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Nora Kern


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Record Breaking

The Guinness World Records was founded on the premise that collecting the superlative facts of the world would help us understand our place within it. Today, the NAPCS releases its annual report of the public school districts with the biggest and fastest growth in the charter school sector. A Growing Movement: American’s Largest Charter School Communities finds that a record number of public school districts—six—have at least 30 percent of their public school students enrolled in public charter schools. In addition, an all-time high of 18 school districts have more than 20 percent of their public school students enrolled in charter schools.  Los Angeles, the Robert Wadlow of districts with the highest number of public charter school students enrolled, again tops the list with 79,385 students. To provide a sense of scale, the number of students enrolled in public charter schools in Los Angeles, alone, would place the city’s charter schools in the top 45 of the 100 largest school districts in the United States. For more exceptional findings from the report, including the “Top 10” districts with highest number, percentage and annual growth of public charter school students, click here.


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Report Highlights Practices & Performance of Broad Prize for Public Charter Schools Winner

The inaugural Broad Prize for Public Charter Schools was awarded to YES Prep Public Schools at the 2012 National Charter Schools Conference. The mission of YES Prep is to increase the number of low-income students in Houston who graduate from a four-year college. The network of schools was recognized for demonstrating “the most outstanding overall student performance and improvement among the country’s largest urban charter management organizations in recent years while reducing achievement gaps for poor and minority students.”

YES Prep received a $250,000 award from the Broad Foundation. Additionally, Broad committed to spend time in the YES Prep network of schools and to release a report describing their educational practices and performance. Here are key findings from thereport:

  • 72 percent of YES Prep alumni are currently enrolled in college or have earned a bachelor’s degree.
    • Nationally, less than a quarter of low-income students complete college.
  • Of the 6,700 students in YES Prep’s 11 secondary schools in Houston, 95 percent are Hispanic or African-American, 80 percent are from low-income families, and more than 90 percent will be the first generation in their families to go to college.
  • 7,000 students are on waiting lists to attend YES Prep charter schools.
  • YES Prep offers a course about college each year of high school, which instructs students on everything from SAT prep, to the financial aid process, to writing college application essays.
  • The network’s teachers stand out for their in-depth content knowledge, energy, and passion.
    • While teachers nationally often report feeling disempowered in their jobs, those at YES Prep approach their work with an almost missionary zeal and see their dedication rewarded.
  • YES prep schools focus on character education, with character traits of successful college students, such as grit and tenacity, heavily emphasized. Community service is mandatory, and students take pride in giving back to their neighborhoods.
  • Instead of a comprehensive summer school, YES Prep focuses on giving students the sort of life experiences that affluent parents can afford for their children: they attend programs on college campuses, take trips in the wilderness, and travel the world.
  • Two full-time network staff members as well as YES Prep college counselors support alumni. Counselors conduct exit interviews with all YES Prep graduates to prioritize college-support services based on academic, social/ emotional and financial needs.

The details in the report provide lessons for other schools based on YES Prep’s success in defying the odds and creating outstanding learning environments for students.

Yes Prep Broad Report









Image of report cover via The Broad Prize website

Nora Kern


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Report Shows Continued Growth of Charter School Management Organizations

Last week, the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) at the University of Colorado at Boulder released their greatly anticipatedreport profiling nonprofit and for-profit education management organizations (EMOs) using 2011-2012 school year data. In that school year, approximately 44 percent of public charter students attended a school managed by a nonprofit or for-profit EMO. Here are some key findings for each type of management organization in 2011-2012:

Nonprofit management organizations

  • A total of 1,206 public schools (charter schools and a few district schools) were managed by nonprofit EMOs.
  • Nonprofit management companies operated in 28 states and the District of Columbia.
  • The number of students in nonprofit EMO-managed schools increased dramatically, from 237,591 students in 2009-2010 to 445,052 students during 2011-2012.
  • KIPP is the largest nonprofit network, running 98 schools serving more than 35,000 students.
  • The states with the largest numbers of nonprofit management organizations, by number of operators, include California, Texas, Arizona, Illinois, Louisiana, Michigan, and New York.

