A Less Adversarial Model for Charter SchoolsApr 6th, 2012 | By Zachary Trout
NBER Working Paper. 2011.
Roland Fryer’s recent working paper tries to reconcile the agendas of those who advocate the expansion of charter education and those who defend a community-centered solution to the achievement gap. The Harvard economist attempts to bridge these often competing agendas by asserting that charter schools need not compete with traditional public schools. Rather, the 4,638 operational charter schools across the country can serve as “incubators of innovation” whose strategies undergo review before ultimately being implemented in non-charter settings.
Fryer begins by identifying the most successful charter networks, whose adherence to the “No Excuses” approach appears to have results for high-poverty populations. The chief components of the strategy include increased time on-task, improvements to human capital, differentiation through small-group tutoring, data-driven instruction, and a culture of high expectations.
Fryer tests his hypothesis that the “No Excuses” model is capable of improving public schools by examining the Houston Independent School District (HISD), the seventh largest in the United States. During the 2010-2011 school year, HISD implemented strategies used by charter schools in nine traditional public schools, including four “persistently low-achieving” high schools. The changes included extension of the school day, replacement of personnel, and an increase in assessments. 100% of principals, 52% of teachers, and 30% of administrators were replaced with followers of the “No Excuses” philosophy.
Ultimately, Fryer finds no negative effects of the “No Excuses” transition on morale. The approach proved effective even in settings without selective attrition or the overt influence of more involved parents. Still, Fryer remains concerned about scalability and warns against acceptance of the hypothesis without qualification.
Notably, a post-implementation evaluation of 6th and 9th grade students showed statistically significant improvements in math scores, but only small or non-existent gains in reading scores. Additionally, the high cost of $2,042 per student has the potential to intimidate struggling districts. Thus, expansion of the model across various regions may face strong push-back in the form of local politics, particularly by less reform-minded school boards.
The model’s demand for a very specific supply of labor – teachers and administrators aligned with the “No Excuses” approach – is the most apparent obstacle. Despite these difficulties, seeing that increased time on task, student-level differentiation, and a culture of high-expectations can all be implemented at the classroom level at the very least offers hope to those seeking strategies for more immediate gains.