New Study of Boston Charter Schools Shows Huge Learning Gains for City’s Special Education Students & English Language Learners

Elizabeth Setren

This is the latest article in The 74’s ongoing ‘Big Picture’ series, bringing American education into sharper focus through new research and data. Go Deeper: See our full series.

Charter schools in Boston significantly boost the academic performance of English language learners and special needs students compared with traditional district schools, a new study finds. Pupils in both categories see test score gains in core subjects when enrolled in charters, and postsecondary outcomes like college enrollment are also improved.

The study, authored by Tufts University economist Elizabeth Setren, was circulated by Brown University’s Annenberg Institute in July. Released as a working paper, it has not yet undergone peer review.

Its release may complicate popular narratives around charters both in Boston and elsewhere. A common critique leveled against the publicly funded, privately operated schools is that they enroll smaller numbers of students facing learning challenges. Recent research has confirmed that traditional district schools across the country are more likely than charters to educate disabled students, though the disparity seems to be shrinking.

The study is also the latest pointing to strong results from charter schools in Boston. Years of research have indicated that the city’s schools of choice successfully attack learning gaps that put low-income and minority students at a disadvantage. Another study published this spring (and also featuring Setren as a co-author) found that charter schools massively expanded between 2010 and 2015 without seeing any diminishment in their academic results.

In an interview with The 74, Setren said that she was “very surprised” to discover that special education and ELL students were well represented among charter school applicants. Because charters often remove classifications from those pupils, instead moving them into general education settings where they are less likely to receive specialized services, it can be deceptive to contrast overall numbers of special needs and ELL students between the two sectors, she noted.

“Enrolling in a charter school actually changes the likelihood that you keep your special education or English language learner status,” Setren said. “So comparing average outcomes of special education and ELL students in charter schools with those in Boston public schools is going to miss the nuance; they’re not comparing the same students. The proper way to do that would be to look at who had special education or ELL status when they applied to a charter school.”

She set out to do just that, gathering admissions lottery data for 30 charter elementary, middle and high schools between the 2003-04 and 2014-15 school years. That information allowed her to track English learners by their degree of language proficiency at the time they entered a charter school lottery and special education students according to the severity of their learning challenges.

By following ELL and special education figures over time, Setren found that enrolling in a charter school increases the chances that students from both groups will lose their respective designations. Those with a special education status at the time of their charter school lottery are 11.8 percentage points more likely to have that status removed at the time of enrollment than those in a traditional school; English language learners in charters are 31.8 percentage points more likely to have that status removed.

The academic effects of attending charter schools, as measured by scores on standardized tests, are immense. A year of charter school attendance reduces achievement gaps with typical, native-language students for both special education students (by 30 percent in math and 20 percent in English) and especially English language learners (by 84 percent in math and 39 percent in English).

Notably, Setren writes, the scale of those improvements is comparable to that achieved by other charter students who were never designated as having special needs or being English language learners. In other words, Boston charter schools improved the academic achievement of those categories of students roughly as much as their non-special-needs, non-ELL students — even while moving them into inclusive classrooms at higher rates than traditional public schools.

Elizabeth Setren

That finding suggests that other schools can boost academic outcomes for students facing learning challenges while providing fewer traditional specialized services, Setren argues. Instead, “increased focus on general school quality investments can improve special education and ELL student outcomes.”

“Those practices that really stand out as being highly correlated with successful charters in Boston are high-intensity tutoring, data-driven instruction, more instructional time,” she said. “In a lot of cases, tutoring and individualized attention [are] serving all students, including those who may be struggling or have special needs … We consistently see that these charter practices that are common in Boston are the same set of practices that are highly related to the charters that serve special education students and English language learners well.”

The improvements aren’t limited to test scores. Special education students at charter schools are 11.3 percentage points more likely to be eligible for the state’s John and Abigail Adams Scholarship, which pays full tuition to Massachusetts public universities; ELLs are 28.7 percentage points more likely to receive the scholarship.

Improved college outcomes are the result. By Setren’s estimation, attending a charter school roughly doubles the chance that an ELL will enroll in a four-year college, and roughly quadruples the chance that a special education student will graduate from a two-year college.

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