New federal study: Charter middle schools didn’t boost college enrollment or graduation

Goal was to find out whether charter schools improve student outcomes

The lottery process for winning a seat in sought-after charter middle schools was chronicled in the controversial 2010 documentary “Waiting for Superman.”

The camera captured the dramatic drawing and calling of names. Children who won the coveted seats in the charter middle school were ecstatic. Those who did not were crestfallen, believing, as the filmmaker clearly did, that their educational prospects were now diminished since they couldn't attend the charter school.

Turns out that was not the case.

A new U.S. Department of Education study – one the agency released this week with little fanfare – finds that attending a charter middle school does not make a student more likely to attend or graduate college.

Conducted by the well-respected Mathematica Policy Research, the study set out to answer this question for the federal government: Over the long term, do these schools improve students' chances of enrolling in or completing college?

The study found they did not. Researchers looked at charter schools that were oversubscribed so slots were awarded through lotteries.

In explaining the justification for the study, the U.S. Department of Education said:

Charter schools play an important role in efforts to reform education and better serve the nation's public school students. However, little is known about whether charter schools improve students' outcomes in the long term, including the likelihood of enrolling in and completing college.

This study obtained data on attainment of college milestones for students who – more than a decade ago – entered lotteries to be admitted to 31 charter middle schools across the United States.

The lotteries randomly selected 1,723 "lottery winners" who were offered admission to these schools while the remaining 1,150 "lottery losers" were not. Comparing lottery winners and lottery losers is a rigorous way to assess how effective the charter middle schools were in improving college outcomes.

These are the main findings, according to U.S. Department of Education:

Being admitted to a charter middle school in the study did not affect college enrollment. On average, 69 percent of both lottery winners and lottery losers enrolled in some type of college by December 2017, or 3-8 years after they were expected to graduate from high school.

There were no significant differences in the types of colleges where lottery winners versus lottery losers enrolled—including two-year and four-year colleges, public and private colleges (for and non-profit), and more and less selective colleges (i.e., those with lower and higher acceptance rates).

Charter school admission did not affect degree attainment or students' chances of remaining enrolled in college. On average, 48 percent of lottery winners and 47 percent of lottery losers had a degree or were still enrolled as of December 2017. Charter middle schools also did not affect students' likelihood of obtaining a degree at either two-year or four-year schools.

Individual charter middle schools' success in improving college outcomes was not related to their success in improving middle school achievement. An earlier analysis found that the charter middle schools included in the study did not affect student achievement, on average. However, some charter schools were successful in improving middle school achievement, including those in urban areas and those serving economically disadvantaged students.

The study schools that improved middle school achievement were not consistently more successful than others in boosting college enrollment and completion. This may be because other factors—such as student experiences in high school—are more important than middle school achievement in determining long-term outcomes.

According to Mathematica's summary:

This study, led by Kate Place and Phil Gleason, assesses these effects by building upon the National Evaluation of Charter Middle Schools.

The evaluation compared these two groups of students to assess how charter middle schools affected students' achievement and, on average, found no effects. Some charter schools, however, were successful in improving students' achievement, including those in urban areas and those serving economically disadvantaged students.

To understand more about the role that charters play in reforming the education system and serving the nation's students, the new study obtained data on college going for the students from the prior national evaluation. It examines whether the same group of charter middle schools affected students' college enrollment and completion and the relationship between each school's earlier achievement results and these important longer-term outcomes.

"The study's focus on college outcomes is important because charter schools ultimately aim to improve students' educational trajectories and career success," said study director Phil Gleason. "Our results show just how challenging it can be to achieve these goals, even for charter schools that improved students' middle school achievement."