Nation & World

Despite years of study, schools’ success matter of contention

6 min read

There wasn’t an empty seat in Askwith Hall Wednesday night (April 1) as students, educators, and researchers crowded in to hear “Informing the Debate: A Panel Discussion on Boston’s Charter, Pilot, and Traditional Schools,” sponsored by the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE), the Rappaport Institute, and the Center for Education Policy Research.

In the first half of the evening, Thomas Kane, professor of education and economics at HGSE, presented the results of a study he and several colleagues from both Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) released in January under the auspices of the Boston Foundation. “Fifteen years ago, lawmakers in Massachusetts undertook a bold experiment” by introducing charter schools, Kane said. The experiment was intended to answer the question, “If public schools were granted more autonomy to staff their own classrooms, choose their own curricula, and manage their own budgets, could they deliver improved student achievement?” Kane’s — perhaps surprising — answer was, “There is still no consensus on whether the experiment led to success through improvements in student achievement.”

Studying the commonwealth’s three types of public schools has proved difficult, Kane noted, in part because of questions such as whether the children who attend charter schools arrive with better parental support and greater motivation, and whether achievement results are skewed by the fact that charter schools have the luxury of driving weaker students back into the traditional public system, which must take all comers. Kane’s study, which focused on MCAS scores from 2004 to 2007, compared the outcomes of students who had been admitted to the schools through lottery with those who had entered the lottery but not been chosen — essentially eliminating the need to control for things like family background and motivation, since lottery assignments are random. A concurrent observational study was undertaken that allowed the researchers to study all charter schools, not just the oversubscribed ones subject to lotteries.

The results unequivocally showed that Boston’s charter school students outperform their peers in traditional public schools; the results for pilot schools were less clear but seemed to indicate a similar but smaller effect.

In summary, Kane suggested that more studies must be undertaken — ideally, annually — not only regarding performance outcomes at the various types of schools, but also to figure out what accounts for the results. “Is it extending learning time, class size, student-teacher ratio, human-resource policies, or even peer characteristics?” he asked.

It was that question, essentially, that occupied most of the panel discussion that comprised the second half of the evening. “The really big questions,” said moderator David Luberoff, executive director of the Rappaport Institute, “are what and so what? What is going on, and what are the policy implications?”

One possible answer to the question of what is going on was suggested by Kay Merseth, senior lecturer of education and the director of the Teacher Education Program at HGSE, who mentioned that all charters are created new. “We’ve found that the team coherence [at charter schools] around mission, purpose, and the way things are structured and put together is scary,” she said. “Successful charter schools are like Swiss watches. All the dials and wheels work together.”

Ellen Guiney, executive director of the Boston Plan for Excellence, agreed. “Pilot schools and charter schools look a lot alike,” she said. “They have great unity of purpose, great focus, do a good job of sharing responsibility with parents and students. But the larger public-policy question is, How do you educate a large group of kids who have no adult support or are in the most distressed situations? We know some things that were learned from charter and pilot schools, but we shouldn’t exaggerate the importance of governance.” She mentioned, as the other panelists frequently did, the probable importance of longer classroom time — about 20 percent more than in a typical public school — and she noted that there’s “clearly something” about children being around supportive adults for more hours in the day.

Chris Gabrieli, chair and co-founder of MA2020, which seeks to expand economic and educational opportunities in the commonwealth, noted that it’s also important that schools don’t focus solely on the MCAS. “We also have to worry about giving children a well-rounded education,” he said. “Not only more academic time but also arts, music, sports, and drama are an important part of motivating students and giving them skills important to life success.”

Another key factor, said Thomas Payzant, professor of practice at HGSE and former superintendent of the Boston Public Schools, is stability — having students “who start with you in September and end with you in June.” This is often not the case in traditional public schools, because economically disadvantaged families tend to move more frequently than others. He also mentioned, as did the other panelists several times, “the human capital part. Charter schools start up with lots of money and hire lots of [young] teachers low on the salary scale.” Though this can create burnout, for a few years, at least, it gives the teachers the advantages of enthusiasm and idealistic energy.

To bring such factors to the traditional public schools, however, consistent, top-notch leadership is necessary, said Mike Goldstein, founder of the MATCH Charter School near Boston University. He pointed out that the people who start charter schools often leave once the school is up and running. “Entrepreneurs have to do what they know how to do,” he said. When they are pushed into “other categories,” they become ripe for recruitment from other large cities such as New York and San Francisco. Eliminating state caps on charters, as President Obama has supported doing, would help to control this problem.

After a lively question-and-answer period, Kane was given the last word. He noted that his study was simply a starting point, and again reiterated that more research must be done, and that we must not let another decade and a half pass before it begins. “Let’s not lose this opportunity,” he said. “Let’s not just turn this into a cocktail party disagreement for the next 15 years.”