education reform in 2010, the charters’ success with high-needs students should provide an even greater impetus to connect those student populations with charter schools.
In addition, the research team found that charter schools continue to be a popular option for Boston families. As the number of available seats grows, so too does the number of applicants. Nonetheless, the report finds that the odds of receiving a charter offer are roughly comparable to a student receiving his or her first choice through the BPS school-assignment process.
Readers of this report will draw many different conclusions, but the takeaway for us is clear: charters work for their students. It’s not only evident that we need more of these schools, but we must also redouble our efforts to ensure that students who have the most to gain are afforded greater access to them.