Beyond the Bubbled Scoresheets: Charter Schools and the Long-Term Outcomes of their Students

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Cody Puckett and some of his former students.

Most Americans agree that the main goal of schooling is to equip the next generation with the skills they need to not only survive, but thrive, in a rapidly changing economic landscape. However, when most of us turn on the news, we hear school success stories or failures measured almost exclusively in terms of test scores. Although test scores are certainly one important indicator of student growth, can we honestly say that how a student performs on a math or reading multiple-choice test is the most important indicator of future success? In the past five years, several studies have been conducted across the nation to attempt to quantify the effect of charter schools on student outcomes beyond simply analyzing proficiency and growth on standardized tests. These studies measure of a host of other student outcomes, including college enrollment and graduation rates, incarceration rates, the likelihood of engaging in “very risky” behaviors, future earning potential, and even student health. As a former educator who taught at a charter school in a low-income neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago, these studies are especially interesting to me, as I had the unique opportunity to see firsthand the impact well-run charter schools can have on students beyond just increasing test scores.

In this blog post, I will focus on the findings of four studies: “Post-Secondary Outcomes at Boston’s Charter High Schools” by Joshua Angrist (2013); “The Effects of Start-Up Charter Schools on Academic Milestones” by Peter Bluestone and Nicholas Warner (2018); “Charter High Schools’ Effects on Long-Term Attainment and Earnings” by Kevin Booker (2014); and “Successful Schools and Risky Behaviors Among Low-Income Adolescents” by Dr. Michell Wong, M.D. (2014). These studies utilize both experimental and non-experimental approaches to compare the long-term outcomes of charter school students with those of their district school peers. I’ve summarized some of the key findings below:

  • In Boston, charter attendance reduces the likelihood that a student attends a two-year school by ten percentage points while increasing the probability of attending a four-year institution by sixteen percentage points.
  • In Georgia, students who attend a charter high school are about eight percentage points more likely to earn a college degree or certificate than district school graduates.
  • In Florida, charter high school attendance is associated with increased maximum annual earnings for former students between ages twenty-three and twenty-five by $2,347 per year, or approximately thirteen percent higher when compared to students who attended a district high school.
  • In Los Angeles, students who attend a charter are statistically less likely to engage in “very risky” behaviors, defined as gang participation, substance abuse at school, binge drinking, and risky sexual behaviors.

My own personal experiences teaching at a charter school are consistent with the findings of these studies and allow me to speak to why these non-cognitive differences between charter and district school students might exist. My school cultivated a “no excuses” college or bust culture with regards to student outcomes. From the moment students walk in the door as freshman they are encouraged to buy-in to the belief that they have the potential to become college graduates. This belief is immensely important to character development and building a strong school culture, as students see a reason to put in the work as there is an expectation that college enrollment lies on the other side of their labors. My school has cultivated this culture by constantly exposing students to college through field trips, alumni stories, and even college-themed field competitions. In parallel, they have also developed a curriculum that includes rigorous college prep classes and supplemental programs to help students navigate the potentially treacherous college admissions process, while also leaving them feeling academically prepared for college level coursework. Specifically, our school helps students determine which school is the best fit for them, apply for financial aid, develop admissions essays, and even practice mock interviews. In addition, staff members are hired solely to keep in touch with students throughout their college experience to make sure they have consistent support to persist through all four years of school and eventually graduate. For those students, who may be the first in their family to attend college, the importance of this support is immense. Finally, my school exposes students to new careers through internship programs with local companies at the end of each semester. These programs allow students to build professional skills and increase their network so that they are prepared when the time comes to apply for jobs.

Without the ability to operate autonomously from the restrictions placed on district public schools, many of these programs might not be possible. It isn’t difficult to determine why the aforementioned studies have found such positive long-term outcomes for charter school graduates. When you dive deeper into the structures that many high-performing charter schools put into place, you see how they create real change in the lives of their students. Next time you see an article or news report on test score data, ask yourself what really matters when we talk about our nation’s schools.

Cody Puckett is a former educator and LEE Research Fellow spending the summer working with the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

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