Out of the Debate and Into the Schools: Comparing Practices and Strategies in Traditional, Pilot and Charter Schools in the City of Boston
In January of 2009, the Boston Foundation, in partnership with the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, published Informing the Debate, which examined variations in student performance levels across the three types of public schools in Boston: traditional, pilot and charter schools. The choices for Boston’s students reflect similar choice trends across the nation, and fuel questions about the best option for serving all students well.
The findings of the study, conducted by a team from MIT and Harvard, suggest that middle and high school students who attend charter schools significantly outperform their counterparts attending traditional schools, while the differences in student performance between charter and pilot schools were mixed. Specifically, students who attended charter middle schools outperformed students who attended traditional schools by approximately 0.13 standard deviations in English language arts and by 0.5 standard deviations in mathematics, a difference that the reports cites as “roughly equivalent to the black-white achievement gap.”
In other words, the improvement in student performance from just one year of attendance at a charter middle school is enough to cut the black-white achievement gap in mathematics in half.
For high school students attending charter schools, the estimated gains in English language arts were between 0.16 and 0.19 standard deviations, with charter high school students also showing gains over their traditional school peers in writing (in both topic development and writing composition). While pilot elementary school students showed gains over their peers in traditional schools of approximately 0.09 standard deviations in English language arts, the estimated gains or losses for middle and high school students varied, and thus were determined to “deserve further study.”
These findings gained significant public attention, and created the impetus for more research focused on why charter school students outperform their peers.
This study uses the findings from Informing the Debate as a launching point to delve deeper into the issues that may explain differences in student outcomes – thus moving us out of the debate and into the schools. The study sheds light on the practices and strategies employed by traditional, pilot, and charter schools in the city of Boston. The main research questions driving this study were:
How do traditional, pilot and charter schools operate within each element of the autonomy framework?
What practices within the elements of the autonomy framework may account for differences in student performance levels at traditional, pilot and charter schools?
How do high performing traditional, pilot and charter schools operate within these autonomies and how are they similar or different from one another?