the evolution of research

Beyond the test score horse race: 5 big questions researchers are asking about charter schools

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Christel House schools are seeking to switch charter authorizers because of administrative fees.

The latest big charter school study was sweeping in scope, looking at thousands of students in 26 states across three school years.

But the study (and lots of other research on charter schools) uses that data to answer a relatively narrow question: How do students, usually in grades 4-8, perform on math and reading tests compared to students in traditional public schools?

This could be called the “test score horse race.” Some researchers are moving beyond that, to try to understand issues like what specific charter approaches are most effective and how charter schools affect larger communities.

“A number of new research studies are beginning to investigate some more nuanced questions with regard to charters,” University of Michigan professor Brian Jacob wrote recently.

Here are a few of the big questions that some researchers are examining — and other important questions that have received little attention.

1. How do charter schools impact students beyond standardized test scores?

In education research, test scores are the coin of the realm because they are readily available. But experience and research suggest that schools affect a lot more: from attendance and behavior to college attendance, future employment, and earnings. A key question is whether test scores predicts any of those longer-term outcomes.

For answers, researchers have looked at charter schools in Boston, Florida, and Texas, as well as specific networks of schools including the Harlem Children’s Zone and the Noble Network in Chicago. Results have been mixed so far, and none of the studies has been national in scope.

2. Why are some charter schools especially effective?

We know that certain charter schools are better than others at raising test scores — but why?

There have been only a handful of studies on this, and research from New York City and Massachusetts indicate that tenets of “no excuses” charters — like extra instructional time, intensive tutoring, and frequent feedback for teachers — make a difference.

There may be other reasons for high test scores: additional resources, peer effects, harsh discipline, teaching to the test, or pushing out low-achieving students. Existing studies on those explanations have been limited in scope.

“I’d like to see more work done on how charter schools operate differently than traditional public schools — a little bit [of] getting in the black box,” Jacob said. “What are the differences in policies and practices?”

3. Why do charter schools in some places outperform charters elsewhere?

Many point to differences among authorizers, the entities — often state or local school boards — that approve and oversee charter schools. Some argue that tight controls on which schools open and the closure of low-performing schools is essential to the success of charters.

There are a handful of studies on how individual authorizers are related to charter performance, as well as the impact of charter school closures.

State policies, like the extent to which charter schools can grow, how much autonomy they have from regulations, and how much funding they get, also likely make a difference. There is remarkably little research on these questions, and what does exist is correlational.

4. How are charter schools changing over time?

“The Evolution of Charter School Quality” in Texas

Most research on charter schools functions as a snapshot that may be less useful over time. Meanwhile, the number of students attending charter schools is growing in many states, and the sector is evolving in other ways, too.

Studies in Texas and North Carolina find that charter performance improves over time, but the schools serve more advantaged students. Research in New Jersey and Arizona also suggest charters as a sector may get better as low-performing ones close down.

5. How do charter schools affect public education more broadly — including finances and segregation?

Looking only at the relative performance of charters against district schools ignores their overall impact. If charters cause traditional public schools to do better or worse through competition, for example, horse-race studies won’t capture that.

Research has found that charter schools generally have no impact or small positive effects on the test scores of students in surrounding public schools, though it is difficult to nail down cause and effect.

The financial impact of charter expansion has been studied less. Existing research has shown that charters create additional costs for districts, but that places with large charter sectors can adapt over time.

On the issue of segregation, there is evidence that charter schools in North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Indianapolis, Michigan, and Texas have exacerbated racial segregation; other studies of multiple states and using national data have found little or no impact, however.

Studies of New Orleans’ public school system, which is composed of nearly all charters, have shown that expansion of charters (as well as a number of other reforms) led to large gains in student achievement, but also caused modest increases in racial segregation in city high schools.

Jacob said he is currently working on a study of the evolution of Michigan’s charter sector. More work needs to be done, he says, to track how the expansion of choice reshapes how families select schools.

Indiana's 2019 legislative session

Indiana’s push to raise teacher pay is creating some unlikely allies

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Middle school math teacher Eliana Moore, left, gives Armando Flynn, 13, some extra attention to help with a lesson in algebra.

It’s not every day that the state’s teachers union, Republican leaders, and education advocacy groups find themselves working toward the same goal. But this year, as Indiana puts teacher pay at the forefront of its legislative priorities, there seems to be an all-hands-on-deck approach to make it happen — and that means some unlikely allies.

During Tuesday’s ceremonial first day of the legislative session, House Speaker Brian Bosma announced in a speech to fellow lawmakers that Republican Reps. Bob Behning and Todd Huston — as well as representatives from the Indiana State Teachers Association, advocacy group Stand for Children, and the educator organization Teach Plus — were working on a plan to ensure teacher raises are part of the state’s next two-year budget.

“The most important profession for the future is those that serve in our classrooms,” Bosma said, adding that although the state has made increases over the past few years in school funding, pay for teachers has not kept pace even as administrative spending has increased.

It’s an unusual partnership because the teachers union has frequently had tension with Republicans who favor school choice and expanding the state’s charter school and private school voucher programs. The union, which staunchly advocates for traditional public schools, has also clashed over charter partnerships with districts, a model that Teach Plus and Stand for Children have supported, even though they aren’t inherently partisan.

Why now? The combination of local districts struggling to hire teachers and keep them in the classroom and a larger national conversation about teacher compensation has put raising teacher pay in the spotlight, both in Indiana and across the country. Last week, teachers in Portage, Indiana, picketed to push for larger raises as they negotiate a new contract.

