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March 2011

From the National Center for Education Research (NCER)

R&D Center Focuses on Effectiveness of School Choice

Ellen GoldringEllen Goldring
Mark BerendsMark Berends
Marisa CannataMarisa Cannata

Katina Stapleton of IES' National Center for Education Research interviewed principal investigator Ellen Goldring (Vanderbilt University), director Mark Berends (University of Norte Dame), and co-director Marisa Cannata (Vanderbilt University) of the NCER-funded National Center for Research on School Choice (NCSC) to learn more about some of the Center's research findings on the effectiveness of school choice options.

Examining the effects of charter and magnet schools has been the major focus of the NCSC. In the most rigorous experimental designs, which compare the longitudinal achievement trends of students who win the lotteries into charter or magnet programs with students who do not, the positive effects of charter and magnet schools on student achievement are statistically significant. For example, in his study of magnet schools in a large southern district, NCSC's Dale Ballou of Vanderbilt finds that attending a magnet school has, on average, a positive effect on mathematics achievement for fifth and sixth graders, although the gains for fifth graders dissipate by the end of sixth grade. In addition, there are significant peer effects, based on causal analyses, for students in magnet schools; the results show that the income and race-ethnicity of peers has a substantial effect on achievement outcomes. For example, the difference between a school where students are 76 percent black and one in which students are 25 percent black is more than a half of a year of normal growth in mathematics achievement.

Also, in her study of New York City charter schools, NCSC researcher Caroline Hoxby of Stanford finds that students who enroll in charter schools score about 3 points higher on the New York Regents exam each year they attend a charter school. Hoxby says that this effect over time is substantial, closing about 86 percent of the "Scarsdale-Harlem achievement gap" in math and about 66 percent of the gap in English.

Despite these important findings, other results from the NCSC using quasi-experimental designs to compare charter and traditional public schools across a broader sample are much more mixed. Some charters have positive effects; some negative; and some neutral. For example, in the What Makes Schools Work study—led by Mark Berends, Ellen Goldring, Marisa Cannata, and Marc Stein—researchers looked at a sample of schools in Indiana, Idaho, and Minnesota that used propensity score matching to compare students with similar background characteristics who attended either charter or traditional public schools. They found no significant differences in students' mathematics gains between school types. In addition, in their study of charter school effects in Indianapolis, they found that students who make the switch from traditional public to charter schools experience an initial dip in achievement scores but then go on to make significant gains in both mathematics and reading achievement over time. These findings suggest the importance of examining the conditions under which schooling is effective, whatever the type of school.

The NCSC is housed on the campus of Vanderbilt University's Peabody College in Nashville and operated in collaboration with partners at the Brookings Institution, Brown University, the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy at Indiana University, Harvard University, the National Bureau of Economic Research, the Northwest Evaluation Association, University of Notre Dame, and Stanford University. The Center is funded by a 5-year, $13.3 million grant from the Institute of Education Sciences.

For more information about the Center, go to