For-profit management organizations

  • For-profit EMOs are contracted by district and charter school boards to operate and manage schools. In total, 94.6 percent of EMO-managed schools are charter schools, and 5.4 percent are district schools.
  • For-profit EMOs operated in 35 states.
  • More than 800 public schools across the country, serving more than 460,000 students are run by for-profit EMOs.
  • The growth of the for-profit sector has been focused online—10.8 percent of all for-profit-managed schools are virtual.
    • K12 Inc.’s enrollment vastly exceeds any other management organization’s (both nonprofit and for-profit) total enrollment.
  • Nearly 80 percent of charter schools in Michigan are run by for-profit EMOs; at least 30 percent of charter schools in Florida, Ohio, and Arizona are run by for-profit EMOs.

The full NEPC report contains further breakouts by management organization size, number of schools, student enrollment, state-based trends, and profiles of each operator. While both nonprofit and for-profit management organizations have seen rapid growth, especially within the charter school community, it is important to note that the majority of public charter schools are still freestanding, nonprofits.

Nora Kern is senior manager for research and analysis at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.


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Report: Trends, Possible Improvements in School Quality Rating Systems

Maintaining high expectations and identifying high-quality charter schools is essential for strong growth in the charter school sector. How, though, is school quality assessed? We reviewed 25 school quality rating systems for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools to identify emerging trends in school quality evaluation in a recent report, Quality School Ratings: Trends in Evaluating School Academic Quality.

The report looks at rating systems from state departments of education, large public school districts, charter associations and authorizers, and private news and advocacy organizations. Trends we found among the systems included:

  • the inclusion of student growth, useful for evaluating a school’s quality based on its students’ progress—a new standard for quality rating systems;
  • the expansion of college- and career-readiness measures—going beyond graduation rates to include important, new indicators; and
  • new ways to focus attention on the lowest-performing students—as we say in the report, “great schools are great for all students in the building.”

As the trends indicate, states and schools have made progress in their efforts to establish more meaningful measures of school quality, and we foresee a stronger system for evaluating quality across states following the adoption of Common Core-aligned assessments.

In addition to identifying new measures of academic quality, the report also highlights useful approaches to creating effective rating systems, such as:

  • the use of multiple measures to evaluate school quality;
  • simplified reporting formats to categorize school quality; and
  • an increase in data transparency and public accessibility—so that a rating system can be judged not just by its accuracy, but by how available its data are to users.

Shining a light on meaningful and accessible performance indicators is crucial for public accountability, and will help families make better decisions for their children.

Lyria Boast is a senior consultant and Tim Field is a senior policy fellow at Public Impact, a non-profit focused on helping education leaders and policymakers improve student learning in K-12 education

Nora Kern


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Research Provides Link between Educational Field Trips and Student Learning: Several Charter Schools Already Leading the Way

In these days of constrained budgets and increased testing, the cultural enrichment field trip has taken a hit. But new research from Jay Greene and colleagues at University of Arkansas demonstrates that after a single guided tour of an art museum, students showed increased critical thinking, recall, tolerance, empathy, and cultural interest.

The study is the first large-scale, randomized controlled trial  measuring student learning from a field trip. Each school visit toCrystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Arkansas included a one-hour guided tour of the museum’s permanent collection, a discussion and activity session around a Common Core State Standards-aligned theme, and lunch at the museum’s restaurant. The museum also provided funding for the museum visit, including transportation, substitute teachers, lunch, and educational materials.

During the first two semesters of the school tour program, the museum received 525 applications from school groups representing 38,347 students in kindergarten through grade 12. Due to this demand, the researchers worked with the museum to conduct a lottery for the available tour slots. The study matched schools, based on similarity in grade level and other demographic factors, into pairs of those that won a museum tour via the lottery and the control group who were deferred to a later tour date. The researchers administered surveys to a total of 10,912 students and 489 teachers at 123 different schools in the paired tour and control groups three weeks, on average, after the treatment group received its tour.

