the gender gap

Girls outnumber boys in charter schools, study shows. Here’s why that matters.

A KIPP charter school in the Bronx. (Creative Commons)

Look around an average charter school. The difference may be too small to be perceptible, but you might notice a few more girls than boys.

That is the provocative finding of a study released late last year examining data from charter schools across the country, with a focus on North Carolina and the KIPP network of charter schools. The results re-open the long-standing debate on whether charter schools exclude or push out certain types of students.

“The efficacy … of charter schools cannot be fully understood without attention to how students and families sort into schools,” the study’s authors write.

The latest research, conducted by Sean Corcoran and Jennifer Jennings, both of NYU, and published in the peer-reviewed journal Educational Policy, examines national trends. As of the 2010–11 school year, 50.7 percent of charter school students were girls, compared to 48.8 percent of students in traditional public schools — a small but notable gap.

This gap is larger in later grades, and it has grown as the charter sector has expanded over time.

Enrollment by gender: charter vs. district schools. Source: “The Gender Gap in Charter School Enrollment”

The findings are backed up by more recent data: in the 2014–15 school year, 50.4 percent of students at charter schools were female, compared to 48.5 percent in district schools.

The researchers also look specifically at KIPP schools, which lead to large test score gains, according to past research. The study shows that KIPP schools had an even larger gender gap than other charters, serving about 3 percent more girls than similar district schools.

Steve Mancini, KIPP’s public affairs director, said the network has worked to address this and provided more recent data to Chalkbeat showing that the organization’s schools now enroll roughly the same number of boys as girls.

Tracy McDaniel, the founding school director of a KIPP school in Oklahoma City, said his school had reduced the gender enrollment gap by focusing on reducing school suspensions, which disproportionately fall on boys.

“The parents were complaining about suspensions, and boys got in more trouble than the girls,” he said. “We felt like that was a contributing factor if the parents pull out the kids, [and] they were pulling out more boys than girls.”

McDaniel said that his school had gone from roughly 45 percent boys to 50 percent.

However, even a 50–50 split is different than the average traditional U.S. public school, which enrolled 3 percent more male than female students in the 2014–15 school year.

KIPP enrollment by gender

This is not the first time the charter–district gender gap has been noted, but the NYU study appears to be unique in making the question its main focus.

The reason for the gap is unclear.

Corcoran and Jennings point out that girls are disciplined less than boys, and thus might do better in schools with rigid environments. So-called “no excuses” charter schools have been criticized for strict disciplinary practices and high suspension rates; some charter advocates and operators, including KIPP, have said that they are working to reduce exclusionary discipline.

Other hypotheses include different curriculum or programs at charter schools that appeal to girls, a potential lack of services for special education students (who are disproportionately male), and parental preferences for smaller schools for girls.

The gender gap might help explain differences in performance between district and charter schools. Sophisticated research on the effects of charter schools controls for individual student characteristics, including gender, but Corcoran and Jennings point out that this might not account for peer effects — the potential for other students to influence their peers’ performance.

“Given what is known about the positive peer effects of girls for both boys and girls, the success of charter schools may be due at least in part to the gender balance in these schools,” the authors write.

“Although the gender gaps estimated here are not large enough to explain documented differences in charter and traditional school performance, they are meaningful in size.”

This gets at the heart of the debate on charter schools, and if their high test scores in some places — like Boston, Denver, New York City and other urban areas — may be a result of the students they teach rather than how well they teach.

Existing studies on this question paint a complicated picture of how charter schools differ in the students who enter, stay, and leave.

In KIPP specifically, a 2016 study found that student attrition is comparable to other nearby schools, but new KIPP students are more likely to be girls and have higher prior test scores than entering students in traditional public schools. The research estimates that peer effects are likely to explain only a small share of KIPP’s test score gains.

The New Chancellor

Tell us: What should the new chancellor, Richard Carranza, know about New York City schools?

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
A student at P.S. 69 Journey Prep in the Bronx paints a picture. The school uses a Reggio Emilia approach and is in the city's Showcase Schools program.

In a few short weeks, Richard Carranza will take over the nation’s largest school system as chancellor of New York City’s public schools.

Carranza, who has never before worked east of the Mississippi, will have to get up to speed quickly on a new city with unfamiliar challenges. The best people to guide him in this endeavor: New Yorkers who understand the city in its complexity.

So we want to hear from you: What does Carranza need to know about the city, its schools, and you to help him as he gets started April 2. Please fill out the survey below; we’ll collect your responses and share them with our readers and Carranza himself.

The deadline is March 23.

buses or bust?

Mayor Duggan says bus plan encourages cooperation. Detroit school board committee wants more details.

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Fourth-graders Kintan Surghani, left, and Rachel Anderson laugh out the school bus window at Mitchell Elementary School in Golden.

Detroit’s school superintendent is asking for more information about the mayor’s initiative to create a joint bus route for charter and district students after realizing the costs could be higher than the district anticipated.

District Superintendent Nikolai Vitti told a school board subcommittee Friday that he thought the original cost to the district was estimated to be around $25,000 total. Instead, he said it could cost the district roughly between $75,000 and a maximum of $125,000 for their five schools on the loop.

“I think there was a misunderstanding….” Vitti said. “I think this needs a deeper review…The understanding was that it would be $25,000 for all schools. Now, there are ongoing conversations about it being $15,000 to $25,000 for each individual school.”

The bus loop connecting charter and district schools was announced earlier this month by Mayor Mike Duggan as a way to draw kids back from the suburbs.

Duggan’s bus loop proposal is based on one that operates in Denver that would travel a circuit in certain neighborhoods, picking up students on designated street corners and dropping them off at both district and charter schools.

The bus routes — which Duggan said would be funded by philanthropy, the schools and the city — could even service afterschool programs that the schools on the bus route could work together to create.

In concept, the finance committee was not opposed to the idea. But despite two-thirds of the cost being covered and splitting the remaining third with charters, they were worried enough about the increased costs that they voted not to recommend approval of the agreement to the full board.  

Vitti said when he saw the draft plan, the higher price made him question whether the loop would be worth it.

“If it was $25,000, it would be an easier decision,” he said.

To better understand the costs and benefits and to ultimately decide, Vitti said he needs more data, which will take a few weeks. 

Alexis Wiley, Duggan’s chief of staff, said the district’s hesitation was a sign they were performing their due diligence before agreeing to the plan.

“I’m not at all deterred by this,” Wiley said. She said the district, charters, and city officials have met twice, and are “working in the same direction, so that we eliminate as many barriers as we can.”

Duggan told a crowd earlier this month at the State of the City address that the bus loop was an effort to grab the city’s children – some 32,500 – back from suburban schools.

Transportation is often cited as one of the reasons children leave the city’s schools and go to other districts, and charter leaders have said they support the bus loop because they believe it will make it easier for students to attend their schools.

But some board members had doubts that the bus loop would be enough to bring those kids back, and were concerned about giving charters an advantage in their competition against the district to increase enrollment.

“I don’t know if transportation would be why these parents send their kids outside of the district,” Angelique Peterson-Mayberry said. “If we could find out some of the reasons why, it would add to the validity” of implementing the bus loop.

Board member LaMar Lemmons echoed other members’ concerns on the impact of the transportation plan, and said many parents left the district because of the poor quality of schools under emergency management, not transportation.

“All those years in emergency management, that drove parents to seek alternatives, as well as charters,” he said. “I’m hesitant to form an unholy alliance with the charters for something like this.”