Two perspectives on Mass. Question 2
Not sure how to vote on Question 2 this November? These two School of Education takes could help you decide
On Nov. 8, Massachusetts voters will be given a chance to cast a ballot either in favor of or against Question 2, which will either increase the number of charter schools in the state, or not. BU Today asked two SED professors to give their take. We offer them both to you below:
Among the important decisions facing Massachusetts voters at the ballot box in November is whether to allow expansion of charter schools in low-performing (primarily urban) districts that are at or nearing the state’s enrollment cap. The evidence suggests strongly that the state’s students will benefit were voters to pass the referendum.
Charter schools are not a single, monolithic national reform. The rules that govern charters and the schools’ quality vary considerably by locality. It should come as no surprise, then, that research finds charter school impacts also vary from place to place. Massachusetts voters considering their position on Question 2 are fortunate that they can turn to the considerable evidence on the impact of their local charter schools.
Critics of charter schools are right to complain that simplistic comparisons of the average test scores of charter and traditional public school students are misleading. Charters are required to fill open seats through a random lottery of applicants, and their applicant pools are dominated by low-income and minority students. But if only the most motivated of these otherwise disadvantaged students apply to charters, then simple comparisons of the average test scores in charters and nearby traditional public schools will be misleading.
There are, however, powerful strategies that researchers can employ in order to make apples-to-apples comparisons that measure the true impact of attending a charter school. A variety of such studies have been conducted in Massachusetts.
The most convincing analyses to date of the impact of charter schools in Massachusetts come from a team of economists at MIT. Similar in design to a medical trial, their research compares the later outcomes of students who were randomly offered a seat in a charter to those who applied to attend one, but were randomly denied access. Because only randomness determined who in the analysis was offered a charter school seat, we can have high confidence that differences in the later outcomes of these two groups can be attributed to being offered the opportunity to attend a charter, not some other factor related to applying to a charter school.
The MIT team has found mixed charter school impacts across Massachusetts. Students attending suburban charter schools do as well as or worse than they would have had they instead attended a traditional public school. But these studies find convincing evidence that students attending charters in the state’s urban areas — the areas where Question 2 would allow for greater expansion — are making enormous gains relative to how they would have performed in local traditional public schools. The positive impacts of attending a Boston charter school are particularly striking. And the results are similarly positive for students in groups of particular interest, such as students with disabilities and those who are learning English.
Researchers at Stanford University’s Center for Research on Educational Outcomes(CREDO) have used a different but powerful methodology to study charters inMassachusetts and nationwide. In essence, the researchers compare the performance of students attending charter schools to that of a comparison group attending traditional public schools, identified by a statistical algorithm as having similar characteristics.
Charter school critics with a national platform frequently cite CREDO’s finding that on average, nationwide students perform no better in charter schools than they would have had they attended a traditional public school. But the local story offered by CREDO is remarkably different from the aggregate national story.
When CREDO used its method to study charters in Massachusetts, it found that attending a charter led to substantial student gains in both math and reading. Consistent with the findings from the MIT team, CREDO’s results were particularly striking for those attending Boston charter schools. According to CREDO’s estimates, a single year attending a Boston charter school instead of the traditional public school that the student would have otherwise attended leads to higher test scores in math and reading that translated to students receiving an additional 216 days of schooling in math and 180 days of schooling in reading. The normal school year in a traditional public school is about 180 days. So, the findings suggest that a day spent in a charter school is worth two or more days spent in one of Boston’s traditional public schools.
But what about the students who remain in the state’s traditional public schools? Won’t they be harmed when their school loses the resources that were tied to their classmates who leave for charters?
I am not aware of convincing evidence of the impact of charter school expansion on traditional public schools in Massachusetts. But the research in other areas across the country offer little to support the “Bad for Our Schools” motto emblazoned on the car bumpers and front yards of those vocally opposed to Question 2. A fair read of the wide body of research on the topic suggests that student performance in traditional public schools is either unaffected or increases modestly as school choice options such as charters or private school vouchers expand. For instance, my own work has found that as New York City traditional public schools lose more students to charters, the students who remain tend to make (very small) test score improvements.
If we were debating whether or not to allow the further expansion of charter schools in Fort Worth, Tex., or Las Vegas, Nev. — two urban areas where CREDO has found charters to be very ineffective — then I would be singing a very different tune. But in the urban areas of Massachusetts, the evidence clearly shows that students benefit from attending charters. And there is little reason to suspect that charter school expansion would harm the academic achievement of those students who remain in local traditional public schools. If what voters care about most is improving educational options for students in Massachusetts, the research suggests a clear choice at the ballot box.
