A great report from Princeton on charter schools… with one major mistake

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Sarah Cohodes just published a report on charter schools in a joint Princeton and Brookings publication.

Sarah does a great job of summarizing the research on charter schools: on average, charter school do not outperform traditional schools, but urban charter schools (particularly the No Excuses model), perform much better than traditional urban public schools.

It is so rare in publicly policy that something… works best for disadvantaged students, gets better as it scales, costs 20% cheaper than the existing system, and has positive to neutral effects on the existing system’s performance.

With urban charter schools, we’ve found something that works at scale with almost no trade-offs.

It’s truly amazing and makes me hopeful for public education in this country.

So kudos to Sarah for writing this report.

But she does make one mistake, and it’s a common mistake, so it feels worth addressing.

Sarah writes:

The charter sector is growing by 300 to 400 schools a year. Let’s consider a thought experiment in which further expansion focuses on high-quality charters. What would happen to the achievement gap in the United States if all of those new charter schools were opened in urban areas serving low-income children, had no excuses policies, and had large impacts on test scores like Boston, New York, Denver, and KIPP charters?

So far so good. I think about this thought experiment a lot.

Sarah continues:

Expanding charters in this way certainly could transform the educational trajectories of the students who attend. But if we consider the US achievement gap as a whole, it would have a negligible effect. Charter schools represent too small a proportion of overall enrollment for such an expansion to reduce nationwide achievement gaps.

Notice the mistake? Sarah focuses on the absolute number of annual charter school openings rather than the annual percentage enrollment increase of charter schools.

Yes, the charter sector is growing by 300-400 schools a year.

But the charter sector’s enrollment has grown between 7-10% a year for almost a decade.

So here’s another way to answer Sara’s thought experiment: if the charter sector continues to grow at ~10% annually, it will double in size every 7 years. Currently there are ~2 million students in charter schools. That means in 25 years, charters would serve over ~20 million students, or nearly 40% of students in the United States, if current growth rates continued.

Of course, this might not occur. But it’s surely possible. I have deep experience in working in cities across the country, and I remain convinced that any major city in the America can get to ~50% charter enrollment in a 10-15 year period, if they so desire.

Again, it’s not inevitable that charters will continue to maintain quality and grow at 10% annually.

But it’s also not inevitable that districts can adopt the best practices of urban charter schools.

To the extent that there are major resource allocation considerations, I would bet more on charter school scaling than district adoption.

But I don’t think there are major resource allocation debates. Urban charters are an open book. District best practice adoption is less a matter of money than it is a matter of will.

So I think we should keep on scaling urban charters, with the hope that districts get better and all boats rise. If districts get better, more kids will get in great schools faster. If they don’t get better, charter school expansion can continue to increase opportunity.

Someone once asked me: how much charter school growth is enough?

My answer then, and now, remains the same: we should keep growing charter schools until every kid in American attends an amazing public school.

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