Applying Lessons From Charters to Regular Public Schools

October 2, 2012

Those who believe that charter schools have the potential to boost educational opportunities for large numbers of students across the United States also acknowledge a simple truth: that charters today occupy a relatively small slice of the public school market, and at their current rate of growth it would take many years for them to reach a substantial portion of the population.

In a new paper published by the Hamilton Project, Harvard University economics professor Roland Fryer addresses this limitation and points to a way around it: exporting best practices from charters into regular public school systems, particularly struggling ones. Fryer says preliminary results from demonstration projects he and other researchers are conducting in Houston and Denver show that school systems can benefit from incorporating charter school-style practices in scheduling, the use of data, tutoring, and other areas.

Fryer and fellow researchers examined data from Denver and Houston and found that students in groups of schools that implemented a series of practices improved their test scores. Those practices included replacing some teachers and principals (some of whom left voluntarily); refining the use of data and using it to monitor student progress; establishing intensive tutoring; extending the school day and school year; and setting higher individual goals for students.

The increase in student test scores resulting from those policies are similiar to those found in the most-effective charters, said Fryer, who once served as chief equality officer in the New York City schools, working on teacher pay-for-performance, student motivation and other issues. The results in Denver and Houston are preliminary but promising, he writes, because they suggest that educational strategies in play in charters can work in other settings:

It is important to emphasize that our proposal is not to replace traditional public schools with charter schools. Quite the opposite: our goal is to emulate in both charter and traditional public schools practices that have been shown to be successful. The potential payoff from these changes would be to strengthen the education system and improve the lives of millions of poor and minority students.

The researchers also place a pricetag on making those changes: $2,000 per student. Those costs varied widely by strategy, notes Fryer. Setting high expectations is relatively cheap, he said, whereas tutoring is expensive, in that it may involve hiring many new full-time staff.