A study of New York City public charter schools published last month produced some of the most positive evidence to date of charters’ educational benefits. The report, by a research team headed by Caroline Hoxby of the Hoover Institution, concluded that, on average, a student attending a Big Apple charter school continuously through the 8th grade would close 86 percent of the “Scarsdale-Harlem achievement gap” in math and 66 percent of the same gap in English. It also found that NYC charter high schools produced substantially higher Regents examination scores and Regents diploma rates.
While the report’s findings and rigorous methodology received considerable attention, its substantive evaluation of which factors contributed to the success of high-performing NYC charters has received far less discussion. The study found that a number of charter school characteristics in particular displayed strong positive associations with improved student achievement.
Charter schools that pay teachers flexibly based on evaluations of their performance showed among the study’s strongest positive effects on student achievement, compared with schools that use a strict salary schedule determined by teachers’ seniority and credentials. These performance indicators included students’ standardized test scores, evaluations by their principal of their contribution to the school, or systems offering teachers higher pay to take on additional duties.
Another factor determined to have particularly strong effects on students’ academic performance is a schoolwide disciplinary policy expecting small courtesies and punishing small behavioral infractions, generally at the classroom level.
Schools with a mission statement emphasizing academic performance, a longer school year, and a greater number of minutes devoted to English and math during the school day were also shown to have strong positive effects on students’ academic performance. Meanwhile, factors including class size, years of charter school operation, and use of parent contracts were found not to impact student achievement significantly.
The study’s design did not evaluate the importance of one factor charter leaders often point to as their most valuable management tool: the ability to hire and replace teachers and administrators. The effects of certain other reform tools, such as a longer school day or school dress code policies, could not be accurately measured because of limitations in the research design.
This new evidence of a strong positive connection between pay-for-performance policies and student achievement casts dubious light onto the recalcitrant rejections of their use in traditional public schools by many teacher union leaders. National Education Association president Dennis Van Roekel opposed the Obama Administration’s “Race to the Top” funding formula because it encourages linking student achievement and growth data to the evaluation of teachers.
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