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Study: Is Promise Academy a 'Middling' Charter?

The Harlem Children's Zone Promise Academy charter school may outperform other public schools in New York City—but not necessarily other charter schools in Gotham.

At least that's the conclusion drawn by Grover J. "Russ" Whitehurst in a provocative new analysis posted today by the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution. Whitehurst, you'll recall, is the former director of the federal Institute of Education Sciences. In his new job at Brookings, though, he's forged a second career from doing analyses that prick some of education's sacred cows. (See this article I wrote about his critique of the federal Head Start program.

The celebrated Harlem Children's Zone, of course, is another one of those sacred cows. It's the model for President Obama's Promise Neighborhoods initiative, which seeks to replicate the zones in 20 cities across the country. The idea behind the zone is to delineate an impoverished area of a city and then provide the children growing up within its borders (as well as adults) with a wide range of support services, including asthma management, afterschool programs, community centers, academic tutoring and counseling, and fitness and nutrition programs.

Earlier this year, a well-regarded randomized study of the zone's Promise Academy middle school by a pair of Harvard University researchers found that the charter schools within the zone were much more effective than regular public schools at raising students' academic achievement. For his analysis, though, Whitehurst sought to compare the Zone Promise Academy to other charter schools in Manhattan and the Bronx.

Unlike the previous study, though, this was no randomized, controlled study. Whitehurst and his research partner, Michelle Croft, collected average reading and math scores over three years for several grades of students, converted them to percentile rankings, and then adjusted the rankings to account for racial, ethnic, and economic differences among students. The Promise Academy, they found, fell somewhere in the middle of the pack. In math, students ranked at the 48th percentile based on their raw average scores and at the 55th percentile when scores were adjusted. In English language arts, they ranked 42nd in terms of actual scores and 47th after socioeconomic differences were taken into account.

"The inescapable conclusion is that HCZ Promise Academy is a middling charter school," the analysis concludes. "If other charter schools generate outcomes that are superior to those of the HCZ and those charter schools are not embedded in broad neighborhood improvement programs, why should we think that a neighborhood approach is superior to a schools-only approach?"

From a public policy perspective, It would be far less expensive to focus solely on making the schools themselves the best they can be, according to Whitehurst.

There are a couple of points to keep in mind here, though. One, as I mentioned earlier, is that this methodology is not quite as rigorous as a randomized study, which would have been difficult to do given this particular data set. The second point is that the competition for the Promise Academy was pretty stiff in this study. At least two studies so far have found that New York City's charters tend to outperform its regular public schools. And the mix of charter schools in this analysis includes three middle schools associated with the Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP, which calls for a longer school day, a longer school year, and even some Saturday classes.

These findings, of course, are counterintuitive. And my guess is that they will raise some hackles among HCZ supporters, who are legion. I invite them to share (or vent) their thoughts here.

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