Better Math Scores Through Missouri Public Charter Schools? A Hoxby Review

Charter school proponents have had faith that their model of increased flexibility and autonomy can offer solutions for kids in underserved communities. They’ve been able to see anecdotal improvements, but studies published this month offer proof of the incredible potential of Charter schools to improve student achievement.

New York was the subject of a study by Stanford professor Caroline Hoxby. By comparing the progress of students who were accepted to a Charter school by random lottery and those who were not accepted and remained in public schools, Hoxby was able to create a reliable comparison between similar students.

The results showed children who attended Charter schools performed better in math and English. The key component of Hoxby’s study is that the school is the only difference between the two groups she studied. Parents were equally motivated, the children were equally qualified, and the lottery was random.

For Charter founders, teachers and board members, these findings reinforce their day-to-day experience working with individual students. The research dispels the myth that Charter successes have only been because they “cream” the best students. But research is not only valuable to prove a theory true, but also to direct next steps.

Missouri is one of the states that Dr. Hoxby’s study identifies as hosting Charter schools whose students showed significantly higher gains than their public school counterparts. This kind of definitive research is vitally useful in crafting a good education policy – one that produces measurable results.

But how will this information filter into policies, especially considering Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s (@arneduncan) recent tour promoting swift, serious education reforms on the state level? A study conducted by the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory specifically examined how policymakers access and apply research evidence. Through focus groups and surveys, they found that research played a minor role in policy-shaping discourse.

“Study participants asserted that political perspectives, public sentiment, potential legal pitfalls, economic considerations, pressure from the media, and the welfare of individuals all take precedence over research evidence in influencing decisions. In focus groups and interviews, participants did not mention any ‘breakthrough research’ nor did they cite any findings that they felt had a dramatic effect on practice or policy.” ( p. 0iv)

Part of their research examined how researchers might present their findings to policymakers in a more useful format. Participants identified a lack of sophistication in finding, analyzing and applying data, as well as an apprehension about the accuracy of research. That is certainly understandable in a culture rich with data and research: sifting through a great wealth of often dense, technical research to find applicable, trusted, complete research requires rigor and time.

“Both policymakers and practitioners expressed a preference for brief reports (no more than one to two pages), in a larger font, and written in nontechnical language. They also identified a need for research that is locally relevant and credible, includes case studies, and offers analysis across multiple studies.” (p. Oiv)

The authors stressed that research has many auxiliary or indirect paths to influencing public policy. For instance, there is a heavier reliance on research by school administrators as they form local policies. Research may be highlighted by the media, or used by the reform-minded to frame a policy conversation. But in any of these scenarios, policymakers stressed that in order for it to be useful in sculpting reform policies, they had to receive that information from a trusted intermediary.

The Hoxby study in particular is a seminal piece of research that has already found a life in the reporting of major national newspapers, such as the New York Post, the Washington Post and the New York Times. The challenge in Missouri will be to help explain how this study applies to Missouri students: what the current Charter school environment looks like in Missouri, and how we can use policy as a bridge to increased achievement.

“Clearly, the formulation of policy is a balancing act among what is right, what is known, what is desired, and what is possible,” (p. 1) note the study’s authors, and good research can fortify that framework to result in truly effective reforms.

Additional Resources:

Caroline Hoxby was in St. Louis earlier this year to talk about her research on Charter School performance.

Charter School Research and Economics Part 1

Charter School Research and Economics Part 2


Caroline Hoxby’s Multiple Choice: Charter School Performance in 16 States

NREL: Toward a Research Agenda for Understanding and Improving the Use of Research Evidence