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For-Profit Charter School Students Doing Better on Math in Michigan, Study Finds

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U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos' overnight rise from Michigan philanthropist on a mission to spread school choice to the country's top ed job has meant that her favored policies have come under a lot more scrutiny.

And that's particularly true of charter schools run by for-profit companies—something of a controversial idea at least in part because recent research has found that some types of for-profit charter operators, mainly those that educate students online, can have a pretty adverse effect on how students perform academically.

It has been urban, nonprofit charter networks that—in study after study—have shown the most success at raising student test scores, at least for African-American and Latino students.

But findings from a new study by researchers at the University of Michigan's Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy are intriguing precisely because they run counter to other research and the general narrative that's developed around for-profit charter operators.

Although this latest study is limited to only one for-profit operator, the National Heritage Academy, and it hasn't yet been peer-reviewed, the findings are nonetheless worth exploring.

National Heritage Academy educates 58,000 students across nine states, making it the fourth largest for-profit charter operator in the country, and the largest in Michigan. About two-thirds of Michigan's charter schools are managed by for-profit companies, more than any other state. Unlike the two largest for-profit operators in the country, National Heritage Academy schools are not online schools—all of its students attend school in brick-and-mortar buildings.¬†

The researchers only looked at Michigan students, and they found that attending a National Heritage Academy school for one year gave students a moderate academic boost in math, and had no statistically significant effect on student reading scores one way or the other. A 2013 study by Stanford University's Center for Educational Outcomes, or CREDO, that examined the performance of charter networks across the country also found that National Heritage Academy was among those that improved student academic achievement.

Furthermore, the University of Michigan researchers found that the students who benefited the most from attending a National Heritage Academy school were blue-collar and middle-income white and Asian students living in towns and suburban areas.

That's not to say that black and Latino students don't get a boost from attending a National Heritage school—the researchers just aren't sure because such students were less likely to enroll at a National Heritage school and those that did enroll attended the schools for shorter periods of time than their wealthier white and Asian peers.

This could be because there are fewer NHA schools in urban areas and students live further from their campuses. Charter schools in Michigan are not required to provide transportation to students. Urban areas in Michigan are also flooded with school choices, so students may simply be less likely to pick a National Heritage Academy school because they already have more school options than their rural and suburban peers.

Big Question: Does Profit Status Matter?

Perhaps the most significant question this study raises is whether the for-profit or non-profit status of a charter operator matters as much when it comes to improving student achievement, or if it's other factors that help raise student achievement.

Despite the profit status of the National Heritage Academy schools, they actually share several similarities with well-regarded non-profit charter networks such as KIPP and the Harlem Children's Zone Promise Academy.

The schools follow the "no excuses" model with high expectations for student achievement, behavior, and strict codes of discipline. They devote more time out of the school day to work on math and reading and closely monitor student growth with frequent tests. National Heritage Academy schools also group students by ability.

National Heritage Academy schools hire more novice teachers and have more teacher turnover compared to traditional public schools. But the schools also place a significant emphasis on mentoring and leadership cultivation. Every school has a special administrator, known as a dean, who focus primarily on coaching teachers.

Teachers have many opportunities to move up the ladder as the network expands from teacher, to dean, to principal and to higher positions within the organization. This is very similar to how the country's largest charter school network, KIPP, develops talent and moves teachers up through the ranks.

What This Means for Debates Over For-Profit Companies in Education

As I mentioned, there are a couple of important caveats to keep in mind. First, the results were published as a National Bureau for Economic Research working paper, so they have not been peer-reviewed.

The researchers only studied one charter school operator in Michigan, and within the National Heritage Academy schools, researchers only looked at schools where there was more student enrollment demand than they could accommodate. These schools used a random lottery to pick which students they admitted, allowing the researchers to compare the test scores of lottery winners to losers within the same demographic groups.

A random lottery is great for girding against selection bias—the idea that students who attend charter schools are more successful not because of the school but because their parents are more motivated or have more resources. But it also means that the researchers are only studying the most popular schools within the NHA network, and they may be the most popular because they are the best academically.

All of this is to say that the results of this study can't be broadly applied to for-profit schools across the country or even just Michigan. But they do provide some food-for-thought in the ongoing debates both within and beyond the charter sector over the place of for-profit charter operators.

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