Research News

Mead reviews charter school study related to students with special needs, ELLs

February 25, 2016

A recent report from the School Effectiveness and Inequality Initiative (SEII) investigates the enrollment and achievement of students with special needs and English language learners (ELLs) in oversubscribed charter schools in Boston.

This report is titled, “Special Education and English Language Learner Students in Boston Charter Schools: Impact and Classification.”

Although it finds some interesting and positive patterns deserving of further study, a review of that report co-authored by UW-Madison’s Julie Mead explains how the effects cannot be generalized to support broad advocacy statements such as, “special education and ELL students enrolled in charters perform better on math, English-language arts, science, and writing MCAS tests.”

Julie Mead 2015
Similarly, the review explains how the SEII report’s positive findings cannot be generalized to charter schools outside Boston or even to most students from these special populations inside Boston.

Mead is a professor with the School of Education’s Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis. She co-authored the review with Mark Weber, a Ph.D. student in Education Theory, Organization and Policy at Rutgers University’s School of Education.

The SEII report considers an important research question about the enrollment and success of special education and ELL students in charter schools, and it claims to “debunk” the common perception that these students are underserved in charters. It concludes that Boston charters and Boston Public Schools enroll similar numbers of both special populations, and that charter attendance has a positive and statistically significant effect for those who enter Boston’s charter school lottery and then enroll after being offered a seat.

But Mead and Weber point out in their review that the special-population enrollment claims are undercut by the assumptions made and the limitations of the study’s methods. Regarding the primary claim, about positive test score effects, the study is on more solid ground; the reviewers conclude that the models used in the report to estimate the effects are indeed appropriate.

The review also explains the data and analyses are more limited than readers of the report might be lead to believe.

“The effects,” Mead and Weber explain, “can only be generalized to those students who enter the lottery and comply with their assignment to either treatment (charter school) or control (district public schools).”

The study, Mead and Weber add, also offers no context to compare the size of reported gains and it does not adequately examine how or why the reported test score gains are realized; for example, it does not account for peer effects or spending differences. Mead and Weber conclude that ultimately, while this report takes an important step in studying how oversubscribed charters may affect the academic achievement of special needs students, a closer examination is needed in order to accurately inform those making education policy.

To read learn much more about this topic, check out Mead and Weber’s review on the National Education Policy Center website.

And to find, “Special Education and English Language Learner Students in Boston Charter Schools,” by Elizabeth Setren, visit this web page.