Baton Rouge’s charter school turnaround

Last year, Arnold Ventures commissioned CREDO (out of Stanford University) to study the effects of charter and innovation schools in select cities across the country.

Most of the cities included in the study were cities where Arnold Ventures (and now The City Fund) have partnered with local leaders to expand high-quality schools.

The results just came in for Baton Rouge.

The Historical Underperformance of Baton Rouge’s Charter Sector 

After Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans’ public charter schools drove impressive achievement gains for the city.

Baton Rouge civic leaders and educators tried to replicate this strategy. It didn’t work. The charter schools that opened performed poorly.

A typical response to these weak results would have been to abandon the strategy.

But this is not what happened in Baton Rouge.

Civic leaders, led in large part by the leadership of New Schools for Baton Rouge, came to the conclusion that the charter strategy was right but that the execution was flawed.

So they began the hard work of recruiting new charter leaders as well as working with struggling schools to wind down their operations.

7 Years Later

New Schools for Baton Rouge was founded in 2012. It took many years to raise money, build a civic coalition, and recruit great educators.

Now, in 2019, we’re beginning to see the results of the work.

The slides below are a bit hard to read, but they capture the achievement effects of magnet, charter, and traditional schools in Baton Rouge between 2014 and 2017.

The study compared students in these sectors to their peers across the state (controlled for demographics and other salient factors).

Math Effects

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Reading Effects

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If you look at the small dotted lines tracking the [C] results, you’ll see major improvements in the Baton Rouge charter sector.

In 2014, the charter sector had -.13 effects in math (yellow lines) and -.16 effects in reading (blue lines).

These are pretty bad results.

But only a few year later the charter sector had gone from negative effects to neutral effects.

Improving an entire sector by ~.15 standard deviations in just three years is an impressive feat. Keep in mind that New Orleans achieved ~.4 standard deviation impact in the six years after the storm; so to grow .15 standard deviations in just three years is nearly on par with the growth we saw across the city in New Orleans.

While test scores aren’t everything, it’s rare that schools with very negative test effects deliver positive long-term life outcomes.

So this turnaround of the Baton Rouge charter sector is wonderful to see.

Lessons for Other Cities

In CREDO’s study of urban charter sectors across the country, around 20% of cities had negative effects for their charter sectors.

If I were a leader of one of these cities, I’d get on a plane and take a trip to Baton Rouge.

Baton Rouge leaders are showing that it’s possible to turnaround a city’s charter sector. The strategy is fairly simple. Open up annual cohorts of good schools and replace underperforming schools.

But the execution is difficult.

It took a great board and team at New Schools for Baton Rouge to give good charter operators the confidence they could grow in a city that had a struggling sector.

It took major investments in teachers and leaders to grow the talent base to support operator growth.

And it took a coalition of advocacy organizations and political leaders to create the policy conditions to rebuild the sector with a much stronger emphasis on performance.

Even cities with good charter sectors could learn much from Baton Rouge’s wholistic approach.

Of course, the goal for Baton Rouge charters is not to achieve neutral effects.

But given the baseline, neutral is the first stop toward positive.

And given the rich entrepreneurial ecosystem that’s been built in the city, I’m optimistic that educational opportunity will continue to expand across the city.

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