February 17, 2016

Julie F. Mead, (608) 263-3405, jmead@education.wisc.edu
Daniel Quinn, (517) 203-2940, dquinn@greatlakescenter.org

Review finds Boston charter report makes significant contribution, lacks generalizability

EAST LANSING, Mich. (Feb. 17, 2016) – The School Effectiveness & Inequality Initiative (SEII), housed in the Department of Economics at MIT, released a working paper in December 2015. The report sought to investigate the enrollment and achievement of students with special needs and English language learners (ELLs) in oversubscribed charter schools in Boston. An academic review of the report released today finds the report's positive findings cannot be generalized to charter schools outside Boston or even to most students from these special populations inside Boston.

Julie F. Mead, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Mark Weber, a doctoral candidate at Rutgers University, reviewed Special Education and English Language Learner Students in Boston Charter Schools for the Think Twice think tank review project of the National Education Policy Center, with funding from the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice.

The SEII working paper claimed to "debunk" the perception that students with special needs and ELLs are underserved in charters. The report focused on Boston charter schools and Boston Public Schools (BPS) that enrolled similar special populations.

The reviewers found some limitations to the paper's methods; however, they find the primary claim regarding test score effects to be on solid ground. Additionally, the models used to estimate the effects were also found to be appropriate.

The reviewers do point out the following limitations in the working paper:

  1. the data and analyses are more limited than readers of the report might be lead to believe;
  2. the effects can only be generalized to those students who enter the lottery and comply with their assignment (charter or traditional public school); and
  3. there is no context provided to compare the size of reported test score gains, or how those test score gains were realized (e.g., unaccounted peer effects and spending differences).

Mead and Weber ultimately conclude that, while this report takes an important step in studying how oversubscribed charters may affect the academic achievement of special populations of students, more examination is needed in order to accurately inform those making education policy. They state, "there is still much research needed in this area."

Find Mead and Weber's review on the GLC website:

Find Special Education and English Language Learner Students in Boston Charter Schools on the web: http://economics.mit.edu/files/11208

Think Twice, a project of the National Education Policy Center, provides the public, policymakers and the press with timely, academically sound reviews of selected publications. The project is made possible in part by funding from the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice.

The review can also be found on the NEPC website:


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The mission of the Great Lakes Center for Education, Research & Practice is to support and disseminate high quality research and reviews of research for the purpose of informing education policy and to develp reasearch-based resources for use by those who advocate for education reform.

Visit the Great Lakes Center website at http://www.greatlakescenter.org/