Winter 2012 State & Hill: Policy and Education

Page 5


Susan M. Dynarski

By federal law, oversubscribed charter schools across the nation are required to select their students randomly. Just as dramatized in Waiting for Superman, school administrators are required to do this in a public forum, inviting parents and community members to observe as they draw names or numbers from boxes or ping pong balls from cages. “Ultimately, it’s that chance, that flip of the coin, that makes a near-perfect laboratory for studying the effects of charter schools on student outcomes,” says Dynarski. After all, given a large enough sample size in which chance is the only factor that separates a charter school student from her traditional public counterpart, you’ve eliminated everything but the treatment: charter education. »»» Last year, Dynarski and Jacob received a grant from the Smith Richardson Foundation to track the outcomes of tens of thousands of students who enrolled in charter school lotteries throughout the state of Michigan. Over the next two years, they’ll study the outcomes of the winners and losers of those lotteries, looking specifically at academic achievement, high school graduation, and college enrollment. They’ll strip the names, so each individual student and his school remains anonymous. And they’ll analyze the results, in hopes of identifying the


Brian A. Jacob

Then, with all of that data in hand, Dynarski and Jacob will attempt to tease out the most effective school practices. For example, if they discover that the charter schools with the greatest impact are using a particular curriculum, mandating a longer school day, or controlling class size, they’ll disseminate that information broadly. After all, the most effective practices are likely to be of interest to all public schools—charter or traditional. »»» While charter school research like this is of interest across the nation, and indeed, is being conducted across the nation, it just so happens that Michigan is a great place to study charters. With 242 charters enrolling 110,000 students (about 7 percent of the state’s K-12 population), Michigan has one of the largest and fastest growing charter populations in the country. When Dynarski conducted a similar study with colleagues in Massachusetts, only 21 of the state’s 86 middle and high school charter schools had sufficient lottery data to be included in her research. Three months into the Michigan study, in comparison, Dynarski and Jacob have identified more than twice that number, and are only half way through the state’s charter schools. Perhaps even more exciting is an aspect of the Michigan study that no other researchers have attempted at this scale: a focus on college-going and completion. Because

bout 85 percent of Michigan’s students graduate from high school, and 71 percent of those graduates go to college, but a much lower share of them actually finish college.

state’s most successful charters as measured by student academic performance and educational attainment.

In addition, Jacob and Dynarski will study the charter schools themselves. They’ll ascertain each school’s focus—whether it’s college prep, arts education, language skills, or character development. They’ll study the length of their school day, the length of their school year, and the size of their classes. They’ll look at programs and policies regarding parental involvement, teacher training, curriculum development, student support, and more.

Jacob and Dynarski have worked extensively with Michigan’s education community to construct a powerful database to track and research postsecondary education outcomes, the pair hope to incorporate statewide postsecondary data that would allow them to understand what percentage of charter school graduates are going on to college, which two- or four-year institutions they’re attending, which degrees they’re pursuing, how they’re faring academically, and whether or not they’re graduating. About 85 percent of Michigan’s students graduate from high school, and 71 percent of those graduates go to college, but a much lower share of them actually finish


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