“It’s been a crisis that’s been coming — we’ve seen it coming … and finally people are starting to connect the dots between compensation and retention,” said Teresa Meredith, president of ISTA, the state’s largest teachers union. “We finally had to take a step back and say, obviously fighting each other is not getting anything done.”

Meredith said state-driven policies that have led to more testing and dialed up the need for schools to compete for students naturally has resulted in increased spending on staff members who aren’t in the classroom. Now, she said, lawmakers are seeing how that’s affecting school budgets, and, in turn, making it difficult to attract and retain teachers.

The desire to figure out ways to keep teachers in the classroom also brought Teach Plus to the table, said Rachel Hathaway, program manager for the national organization’s Indiana arm. Teach Plus helps train teachers to be policy advocates.

“There is a moment happening this year that can bring folks together to really elevate the profession and support teachers to make sure they are able to stay in the classroom,” Hathaway said. Teach Plus has “a history of knowing the importance of teacher recruitment and retention and ensuring we have high-quality teachers in front of our students.”

And it’s that impact at the classroom level, Stand for Children Indiana executive director Justin Ohlemiller said, that speaks to his group’s mission. Stand is an organization that aims to help parents learn how to advocate for their children in schools, but the group has been criticized, such as during the recent Indianapolis Public Schools board election, because they do not have to disclose their spending.

“At the end of the day, data shows one of the most important single factors in children’s education is the educator at the front of the room,” Ohlemiller said.

Indiana’s plans for how to boost teacher salaries are expected to come into sharper focus over the next few weeks. But Bosma cautioned again Tuesday that there might not be much extra money to work with, casting some doubt on the state’s ability to raise pay enough to make a meaningful difference for educators across the state.

“We’re going to have more needs, more critical needs, than we have available dollars,” Bosma said.

Bosma wouldn’t offer details about how much money House Republicans would add for teacher pay, but said after funding obligations to the Department of Child Services, that state would have an optimistic $50 million per year in new revenue for other funding requests. If teacher pay were to receive just a piece of that, it would be far less than the $81 million per year or so that Senate Democrats have called for — which they figure would amount to a 5 percent raise for teachers and counselors over the next two years.

And if curbing teacher shortages is as much of a priority as the state’s majority is now pushing, state Democrat leaders say, Indiana needs to prove that come January by making it a meaningful part of the budget.

“We have the resources,” Sen. Tim Lanane, a Democrat from Anderson, said on Friday when his caucus presented its 2019 priorities. “We can make that sacrifice to make sure our teachers know we respect and appreciate them.”

cry for help

View from the child care trenches: ‘Those of us cleaning the poop are not making it’

PHOTO: Ann Schimke | Chalkbeat

At the end of three hours of briefings Monday on advancing care for Illinois’ tiniest residents, an on-the-ground provider’s 3-minute plea shook awake a gathering of the state’s top early childhood leaders and reminded them why they were there.

“We are in a crisis and unable to get help,” said Holtz, who in seven years has cycled through 147 staff members at her two day care centers in south central Effingham.

Turnover in that time among her 35 employees has been enough to staff the two centers more than four times over.

Speaking to the early learning council that directs how the state funds services for children from birth to age 5, Holtz said half of those departing sought better-paying jobs in other fields. Others headed to public school districts that pay better. Some she let go.

“Down here in the trenches, those of us who are cleaning the poop and plunging the toilets — we’re the ones who are not making it,” said Holtz, ticking off how well-intentioned Illinois directives make it tough to run a childcare business. She listed state policies like raising degree requirements for jobs that pay $8.50 to $10.25 an hour in her area, an endless stream of “health and safety” trainings, and lead and radon tests that cost her $1,000 apiece.

In a meeting that focused mainly on future ambitions, Holtz redirected attention to a present hazard: a critical shortage of qualified staffers to work in infant centers, daycare programs, and community-based preschools.  

The issue threatens to undercut any sort of universal pre-K program, which governor-elect J.B. Pritzker pledged to pursue as a candidate.

Preschool expert GG Weisenfeld said Illinois meets many established early learning benchmarks. But the state lags in salary parity. Other shortcomings: a revolving door of the state’s top leadership in early learning and a lack of full-day programs.   

“For preschools housed within public schools, those teachers have salary parity with other teachers,” said Weisenfeld, the lead author of a new state preschool policy scan from the National Institute for Early Education Research. “Unfortunately, when programs are housed in community-based centers, those teachers do not.”

But the state’s powerful Early Learning Council barely touched on that topic at its quarterly meeting Monday.

Holtz, one of only two people to address the council, said she drove several hours from Effingham for her three minutes at the mic. She said she supports the state’s push for better quality, but that effort doesn’t pencil out for her and other caregivers. One state subsidized program for low-income families reimburses her only $23 per day per child. That’s not enough to pay a lead teacher with a bachelor’s degree.

“When we do hire them, they uniformly all leave for better pay and benefits — and less stress. The stress is up there with the reasons for leaving, along with pay.”

As Illinois focuses on raising the quality of early learning throughout the state by requiring bachelor’s degrees for lead teachers in preschools, it faces a conundrum: Teachers with college degrees want to and can earn more than minimum wage elsewhere. (A 2017 state report said the median hourly wage for a licensed childcare center teacher was $12.50. Assistant teachers and infant caregivers generally made less.)

Jill Andrews, another downstate center director who heads up the Southern Illinois Child Care Assistance Task Force and made the trek with Holtz, handed out folders with her own set of recommendations.

Among them: raising state reimbursement rates for publicly funded child care programs, helping child care providers qualify for state health insurance, and offering community college credit as an incentive for workers to pursue training.