Studies: Western Mass. Charter Schools Using Data to Improve Achievement

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Case Studies Describe Best Practices Of Two Successful Western Massachusetts Charter Public Schools

Schools are affiliated with, use approach developed by SABIS, an education management organization

BOSTON – The reasons why two western Massachusetts charter public schools that contract with a for-profit education management company consistently outperform their surrounding school districts are made clearer by a pair of new case studies published by Pioneer Institute.

In Massachusetts Charter Public Schools: Best Practices Using Data to Improve Student Achievement in Holyoke and Massachusetts Charter Public Schools: Best Practices Using Data to Improve Student Achievement in Springfield, author and Pioneer Institute Senior Fellow Cara Stillings Candal profiles the Holyoke Community Charter School (HCCS) in Holyoke and the SABIS International Charter School (SICS) in Springfield.

Nearly 90 percent of students at the high-performing K-8 HCCS are Hispanic and the overwhelming majority are low income.  As of March 2015, there were 574 students on the school’s waitlist.  During the last school year it retained 93 percent of its students, which is above the state average.  Only a small number of students enter after kindergarten, since so few of the school’s students leave.

US News & World Report has named the K-12 SICS among its top high schools for five years running.  The school was among Massachusetts’ 14 original charter schools when it opened in 1995.  Every graduate of the school has been accepted to college. Seventy-five percent of the school’s students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch. Students at the school perform better on MCAS than their peers in the surrounding Springfield district.

Both schools contract with SABIS and use the company’s data-driven educational approach.

“These SABIS charter schools use test data to drive improvements in student achievement that results in closing achievement gaps,” said Cara Stillings Candal. “In chronically underperforming urban districts like Holyoke and Springfield, underserved student populations need more, not fewer, of these kinds of higher quality charter schools.”

Both schools administer tailored weekly assessments, which drive instruction by identifying gaps in knowledge or misunderstandings that students might have.  Assessment results are available the following day, and students conference with teachers to discuss their results and formulate plans for academic growth.  The system prevents students from being “passed along” through a curriculum without demonstrating an understanding of essential concepts.

A web portal designed to engage parents is updated on a daily basis.  It tells parents where their children are succeeding and struggling and generates a list of concepts, individualized for each student, that he or she can practice at home.

SABIS provides a range of services that include:

  • Highly detailed curricula aligned to state frameworks
  • SABIS-authored textbooks
  • Management services that include help with budgets, school finances, auditing and compliance with regulations in areas ranging from facilities to special education
  • Prescribed but locally tailored assessments

Curriculum is also tailored to local needs.  For example, at the request of parents, SABIS integrated additional history lessons from Puerto Rico, where many of the school’s families are from.  HCCS is also moving those students out of the English language learner category faster than the surrounding district.

SABIS’ approach creates a framework for how the schools operate, but school leaders make the day-to-day decisions.

A 2010 state law raised the cap on charter schools in low-performing school districts but required that any new schools in those districts above the previous cap be operated by “proven providers.”  Despite the outstanding performance of three SABIS-affiliated Massachusetts charter schools, six proposed charters that planned to contract with SABIS have been rejected by the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

“For two decades, SABIS charter public schools have proven to be among the best schools at closing achievement gaps for the Bay State’s urban schoolchildren,” said Jamie Gass director of the Center for School Reform at Pioneer Institute. “Nevertheless, since 2008, the Massachusetts Department of Education has treated SABIS in an arbitrary, discriminatory, and disgraceful way.”

The 2008 rejection of a proposed Brockton-area school was the most egregious.  The state commissioner of education recommended that the board approve the school, but then-board chair Paul Reville raised questions about SABIS’ special education practices at SICS.  Officials from the proposed school had information about a letter from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) that said all material issues had been corrected, but Reville refused to allow them to speak.  The proposal was subsequently rejected and it remains the only Massachusetts charter proposal ever to be rejected by the board after being recommended for approval by the commissioner. Once again in 2012, the DESE rejected the proposed SABIS charter for Brockton, while just this winter the department rejected a proposed SABIS charter for Fitchburg.

The prejudice against the SABIS model is especially troubling because SABIS is one of the national charter networks best equipped to replicate in cities outside Greater Boston.

Among Candal’s recommendations are lifting the state cap on charter schools, authorizing charters that take a range of approaches to improving student achievement, the creation of better platforms for high-performing charters to share best practices with struggling schools and leveraging best practices from high-performing charters in “turnaround” districts, as has been done in Lawrence.

Cara Stillings Candal is an education researcher and writer. She is as senior consultant for research and curriculum at the Center for Better Schools/National Academy for Advanced Teacher Education, an adjunct professor at the Boston University School of Education, and a senior fellow at Pioneer Institute.

Pioneer Institute is an independent, non-partisan, privately funded research organization that seeks to improve the quality of life in Massachusetts through civic discourse and intellectually rigorous, data-driven public policy solutions based on free market principles, individual liberty and responsibility, and the ideal of effective, limited and accountable government.