Charter-Style Overhauls May Not Improve School Reading Deficiencies

While math skills improve, proficiency in reading and writing remains the same.
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(Photo: departmentofed/Flickr)

(Photo: departmentofed/Flickr)

The good news, according to a recent study, is that what works in charter schools also works in struggling public schools. The bad news? Charters’ best practices have little impact on reading and writing, and even if they did, they might not be scalable.

While the details differ from state to state and from program to program, charter schools all share a key trait: the freedom to try new ideas in the hope that they’ll close the achievement gap between wealthy, predominantly white schools and their poor, mostly black and Hispanic counterparts in rural America and the inner-city.

In theory, their flexibility makes them ideal laboratories for discovering what works and what doesn’t, but few if any studies have actually tested whether charters’ most successful ideas could work in ordinary public schools. It’s not enough to see charters getting results—to really find out whether their strategies work, researchers need to do a randomized experiment in ordinary public schools.

In theory, their flexibility makes them ideal laboratories for discovering what works and what doesn’t, but few if any studies have actually tested whether charters’ most successful ideas could work in ordinary public schools.

Generally speaking, parents and school officials aren’t crazy about researchers performing randomized experiments on their kids’ education.

All the same, Harvard University economist Roland Fryer got an extraordinary opportunity to do just that. Taking advantage of aggressive Texas education laws, the Houston Independent School District allowed Fryer to take over strategy for 16 of their lowest-performing elementary schools. Fryer and company chose eight schools at random as a control group, and began implementing a series of reforms in the others. Fryer’s changes, based on work he’d done with Princeton economist Will Dobbie, ranged from the relatively uncontroversial—like increasing instructional time by 21 percent, for example, and upping time spent with tutors—to the drastic: In consultation with HISD officials, Fryer replaced nearly every principal in the test schools along with more than a third of the teaching staff.

Those interventions worked, up to a point. Compared with those in the control group, students in the test group improved their test scores in math enough that they could close the racial achievement gap in about three years if they kept up the pace. Meanwhile, the interventions had essentially no effect on the achievement gap in reading. Non-randomized studies in Denver and Chicago public schools, along with Houston secondary schools, backed that up: The reforms work for math, but not for reading.

Beyond the reading challenge, Fryer writes that nationwide reform may not be practical. Compared to other states, Texas law makes it much easier to shake things up in schools where test scores aren’t up to snuff. Even if reforms are possible, they’re expensive: Annual tutoring costs alone were about $2,500 per student. But the biggest challenge may be finding teachers and principals to work in inner-city schools. Much of the new staff HISD hired came from other schools, Fryer writes, and it took 300 interviews to hire 19 principles.

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