Low-achieving students less likely to apply to charter schools, UC Berkeley study finds

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Underprivileged students — specifically those who are low-achieving, nonwhite and low-income — are less likely to apply to charter schools yet stand to benefit the most from them, according to new research from UC Berkeley.

For the study, Christopher Walters, an assistant professor of economics at UC Berkeley, conducted research on patterns of selection into Boston charter schools. Walters said parenting and household “advantages” may contribute to high-achieving students choosing charter schools instead of district schools, more so than low-achieving students.

“Complicated school enrollment processes may be easier for more-advantaged households to navigate,” Walters said in an email.There are a variety of studies suggesting that disadvantaged students are less likely to enroll in high-quality educational options, possibly because they face higher logistical barriers to learning about and taking advantage of these options.”

A report published by Education Resource Strategies and Oakland Achieves found that, on average, students attending charter schools score higher on state assessments than students attending district schools.

The report, released in June 2017, analyzed data from district schools within the Oakland Unified School District, or OUSD, and from charter schools within the Oakland area. The report showed that in charter schools, incoming sixth-grade students are more likely to score at or above proficiency in English language arts, compared to students at district-run schools.

Parents might not be aware of charter school options or may not have the time and effort to sign up, according to Elizabeth Setren, a postdoctoral fellow at the National Bureau of Economic Research, who collaborated with Walters on his research in Boston. 

In Oakland, charter schools and district schools have separate applications, and Berkeley’s REALM charter school has a lottery-style application.

In regards to the disproportionate number of high-achieving students attending charter schools instead of district schools, OUSD District 6 Director Shanthi Gonzales said charter schools are “not serving high-needs students equitably” and are instead using “selective admission and counseling our students who are not academically proficient.”

Though more low-achieving students attend district schools than attend charter schools in the Oakland area, research done in Boston and New York indicates that urban charter schools can boost academic achievement sharply. Walter’s research revealed that charter schools can generate “larger gains” for disadvantaged students.

Some charter schools employ educational methods that have been correlated with high performance — methods such as more instructional time, frequent teacher feedback, high-intensity tutoring and data-driven instruction.

The report stated that the next steps are to further explore the reasons behind the differences in incoming proficiency across sectors at the middle school and high school level and as a response, to also explore the extent to which those differences should lead to resource differentiation.

The report also suggests exploring opportunities for district and charter schools to serve more equitable percentages of students with higher needs, including increasing awareness of school options for parents and students.

Contact Jarrett Visher at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @Jarrett_Visher.