Phase II of the charter and choice research agenda is extremely important

In a recent post, I summarized much of the research on charter school and high choice cities.

The short of it: there’s a strong body of evidence that urban charter schools outperform traditional schools, and a nascent body of evidence that thoughtfully implemented high choice cities can deliver strong achievement gains.

It’s worth taking a moment to celebrate this: the research on urban charter schools is an impressive body of work built on twenty years of studying the incredible efforts of educational entrepreneurs. It’s wonderful to see these schools working.


But as charters scale, additional questions need to be studied.

More specifically:

  1. Do urban charter school students achieve better long-term life outcomes?
  2. What happens to traditional schools when charter schools expand?
  3. What happens to students when under-enrolled traditional schools eventually close?
  4. What happens to cities that transition to majority charter systems?

A few recent studies have shown that charter school students achieve better long-term life outcomesthat charter school expansion can improve traditional schools; that student attending schools that are closed actually benefit from the closure so long as good new schools are being continually opened; and, as noted in the previous post, that majority charter cities can deliver strong achievement gains.

But there are also studies that indicate the opposite. Charter students in Texas did not have greatly improved life outcomes; students in Baton Rouge did not increase achievement after their schools were closed; and cities such as Detroit continue to struggle despite high charter penetration.


Personally, I most care about questions (1) and (4). If charter schools end up delivering better life outcomes, and majority charter cities work, I’d be willing to accept some interim negative effects of charter expansion and school closures. But I understand that the latter effects could cause hardship for families, and I’m heartened to see early examples that show that charter expansion can be coupled with gains for all students.

So here’s to holding out for the best scenario: I truly hope that phase II of the research agenda shows that charters increase life outcomes, that charter school expansion and failing school closure benefits all students, and that majority charter systems deliver benefits for all students.

Initial research indicates that this might be possible, which is really exciting.

2 thoughts on “Phase II of the charter and choice research agenda is extremely important

  1. David Osborne

    I think we have to be careful not to generalize about all charters, because conditions are so different in different states and cities. So much depends on the quality of the authorizing: Is the authorizer careful about who gets a charter; does it replace failing charters; does it have the power to step in and fix problems, such as lack of access for kids with disabilities, or lack of transportation options, or lack of CTE programs, etc. etc. etc? A situation like New Orleans or DC, with one strong authorizer, is so different from a situation like Detroit, with 14 authorizers, some of which do a terrible job. We should be pushing for the kinds of charter systems that are most effective, not just for more charters.

  2. Andrew

    As usual, great framework for thinking about this issue. You specifically talk about how you would be willing to impose short-term costs from closures and charter conversion if charters consistently improve life outcomes.

    I’m curious about the flip side. Would you still support charter schools if the data ends up showing that they have either a neutral or negative impact on life outcomes? In other words, are academic improvements alone enough to justify charter schools? I’m also curious about whether that answer would change based on the time at which life outcomes are measured. College performance? Wages at 22? Lifetime wages? Life expectancy? Presumably the effects of improved academics (assuming they are positive) become weaker with time.


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