The students who attended the museum field trip showed:

  • ability to recall the details and themes of their tours at very high rates—even up to 8 weeks post-visit with no sign of fading out;
  • increased likeliness to develop a taste for returning to art museums and cultural institutions—measured by the actual rate at which they returned to the museum as well as their survey responses;
  • higher levels of tolerance and greater historical empathy (understanding what it is like to live in other times and places); and
  • stronger critical thinking about art—measured by students’ short essay responses to a new painting.

All of these observed benefits were significantly larger for disadvantaged students (minority, low-income, or rural students). You can read an article with further details about the study’s methodology and findings in Education Next.

Several public charter schools throughout the country employ a museum school model to go beyond the single-visit benefits measured in the Arkansas University:

  • The Museum School in Decatur, Georgia notes, “The museum concept is a proven school model that provides project-based learning through partnerships with museums and other community organizations.”
  • The mission statement of the Miami Children’s Museum Charter School in Florida states, “Through the use of the museum exhibits, facilities and resources, we provide a unique learning environment that challenges students to reach their full potential and become independent lifelong learners.”
  • The Museum School of San Diego, California, describes its mission as one that “…celebrates, nurtures and enhances the abilities of all participants through experiential, project-based learning. Infusing the arts whenever appropriate the Museum School utilizes the wealth of resources available at local museums and within the San Diego community.”

These charter schools have used their autonomy to make arts education part of their core curriculum and boost student achievement. Given the findings from Greene’s study, these charter schools should expect to see tangible increases in student learning as a result of the partnerships with museums.

Nora Kern is senior manager for research and analysis at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. 


Photo Credit: Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Stephen Ironside/Ironside Photography

Painting Credit: Bo Bartlett “The Box,” Bo Bartlett


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Research Rewind: Back to Basics, Quality Matters

It’s no secret that the performance of charter schools varies quite a bit. With over 5,000 charter schools and wide variety in mission, vision and instructional focus, examining charter schools as a whole will lead to a mixed bag of results. Research is moving in the direction of identifying the educational conditions that may lead to differences in results, but there is still much to learn about effective practices.

As the year comes to a close, let’s step back and ask a very basic school choice question: what happens when students choose high quality schools?

A series of studies on a district-wide open enrollment school choice policy in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, North Carolina provide some answers. The studies are sophisticated by design, but offer straightforward results:

  • Families who selected schools based on academic quality (higher school performance), rather than by the proximity of schools or the student demographic make-up of schools, experienced significant gains in test scores as a result of attending the higher quality school.
  • Students zoned to low-quality neighborhood schools who won lotteries to attend higher quality high schools were more likely than students who lost the lotteries and attended lower quality neighborhood schools to graduate from high school, attend a four-year college, and earn a bachelor’s degree. Moreover, these students were twice as likely to attend an elite university.
  • Families who received direct and easy-to-read information on school test scores selected higher-scoring schools for their children. And again, the researchers found that attending higher performing schools led to better academic outcomes for the students.

These studies should motivate the charter school sector. The studies do not support school choice for school choice’s sake. And the studies don’t suggest that school choice is very effective when families choose schools for non-academic reasons. Rather, the studies provide concrete evidence that when families use school choice to select higher performing schools, their children perform better.

The charter sector has to use evidence like this to ensure quality and uphold the charter school bargain—autonomy in exchange for accountability. Consistently low performing charter schools should not be allowed to stay open. Instead, the sector should be working to provide more high quality options to families. If the charter sector can define what academic quality looks like and guarantee that every charter school is a very good option for students, widespread results will follow.

Nora Kern


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Research shows NYC public charter schools have lower student transfer rates

The New York City Independent Budget Office (IBO) released a study last month that examined whether students transfer out of charter schools at higher rates than traditional public schools. This issue is important because researchers have found that changing schools can affect student achievement, and it may be a contributor to the achievement gap for minority and disadvantaged students who change schools frequently.

For the study, IBO monitored a cohort of students starting kindergarten in 2008 at 53 charter schools and 116 traditional public schools, and followed these students through their third grade year. The study found that on average, students attending public charter schools stay enrolled in the same school at a higher rate than students at nearby traditional public schools. Specifically:

  • About 70 percent of students attending charter schools in school year 2008-2009 remained in the same school three years later.
  • 61 percent of the traditional school student cohort attended the same school three years later.
  • Charter schools continued to show a higher retention rate when students are compared by gender, race/ethnicity, poverty level, and English language learner status.