Massachusetts voters will decide on November 8 whether to increase the number of charter schools in the state, or not. Question 2 on the ballot proposes to expand the number of charter schools in underperforming school districts throughout the state. The genesis of charter schools in our nation is part of the wider school reform agenda that emerged from the denigration of government in general, and public schools in particular, beginning with Ronald Reagan’s 1981 inaugural address and the publication of the National Commission on Excellence in Education report A Nation at Risk in 1983. In today’s political environment, it is important to fact-check before deciding whether to vote yes or no on this question.
Political leaders have denigrated traditional public schools for decades. When the results of the 2012 Programme for International Student Assessment, or PISA, were released, Arne Duncan, then US Secretary of Education, declared that the results for the United States “are straightforward and stark: It is a picture of educational stagnation.” While Duncan and others focused on our “mean scores,” a more in-depth analysis presented a very different picture.
Of the American students who sat for PISA, 38 percent were from the two lowest socioeconomic categories. That is by far the largest percentage of low-income test-takers among all of our comparative nations. (The highest scorers, like Shanghai, Singapore, and Finland, had almost no low-income test-takers.) The United States has a higher percentage of low-income students in our public schools than any of the comparative nations in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). In an important way, that is a good thing, because in many of the highest scoring nations, low-income students do not attend school.
But it is incontrovertible that students from low-income families and communities throughout the world score far lower than students from more advantaged families and communities on these tests. So it is not surprising that our average scores are far lower. American public schools with fewer than 10 percent low-income students score at the very top on PISA. And low-income US students score higher than all other low-income groups outside the United States on PISA. But nobody knows that. The actual news about American schools is way better than the misleading headlines.
Driven by the incomplete and deceptive interpretation of test scores like PISA, public schools have been subjected to oppressive, top-down, one-size-fits-all school reforms such as Common Core Standards. This has deprofessionalized teaching and demoralized teachers. The development of charter schools is a major response to the perception that our public schools are lousy.
It is easy for charter advocates to grab the moral high ground in this debate. Poor parents should have the kind of good school choices that more middle- and upper-class parents have. The freedom to innovate and share the results with all public schools is a great idea. Healthy competition is good for all schools. I have seen excellent and humane charters, full of hardworking, talented, and idealistic faculty and staff. However, I have also seen too many charters that raise serious concerns.
Too many charter schools are test-prep factories with very rigid and rote academic formats. Too many are characterized by harsh punitive cultures; “no excuses” practices misunderstand the developmental nature of children and the impact of poverty on children. Many charters exclude children — in formal and informal ways — who jeopardize the academic profile of the school. Charter school teachers and leaders do not send their own children to their schools; wealthy supporters of charters often send their children to private schools with cultures that are the opposite of the rigid charter cultures. And charters have a dismal record of retaining both teachers and leaders.
Perhaps the least known characteristic of charters is that our taxes are taken from our public schools and enrich private investors. Typically, charter schools operate as nonprofits. However, the buildings in which they operate are generally owned by private landlords who benefit financially from taxes that are transferred to the operation of charters.
David Brain, head of the large real estate investment firm Entertainment Properties Trust at the time, appeared on CNBC in 2012 to tell audiences just how lucrative charter school investment has become. In response to a question about the most profitable sector in real estate investment, he said, “Well, I think probably the charter school business.”
There are better ways to reinvigorate our public schools. We should develop additional low-income housing in all suburbs so that many more low-income children can attend integrated schools with proven cultures of success. We can develop additional magnet, pilot, and “schools within schools” in public school districts, which provide additional autonomy for teachers and leaders. We should renegotiate teacher tenure so that teachers are hired for three years of probationary service — exactly the way it is today — and then granted four-year contracts, similar to the way we hire and retain public school principals and superintendents. “School-based accountability” should hold whole schools, not individual teachers, responsible for the academic, social and emotional, and civic progress of students over time.
And let’s pay teachers who work in schools with a preponderance of children from low-income families significantly more, and create working conditions in those schools that provide the kinds of services and support that more advantaged children receive from their schools, families, and communities.
There are 81 charter schools in Massachusetts. They should continue and prove themselves over time, not only by annual test scores, but by retention of faculty and leaders and the success of their graduates. If charters demonstrate their value, then perhaps we can revisit Question 2.
Robert Weintraub (SED’86), a School of Education research professor of educational leadership and policy studies, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.