Let’s pretend for a minute that data really matter in public policy. That policy makers take a considered look at research. That legislators, motivated by their concern for disadvantaged urban students, are resolute enough to take some political risks and anger some electoral allies to boost the educational prospects of those kids.
If all that were the case, then this week would be a game-changer in the long-running debate about charter schools in Boston. Another careful study shows that Boston charters are delivering eye-catching educational boosts compared to Boston's traditional public schools. On average, that study found, Boston charter students are achieving four times the growth in reading and six times the growth in math over the course of a school year.
"The magnitude of the gains that charter school students in Boston received compared to their traditional public school counterparts is the largest we see in any area of the country we have studied," says Margaret Raymond, director of the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University, which conducted the study.
Moreover, the learning gains were statistically significant in both reading and math across a variety of demographic categories: Black, Hispanic, Asian, white, low-income, and English language learners. Charters also had a smaller, non-statistically significant, advantage with special-education kids.
So this latest study should have a big impact on the debate about whether to raise the charter cap in underperforming districts. Experience, however, has shown us how easy it is for charter foes to reject research that should make them sit up and take notice.
When the research group, known as CREDO, did a study of charters back in 2009 that showed mediocre charter school results nationally, charter opponents seized on it, citing it frequently. Then, using the same methodology, CREDO began focusing on charter results in individual states and cities. When a 2013 study of Massachusetts and Boston charters showed strong gains, the anti-charter camp quickly began insisting that CREDO's methodology was so flawed as to render its results meaningless.
CREDO's approach is to compare a charter student's progress to the averaged performance of up to seven traditional-public-school students who are demographically similar and have identical starting test scores in English and math. Significantly, two other studies of Boston charters using a different research method have also found strong relative academic gains.
Mind you, CREDO's latest report is far from a blanket endorsement of urban charters in all regions of the country. It revealed charter performances that trail the traditional public schools in West Palm Beach, St. Petersburg, and Fort Myers; in El Paso, Fort Worth, San Antonio, and Austin; in Phoenix and Mesa; in Albuquerque; and in Las Vegas.
Charter opponents in those cities will likely use the new CREDO research to argue the anti-charter case. And that's completely fair; charters that don't deliver should improve or face closure.
Here, however, the report adds more important evidence about the value that Boston charters impart.
It also shows one area where they lag. Charters had slightly (4 percent) more low-income students, while the traditional schools had slightly (also 4 percent) more special-education kids. But charters had significantly fewer English language learners, 8 percent versus 30 percent in the traditional publics. That's an obvious area for improvement.
Overall, however, this study should open some minds — if, that is, they are not permanently locked shut.
In the past, I've been surprised that some influential political actors, including key state senators, haven't taken the time to familiarize themselves with the important research in this area. Similarly, in light of both research and results, it was disappointing to see the threadbare arguments some charter opponents pressed into service during last year's debate, when a modest charter-cap lift in mediocre districts died in the Senate.
So how can charter supporters change that dynamic? Well, they should contact their legislators and ask them to read CREDO's new study and report back with their thoughts on it. And if those legislators remain charter opponents, supporters should ask how, in light of the growing body of research and the long waiting list for charter slots, they justify their opposition to lifting the cap in poorly performing districts.