The one exception is special education students, who transfer from charter schools at a higher rate than either general education students in charter schools or special education students in traditional public schools. While we don’t know why these students are leaving charter schools and there were very few special needs students in the study, we are concerned by this finding. To continue work on this issue, the National Alliance is working closely with the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools to help charter schools better serve students with special needs.

The study further found that—regardless of school type—students who remained in the same school from kindergarten through third grade scored higher on standardized math and reading tests in third grade than their peers who switched schools. This is an important policy issue for New York City as Mayor de Blasio considers ending co-location and facility funding for public charter schools. If charter schools are financially forced out of operation and students have to transfer to a different school, research shows that their students, especially those who are most disadvantaged, will suffer.

Nora Kern is senior manager for research and analysis at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.



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Research Shows Presence of Public Charter Schools Leads to Improvements in Traditional Public Schools

When a public charter school opens in a neighborhood, there are several impacts that are worth consideration: Will the charter school create pressure on neighboring traditional public schools (TPS) to make changes in their organization, instructional strategies, or outreach to families that may lead to improvements in student achievement? New research presented at the Association for Education Finance and Policy (AEFP) 38th Annual Conference suggests that traditional public schools do in fact respond to the presence of public charter schools. Yusuke Jinnai, a Ph.D candidate in Economics at the University of Rochester, examined the impact of opening public charter schools on achievement levels for students at a neighboring traditional public school in North Carolina. A few interesting findings from the study:

  • Public charter schools generated “a positive and significant direct impact on student achievement” in math and reading at nearby traditional public schools.
  • About 25 percent of this direct impact can be explained by low-achieving students switching from traditional public schools to charter schools, leaving higher-performing students at traditional schools.
  • The larger portion of the impact was due to direct competitive effects. In other words, the presence of public charter schools encouraged TPS to make improvements for remaining students that lead to increases in student performance.

Using student-level North Carolina panel data from 1997 to 2005, the study is innovative because it focuses on gaps in grades between charter schools and TPS in North Carolina. Oftentimes, a charter school will open with a single grade level and expand their grade range in subsequent years. Jinnai uses this gap to tease out the direct impact charter schools have on TPS students in overlapping grades and indirect impact on non-overlapping grades. Previous research estimated the impact of charter schools on TPS for all grade levels, regardless of whether charter schools served students in all grade levels.

Jinnai shows that the introduction of charter schools generates a positive and significant direct impact on student achievement: an increase of 0.033 standard deviations in math and 0.017 in reading for neighboring TPS students. While these gains are small in comparison to the impact of experienced teachers or per-pupil expenditure on achievement, they are larger and more accurate than previous competitive-effects studies due to the distinction between direct and indirect impact.

Public charter schools in North Carolina attract lower performing students, but they are showing academic success. In 2010, 77 percent of public charter schools made Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP). In contrast, 57 percent of traditional public schools made AYP in 2010. With North Carolina lifting their 100-charter school cap in 2011 and receiving 70 new charter applications for the 2014-2015 school year, there is potential for significant learning gains for all public school students.

Jinnai’s new paper debunks the myth that the success of public charter schools comes at the detriment of neighboring traditional public schools. In North Carolina, public charter schools contribute to education reform by serving low-performing students and encouraging high standards of performance for nearby traditional public schools.

Boston Collegiate


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Research Suggests that Public Charter Schools Do Not Push Out Low-Performing Students

There is an argument propagated by charter school critics that public charter schools systematically push out low-performing students. While critics do not provide evidence of specific examples of charter school policies that explicitly push out students, the hypothesis underlying the argument is that there are subtle policies—such as strict discipline and attendance rules, retention if students are not performing at grade-level, or expectations for parent involvement—that effectively counsel out hard-to-educate students. Moreover, critics contend that charter schools are under intense pressure to perform well, which may provide incentives to find ways to attract high performing students and to discourage low-performing students from staying. (However, traditional public schools face similar accountability pressures and may theoretically advise low-performing students to transfer to schools of choice in the district.)

