The good folks at MIT and Duke have a new study out on the student achievement impacts of turnaround charter schools in New Orleans and Boston.
I’m very familiar with the three operators studied: Renew Schools, Crescent City Schools, and UP Education Network. For what ever it’s worth, during my time at NSNO we invested in both Renew and Crescent City Schools.
Admittedly, I was always hesitant to invest in turnaround operators.
Turnaround operators face numerous obstacles. They start big and have to hire dozens of teachers in year one. They generally step into a difficult legacy of poor performance and weak culture. And they often are taking over schools with disproportionally high rates of students with severe needs.
Taken together, these factors make turnaround work very difficult. I was thus never sure whether it was better to just outright close schools (even though this is disruptive to families) or support turnaround (and risk modest or poor academic outcomes).
I thus read this study with some trepidation. But the results were fairly astounding.
From the study, here are the effects for students who initially attended the failing schools and then enrolled in the new charter takeover:
Attendance at RSD takeover charters is estimated to increase math and ELA scores by an average of 0.21 and 0.14, respectively, per year enrolled.
The UP enrollment change induced by grandfathering Gavin students boosted middle school math and ELA scores by an average of 0.3- 0.4 per year.
Given varying enrollment patterns and eligible matching students, the authors had to do some mathematical gymnastics, some of which probably bias the results downwards, and some which probably the results upwards.
But, overall, this is rigorous research that finds large annual effects.
The effects of UP border on miracle making.
Reflections and Implications
- We should applaud Gary Robichaux, Kate Mehok, and Scott Givens – the leaders of these charter operators took major risks in taking on the hardest work, and their efforts are paying off for kids who were trapped in failing schools.
- The federal government has spent billions of dollars on the School Improvement Grant Program. To their credit, the feds included charter turnaround as a grant option. Not surprisingly, most turnaround projects used much less aggressive methods. I’m curious if these charter turnarounds are outliers, or if this method of intervention will be the most successful. More research is needed.
- I don’t think we should pressure all charter operators to do turnarounds. Only some organizations have the capacity to take on these projects. We should nurture and scale this part of the sector, but it’s vital that we leave room for smaller start-ups as well.
- The highest performing charters sector in the nation delivers again. Is there anything Boston charter leaders can’t do? Yes, there is something they can’t do: educate more students. Most charter organizations in Boston are subject to a law that prevents them for serving more students. The fact that this law was written and enacted by Democrats is unconscionable for a party that has a deep history of fighting for families in poverty.
- The recent charter campaign in New York used the slogan “Don’t Steal Possible” to describe the plight of the over hundred thousand children trapped in failing schools in New York. Unfortunately, for many students, “possible” has already been stolen. But the charter operators in this study are proving there’s a way to steal possible back.