(Guest Post by Collin Hitt)
Harlem Promise Academy is a charter middle school, part of the Harlem Children’s Zone. Previous studies from Will Dobbie and Roland Fryer have found big test score gains. A new paper by the Harvard research pair finds that the school had large impacts on college attendance, even larger than the previous gains in test scores would have indicated. From their new paper:
Attending the Promise Academy increases the probability of enrolling in college by 24.2 (9.7) percentage points, an 84 percent increase. In Appendix Table 2, we show that lottery winners are also 21.3 (5.9) percentage points more likely to attend a four-year college and 7.2 (2.3) percentage points less likely to attend a two-year college.
The charter school not only increases the likelihood that its students will attend college, but it increases the quality of the colleges that they attend. Harlem Promise Academy is considered an exceptional school in many minds because of its inclusion in the larger HCZ neighborhood experiment, which includes “wrap-around” social services meant to address issues of poverty. So Dobbie and Fryer collected lottery records at three other charter schools across the country that don’t feature HCZ-style community services, including Noble Network in Chicago, a personal favorite of mine. They found similar college enrollment gains.
They also tested whether the Promise Academy had an impact on lifestyle choices. Charter enrollment appeared to lower teen pregnancy rates by 71 percent and, for boys, drove the observed incarceration rate to almost zero.
They close with what I think is a crucial point for the academic community and the education reform movement to understand:
The education reform movement is based, in part, on two important assumptions: (1) high quality schools can increase test scores, and (2) the well-known relationship between test scores and adult outcomes is causal. We have good evidence that the rst assumption holds (Angrist et al. 2010, Abdulkadiroglu et al. 2011, Dobbie and Fryer 2011a). This paper presents the first pieces of evidence that the second assumption may not only be true, but that the cross-sectional correlation between test scores and adult outcomes may understate the true impact of a high quality school, suggesting that high quality schools change more than cognitive ability. Importantly, the return on investment for high-performing charter schools could be much larger than that implied by the short-run test score increases.
As discussed on this blog, there is now a litany of gold-standard studies of charter schools that find test score gains. Perhaps these studies provide only a glimpse of the benefits to come. We don’t know yet, which is why Dobbie and Fryer do what every smart researcher does – they call for more research.
P.S. There’s another intriguing finding. Alums of Harlem Promise Academy were given a survey that included Duckworth’s “Grit Scale,” which asked them to self-report their persistence, focus and work ethic. The charter school alums scored far lower than the comparison group. This suggests that the self-reported Grit Scale may be a bad measure of actual grit, since it suggested the opposite of the grit outcomes that were observed.