A recent study of KIPP charter schools challenged the notion that there is more student attrition out of KIPP schools or that attrition explains higher levels of academic performance in the schools. Now, a new working paper by Ron Zimmer and Cassandra Guarino provides additional evidence that public charter schools are not pushing out low-performing students. The study examined patterns of student transfers in an anonymous school district with over 60 charter schools. A larger percentage of charter schools in the district met AYP compared with traditional public schools, making the district a good case study for examining whether charter schools were pushing out low-performing students in order to meet federal accountability standards.

The study finds no evidence that public charter schools were more likely to push out low-performing students. Conversely, the study finds that below-average students were five percent more likely to leave traditional public schools than below-average students in charter schools. The authors write, “In looking at different groups of charter schools (i.e., charter schools near AYP proficiency thresholds, low- and high-performing schools, primary and secondary schools), we generally find no evidence consistent with the claim of pushing out low-performing students.”

Even though the study provides evidence for only one school district, it is a good example of the empirical research needed to determine whether the persistent critiques of public charter schools are accurate.

Charter kids






Image via flickr


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Review of “Choices & Challenges: Charter School Performance in Perspective”

Two decades after the first public charter school opened in Minnesota, and now that there are more than 6,000 public charter schools in operation, the timing is right for a comprehensive examination of the research on public charter schools. There have been a number of reviews of the research on academic performance studies (see the Betts & Tang meta-analysis and our own research synthesis), and NAPCS’s recent assessment shows that there is a positive trend in the performance of public charter schools demonstrated in high quality studies. But there is a great deal that we do not fully understand about why some charter schools are knocking it out of the ballpark, while others struggle. What are the mediating factors that create opportunities for public charter schools to perform well?

A new book from researchers Priscilla Wohlstetter, Joanna Smith, and Caitlin Farrell takes a deep dive into the large body of research on public charter schools, covering over 500 academic papers and reports—not just the academic performance studies—to compare how charter schools perform and operate relative to the goals initially set for them through legislation. The authors identified the following goals for public charter schools from a review of state charter laws:

Classroom goals:

  • Increase opportunities for teachers
  • Increase innovations in education programs
  • Increase student performance

School community goals:

  • Increase school autonomy
  • Increase opportunities for parent involvement
  • Increase school accountability

System goals:

  • Increase competition among public schools
  • Increase capacity of the K-12 education system
  • Increase student performance throughout education system

It is a solid framework for looking at the impact of public charter schools, specifically by assessing public charter schools through the lens of whether charter schools have achieved the legislative intent of the reform initiative. Overall, research suggests that public charter schools have lived up to most of the reform goals. Yet, the research does not reveal a secret sauce for public charter school success. Despite the 500 plus studies on public charter schools, the research is pretty lean in evaluating most of the goals. And given the fact that the sector has shifted towards a true acknowledgement of the importance of high quality authorizing and strong governance, there are other areas of research that need attention.

Beyond the call for more research, the book provides a nice discussion of the path public charter schools have taken as a reform initiative: from the early days of experimentation, to an era of expansion, to the current era of refinement. The final chapter includes reflection and commentary from five influential thinkers, including Jeffrey Henig (Teachers College, Columbia University), Paul Hill (Center for Reinventing Public Education, University of Washington), Bruno Manno (Walton Family Foundation, Deborah McGriff (NewSchools Venture Fund & NAPCS Board Member), and Charles Payne (University of Chicago), around the following questions:

  • In what ways, if any, have charter schools challenged the definition and boundaries of public education?
  • Across the levels of the system—classroom, school, district—where have charters succeeded? Where have they fallen short?
  • How is the relationship between charter and non-charter public school changing? How is the role of charters in the education sector as a whole evolving?
  • Most policies last ten to twenty years before being eclipsed by “the next big thing.” What does the charter sector have to do in the next five years to assure its future?

The last question should be on the minds of everyone involved in the public charter school sector.

Wohlstetter Book Cover