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Reshaping the debate on Mass. charter schools

Chris Walters’s research at MIT has helped crystallize key issues in the ongoing debate over charter schools.

Jessica Rinaldi for The Boston Globe

Chris Walters’s research at MIT has helped crystallize key issues in the ongoing debate over charter schools.

Not every graduate student who passes through Boston leaves a lasting influence on the city. But Chris Walters, a Virginia native who this month received his PhD in economics from MIT, may just be one of them.

His thesis is reshaping the debate over charter schools and the role they can play in boosting academic achievement in poor urban communities, where traditional public schools have often failed. His paper, the culmination of 2½ years of work, is making the rounds in City Hall and on Beacon Hill, causing a stir as lawmakers once again consider whether to increase the number of charter schools in the state and city.

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Building on prior Massachusetts Institute of Technology studies that found charter school students in Boston tend to do better on standardized tests than students in the city’s other public schools, Walters dug into the data, looked at prior results from different angles, crunched old and new numbers, and asked slightly different questions.

His conclusion: Lower-income students who performed poorly on tests while attending traditional public schools did much better after enrolling in charter schools. Moreover, their improvement was greater than fellow charter students who had previously tested well in traditional public schools.

In other words, those most in need of educational improvement tended to benefit the most from charter schools. It’s a finding that partially knocks down arguments by critics that charter schools perform better because they cherry-pick the best students from the school system.

Walters also concluded that an expansion of charter schools in Boston would help more poorly performing students in the city — if parents of those students apply to charter schools. At the same time, he warned, expanding charter schools is not a cure-all for closing achievement gaps; at a certain, but unspecified, point, the addition of more charter schools no longer produces the same gains in academic achievement.

Josh Angrist, an MIT economist and one of Walters’s advisers, said Walters’s findings have crystallized key issues in the debate over charter schools. While the weakest students benefit the most from charter schools, he said, their parents, paradoxically, are the least likely to apply for them to go to charter schools.

“An expansion isn’t necessarily going to lead to improvements unless you get the right [students] to apply,” he said.

Walters, who recently landed a faculty job at the University of California Berkeley, is a native of Blacksburg, Va., where his father is a professor of biology at Virginia Tech and his mother is executive director of a nonprofit group that helps children involved in the court system.

Walters, 27, said he was “always pretty good at math, ” but liked other subjects as well. “I was always interested in statistics,” he said, “but I never thought there was a connection that I could apply it to in life.”

He earned his bachelor’s degree at the University of Virginia Charlottesville, where he majored in philosophy and economics. At MIT, he wasn’t sure what field of economics he would pursue until he took a labor-economics course taught by Angrist, a professor known for taking statistical approaches toward analyzing a variety of issues.

In recent years, Angrist and his MIT colleagues have studied the performance of state-funded charter schools, generally finding that they tend to work best in cities, while getting only mixed results in suburban settings. Broadly speaking, urban charter schools tend to have a more disciplined and “no excuse” approach toward education, including longer school days and more highly structured curriculums, while suburban schools tend to use different education models, MIT researchers have found.

Walters’s study builds upon previous MIT findings tied to Boston’s 25 state-funded charter schools, excluding the four separate charter schools funded directly by the city. About 8,000 students attend charter schools in Boston and 32,000 students attend the 75 charter schools across the state, according to state education officials.

Dr. Kamal Chavda, the chief data and accountability officer for Boston public schools, said he has read Walters’s study and talked to him about the results. Even though he’s cautious about expanding the number of charter schools in Boston, Chavda said Walters has provided policy makers with rich and original data to review and mull.

For Walters, it will be bittersweet leaving Boston for California, considering how much time and effort he has put into studying and analyzing the city’s school system. But he expects to continue to study charter schools and educational policies at Berkeley.

“This process [has been] nerve-racking, but it was also really rewarding to be able to share something I’d worked on for so long,” he said. “I wasn’t sure if people would like the approach I took. I was glad to find out that they were interested.”

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