Over the past 30 years, charter schools have emerged as a prominent yet debated public school option. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 7 percent of U.S. public school students were enrolled in charter schools in 2021, up from 4 percent in 2010. Amid this expansion, families and policymakers want to know more about charter school performance and its systemic impacts. While researchers have evaluated charter schools’ short-term effects on student outcomes, significant knowledge gaps still exist.
MIT Blueprint Labs aims to fill those gaps through its Charter School Research Collaborative, an initiative that brings together practitioners, policymakers, researchers, and funders to make research on charter schools more actionable, rigorous, and efficient. The collaborative will create infrastructure to streamline and fund high-quality, policy-relevant charter research.
Joshua Angrist, MIT Ford Professor of Economics and a Blueprint Labs co-founder and director, says that Blueprint Labs hopes “to increase [its] impact by working with a larger group of academic and practitioner partners.” A nonpartisan research lab, Blueprint's mission is to produce the most rigorous evidence possible to inform policy and practice. Angrist notes, “The debate over charter schools is not always fact-driven. Our goal at the lab is to bring convincing evidence into these discussions.”
The collaborative launched with a two-day kickoff in November. Blueprint Labs welcomed researchers, practitioners, funders, and policymakers to MIT to lay the groundwork for the collaborative. Over 80 participants joined the event, including leaders of charter school organizations, researchers at top universities and institutes, and policymakers and advocates from a variety of organizations and education agencies.
Through a series of panels, presentations, and conversations, participants including Rhode Island Department of Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green, CEO of Noble Schools Constance Jones, former Knowledge is Power Program CEO Richard Barth, president and CEO of National Association of Charter School Authorizers Karega Rausch, and many others discussed critical topics in the charter school space. These conversations influenced the collaborative’s research agenda.
Several sessions also highlighted how to ensure that the research process includes diverse voices to generate actionable evidence. Panelists noted that researchers should be aware of the demands placed on practitioners and should carefully consider community contexts. In addition, collaborators should treat each other as equal partners.
Parag Pathak, the Class of 1922 Professor of Economics at MIT and a Blueprint Labs co-founder and director, explained the kickoff’s aims. “One of our goals today is to begin to forge connections between [attendees]. We hope that [their] conversations are the launching point for future collaborations,” he stated. Pathak also shared the next steps for the collaborative: “Beginning next year, we’ll start investing in new research using the agenda [developed at this event] as our guide. We will also support new partnerships between researchers and practitioners.”
The discussions at the kickoff informed the collaborative’s research agenda. A recent paper summarizing existing lottery-based research on charter school effectiveness by Sarah Cohodes, an associate professor of public policy at the University of Michigan, and Susha Roy, an associate policy researcher at the RAND Corp., also guides the agenda. Their review finds that in randomized evaluations, many charter schools increase students’ academic achievement. However, researchers have not yet studied charter schools’ impacts on long-term, behavioral, or health outcomes in depth, and rigorous, lottery-based research is currently limited to a handful of urban centers.
The current research agenda focuses on seven topics:
- the long-term effects of charter schools;
- the effect of charters on non-test score outcomes;
- which charter school practices have the largest effect on performance;
- how charter performance varies across different contexts;
- how charter school effects vary with demographic characteristics and student background;
- how charter schools impact non-student outcomes, like teacher retention; and
- how system-level factors, such as authorizing practices, impact charter school performance.
As diverse stakeholders' priorities continue to shift and the collaborative progresses, the research agenda will continue to evolve.
Information for interested partners
Opportunities exist for charter leaders, policymakers, researchers, and funders to engage with the collaborative. Stakeholders can apply for funding, help shape the research agenda, and develop new research partnerships. A competitive funding process will open this month.