Education Research

Study Finds Bump in Math Scores at For-Profit Charter

A new working paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research examined the impact on math and reading scores for students attending schools being run by a large for-profit charter school operator. University of Michigan researchers saw a pick-up in math scores and no measurable impact in other academic areas. More tellingly, the potential benefits for charters on boosting student progress reaches beyond what has previously been suggested in research.

Currently, about a fifth of students in charter schools attend those run by for-profit charter companies. Yet the evidence of charter school effectiveness tends to focus on the non-profits in Boston, New York and other urban centers, many of which are independent or part of small management organizations. At the college level, for-profits have a bad rep for student outcomes, increased debt and high loan default rates; so, the researchers set out to understand whether the same bad news follows the for-profit element in elementary and secondary education.

National Heritage Academies (NHA) is the fourth largest for-profit charter operator in the United States, enrolling more than 56,000 students in 86 schools in grades K-8 across nine states. Over half of NHA's schools are located in Michigan. Unlike many of its competitors, NHA uses "standard bricks-and-mortar schools," as noted by the authors of "Estimating the Effects of a Large For-Profit Charter School Operator."

The research project developed its sampling through an excruciating process, pulling data for Michigan students specifically who participated in "randomized admissions lotteries" for 44 NHA schools between 2003 and 2012 and matching those records with data culled from public school registrants maintained by Michigan's Department of Education.

The student achievement calculations found that going to an NHA charter school for one additional year was associated with a 0.04 standard deviation increase in math achievement. In addition, there was a 1.4 percentage point increase in the likelihood of scoring above the proficiency cutoff. If the student were to spend all nine years of elementary education at an NHA school, the report suggested, he or she could see a potential increase of 0.36 standard deviations in math scores.

Effects on reading were negligible as were the impacts on "attendance, grade progression, disciplinary incidents or special education placement."

Just as importantly, they pointed out, the benefits were concentrated among the "non-poor students" outside of urban areas. This is in contrast to other research projects that have "consistently" found the greatest benefit of attending such schools among "low-income, underrepresented minorities in urban areas."

The research project also surveyed school administrators in the charter schools represented as well as leaders in a sampling of traditional public schools in the same geographic areas. Their questions covered five broad areas: instruction, school culture, organization and leadership, teacher compensation and time use.

The report noted that the NHA schools "share many of the same practices as the highly effective non-profit charters," such as a "no excuses" culture and "a focus on extra time and frequent assessment in core academic subjects." That suggested that the benefits of those types of practices may be applicable beyond the types of students and environments previously studied.

The company makes all decisions related to hiring, training and curriculum. The schools spend slightly more time in math and English language arts than other schools and are more likely to group students by ability level for instruction in those core subjects.

NHA also emphasizes "professional and leadership development." Schools have a handful of deans, each of whom governs a given hall; their primary goal: to coach teachers and provide "frequent and specific feedback." Dean training is handled by the principals. High-performing principals are bumped up to become "executive principals," who visit other schools to provide support and feedback.

On the teacher salary front, starting salaries are about $1,500 less than the $37,400 reported by traditional schools, but about $2,400 higher than starting salaries at other charters. However, teachers at the NHA schools "are much more likely" to be eligible for performance bonuses compared to everybody else.

"As powerful forces in domestic policy move to increase the prevalence of school choice mechanisms, including charter schools," the report concluded, "it is more important than ever to understand the settings that are most conducive to their success."

The working paper is available for download for $5 on the NBER website.

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