Explaining Charter School Effectiveness
School Assignment, School Reform, December 2012
Estimates using admissions lotteries suggest that urban charter schools boost student achievement, while charter schools in other settings do not. Using the largest available sample of lotteried applicants to charter schools, we explore student-level and school-level explanations for this difference in Massachusetts. In an econometric framework that isolates sources of charter effect heterogeneity, we show that urban charter schools boost achievement well beyond that of urban public school students, while non-urban charters reduce achievement from a higher baseline. Student demographics explain some of these gains since urban charters are most effective for non-whites and low-baseline achievers. At the same time, non-urban charter schools are uniformly ineffective. Our estimates also reveal important school-level heterogeneity within the urban charter sample. A non-lottery analysis suggests that urban charters with binding, well-documented admissions lotteries generate larger score gains than under-subscribed urban charter schools with poor lottery records. Finally, we link charter impacts to school characteristics such as peer composition, length of school day, and school philosophy. The relative effectiveness of urban lottery-sample charters is accounted for by those schools’ embraces of the No Excuses approach to urban education.