Does research matter?

A common critique of public charter schools is that they hurt traditional schools.

As of 2016, this questions had been studied by researchers in 16 regions. In 15 regions, they found that public charter school growth had positive or neutral effects on student learning in traditional schools. The table below summarizes the results of these studies.

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In 2016, a ballot initiative in Massachusetts called for “lifting the cap” on charter schools. In many cities in Massachusetts, it is illegal  for public non-profit charter schools to serve more students, even if parents want to send their children to these schools.

This is despite the fact that Boston is home to some of the best charter schools in the nation. You can check out this NYT article to learn more.

By a large margin, the ballot measure was rejected by voters in Massachusetts. Prominent political leaders, such as Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, came out against it.

A post-ballot analysis showed that the measure lost because many people believed that expanding public charter schools would hurt traditional public schools.

Yet, as I noted at the beginning of the post, in 2016 we had a good amount of evidence that this wasn’t likely to be true.

Research did not matter to the Massachusetts outcome.

Now a new study has come out looking at this exact issue in Massachusetts. And the researchers found that between 2011 and 2015, charter school expansion did not negatively impact traditional schools in Massachusetts (and may have had a small positive effect).

Voters in Massachusetts hold incorrect beliefs.

So now there have been studies in 17 regions, and in 16 of these regions public charter growth has had either positive or neutral effects on traditional schools.

Will votes in Massachusetts, and elsewhere, change these beliefs?

A cynic might say no. She might argue that voters don’t vote based on research, they vote based on emotion and tribal affiliation.

There is much truth to this argument.

But I have been influenced a lot by another argument. Lant Pritchett, in this podcast, argues that while a single research study rarely changes the world, hundreds of them often do.

In other words, if a bunch of studies pile up, and they all roughly show the same thing, at some point it becomes hard to argue against them. Sooner or later, you find yourself in the anti-vaccine tribe.

I think there is a lot of merit to this argument.

So while those of that support great public charter schools should develop communication strategies that pull at the heartstrings and speak to the tribe, I also think we should keep building our evidence base.

I think research does matter.

At some point, if the research studies keep piling up, they will increase the probability that the voters of Massachusetts, and elsewhere, change their minds.

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