Many so-called “no-excuses” charter schools — often featuring longer school days, intensive tutoring, and strict discipline — have high test scores. But critics often say those scores are unlikely to translate into outcomes that really matter, like getting through college.
This debate is far from over, but a new study offers evidence that attending the Chicago-based Noble charter network does help students succeed after high school.
Authors Matthew Davis and Blake Heller compared students who got a seat at Noble’s original high school through a lottery to those who applied but lost. They find that attending Noble meant a student was 10 percentage points more likely to enroll in college and stay for at least four semesters.
Noble’s students were also much more likely to go to more selective and four-year colleges, where other research has shown students are more likely to ultimately graduate.
“The increase in [college] quantity did not come at the expense of quality,” Davis and Heller write.
One big caveat: there was no statistically significant effect on college graduation, so it’s not clear whether how many students at Noble’s first school made it all the way through their undergraduate years. This may be due to limited data, since the researchers were only able to track a small number of students for four years after high school.
Still, the data is good news for the network, which now has 18 campuses and enrolls more than 12,000 students — about 10 percent of Chicago public high school students. (Noble has recently been in the news as some teachers, who have pushed to form a union, accused the network of illegally blocking organizing efforts, a charge the leaders have denied.)
The researchers can’t make the same claims about all of Noble’s schools as they do about its original campus. As the network expanded, many schools weren’t oversubscribed and so did not hold lotteries, which means students can’t be compared in the same way. But using a less rigorous approach, the researchers estimate that Noble students in more recent years and at more schools maintained a big advantage in college enrollment.
“The best evidence we can muster indicates that Noble students continue to outperform expectations even during the network’s rapid expansion,” the researchers wrote.
One key question is why Noble charter schools seem to be succeeding. Past research has linked certain common charter school practices, like intense tutoring and longer school days, to higher test scores. A follow-up study showed that those practices, when paired with a notable infusion of cash, led to achievement gains in district schools in Chicago, Denver, and Houston.
But a concern is that the positive effects seen at Noble may also be due to practices that can’t — or shouldn’t — be scaled.
For instance, the study shows that 60 percent of students applying to Noble’s original high school were female. This is even more extreme than the national trend in charter schools to enroll more girls than boys. (Notably, the long-run gains from attending Noble appeared to apply equally to both boy and girls.)
The authors also note that Noble previously imposed financial penalties on students: “Students with twelve or more detentions were required to cover fees totaling $140 for a behavior-improvement class.” Noble ended the widely criticized practice in 2014, though their approach to school discipline remains the subject of scrutiny.
Meanwhile, prior studies on “no-excuses” charter schools and students’ longer-term success have been more of a mixed bag.
In Boston, charter high schools boosted students’ test scores and four-year college enrollment, but actually decreased on-time high school graduation rates.
In Texas, “no-excuses” charters led to higher college enrollment and persistence, but did not have a statistically significant impact on earnings as an adult. (Other charters in the state had negative effects on test scores, four-year college enrollment, and earnings.)
In New York City, a Harlem Children’s Zone charter school decreased rates of incarceration (for boys) and teen pregnancy (for girls). It also increased college enrollment rates, though not students’ likelihood of staying in college.
And in Chicago, consistent with the latest research, charter high schools led students to graduate from high school and enroll in college at higher rates.
Correction: A previous version of this story referred to research on Democracy Prep charter schools in New York City. In fact, the study was of a Harlem’s Children’s Zone charter school in New York City.