Welcome to the Profit of Education website. Continuing the conversation begun in the book Profit of Education, we discuss the latest economic evidence on education reform.

How broad is the benefit of charters?

We now have quite a bit of evidence that certain urban charter schools are very effective. (Note: by no means does this mean that the average charter school is very effective.) The best evidence comes from looking at admission lotteries in which researchers compare outcomes for students admitted in the lottery to those who missed out. What’s nice is that the two groups of students are likely similar in terms of unobservable background characteristics.

What’s not so nice is that both the winners and losers are “special” in the following sense: the students and/or their families were motivated enough to apply in the first place. Maybe charters work well for children from motivated families but not for others?

New research, “Charters Without Lotteries,” offers some good evidence that certain urban charters work whether students are from motivated families or not. The researchers take advantage of a kind of “natural experiment.” A number of middle schools in New Orleans (plus one in Boston) were converted to charter schools under a plan in which students already in the school were able to stay in the new charter version without having to apply. In other words, these students were in without having to be specially motivated.

Students in the New Orleans schools were compared to similar students in schools that weren’t converted. The “grandfathered” students had better outcomes than students who remained in traditional schools. In Boston, the researchers could actually compare students who were grandfathered into the converted school with students who won a lottery to get in. The grandfathered students did as well or better than the students from the families sufficiently motivated to enter the lottery.

Here’s one of the authors’ figures for New Orleans. The dark line shows math results for grandfathered charter students; the lighter line is for comparable non-charter students. Things were improving in New Orleans for both groups, but scores improved much faster for the charter school students.


I think this is the first real evidence that charters can work for a broad group of students. A reminder though, the fact that particular charters (mostly “No excuse” schools) work well in a particular urban context does not mean that the broad spectrum of charters are similarly successful.

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4 Responses to How broad is the benefit of charters?

  1. M says:

    This analysis overlooks one huge variable, one of the largest (in my experience as a teacher), that affects student achievement.

    The mere presence of “motivated” students has an impact on the learning environment of their peers (in this case the grandfathered students).

    I remember when I first realized this point, and observed an absolutely stunning phenomenon. I’ve had days when the two or three most unmotivated (and badly behaved) students in one of my classes ( I teach several periods) were absent, and the class performance was unbelievably different. The truth is that it’s the most difficult students, a small handful (less than 10%) that hijack learning for the rest of my kids. Charters have more flexibility to suspend, expel, and altogether avoid (a result of ones needing to enter lottery and jump any other hoops it takes to apply, be considered for, and attend in good standing) these most difficult students.

    I have a class of 26 students. At the beginning of the year, they were my lowest performing, worst behaved class. I lost 2 kids, the worst behaved ones, and they are now my best class and soaring. And, if you are wondering, no, these kids were not expelled (despite the fact that they both had screamed and cursed at teachers as well as gotten into several fights). If our school had the ability to expel just the 5 students out of my 120 with the worst behavior, I suspect my other classes would experience the same phenomenon and we wouldn’t need charter school style management: just resources, training, and respect for teachers who work hard and care about the kids.

    I’m interested to hear any others thoughts on this phenomenon that the mere presence of the worst behaved kids has an unexplainable effect on a classroom and all the students within it.

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