Charter schools can lead to less crime and better civic outcomes, but the impact is small. What does this mean for academies?

Some reflections on academies, charter schools and school effects from reading this very interesting and well-executed paper by Andrew Mc Eachin, Douglas Lauren, Sarah Fuller and Rachel Perrera on Effects of Charter Schools on Behavioral Outcomes, Arrests, and Civic Participation (I have added the working paper for easier access, the final paper was published in Economic of Education Review).

The authors use data from North Carolina school to look at the impact of transferring to or staying at a charter school (US equivalent of an academy) compared to a public school (run by the local district. What is interesting is that they looked at the behavioural and civic outcomes, in particular at absenteeism and suspensions from school, but also at likelihood of committing crimes, misdemeanours and felonies as young adults, and likelihood to be registered to vote. Most research into academies and charter schools has looked at attainment, so it is interesting to see what impact on other outcomes might be. The study used a large data set to match pupils in the charter schools with those in public schools, using propensity score matching, a statistical method that allows us to carefully match pupils in different schools on things like prior attainment, social background, ethnicity and so on.

The authors find that moving to a charter school between 8th and 9th grade has a positive impact on all these outcomes, while staying in a charter school has positive impacts in particular for Black, Hispanic and low SES pupils. This is interesting, as most studies on schools primarily find school effects on attainment. More research is needed (as us researchers always say), but it is suggestive that factors such as school culture and approaches to behaviour management may affect civic outcomes as well.

These findings on civic outcomes here are intriguing. We know that schools are able to very significantly affect behaviour during the school years, with schools like Michaela showing what can be achieved. We would hope and hypothesise that this will lead to more engagement in civic life and lower levels of criminal behaviour, and here are some indications that this may be the case.

The effect sizes are small, however, and this again confirms a lot of what we find in most research on charter schools and academies: an overall positive, but small, impact. This suggests that the autonomy and choice provided by charter schools and academies is beneficial, but that the effect is limited. This isn’t surprising, as the variance within those large groups (charter/public, academies/LA) is of course far larger than the variance between these groups. Academies differ significantly in their own effectiveness, policies and practices, and it is those practices, not being an academy in and of itself, that will make the difference to outcomes. The autonomy that academies and academy trusts have provides the framework within which schools have the autonomy to be effective, but whether or not that is the case will ultimately depend on what they do with that freedom.

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