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Does the Organization of Instruction Differ in Charter Schools? Ability Grouping and Students' Mathematics Gains


by Mark Berends & Kristi Donaldson — 2016

Background: Although we have learned a good deal from lottery-based and quasi-experimental studies of charter schools, much of what goes on inside of charter schools remains a “black box” to be unpacked. Grounding our work in neoclassical market theory and institutional theory, we examine differences in the social organization of schools and classrooms to enrich our understanding of school choice, school organizational and instructional conditions, and student learning.

Purpose / Objective / Research Question / Focus of Study: Our study examines differences in students’ mathematics achievement gains between charter and traditional public schools, focusing on the distribution and organization of students into ability groups. In short, we ask: (1) How does the distribution of ability grouping differ between charter and traditional public schools? And (2) What are the relationships between ability group placement and students' mathematics achievement gains in charter and traditional public schools?

Research Design: With a matched sample of charter and traditional public schools in six states (Colorado, Delaware, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, and Ohio), we use regression analyses to estimate the relationship between student achievement gains and school sector. We analyze how ability grouping mediates this main effect, controlling for various student, classroom, and school characteristics.

Findings: We find significant differences in the distribution of students across ability groups, with a more even distribution in charter compared to traditional public schools, which appear to have more selective placements for high groups. Consistent with prior research on tracking, we also find low-grouped students to be at a significant disadvantage when compared with high- and mixed-group peers in both sectors.

Conclusions: Although we find some significant differences between ability group placement and student achievement gains in mathematics, these relationships do not differ as much by sector as market theory (with its emphasis on innovation and autonomy) would predict. Consistent with institutional theory, both sectors still group students by ability and have similar relationships between gains and grouping.



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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 118 Number 11, 2016, p. 1-38
http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 21636, Date Accessed: 12/12/2017 6:51:17 PM

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About the Author
  • Mark Berends
    University of Notre Dame
    E-mail Author
    MARK BERENDS, PhD, is a professor of sociology at the University of Notre Dame and director of the Center for Research on Educational Opportunity (CREO). His areas of expertise are the sociology of education, research methods, school effects on student achievement, and educational equity. Throughout his research career, Professor Berends has focused on how school organization and classroom instruction are related to student achievement, with special attention to disadvantaged students. Within this agenda, he has applied a variety of quantitative and qualitative methods to understanding the effect of school reforms on teachers and students. Professor Berends serves on numerous editorial boards, technical panels, and policy forums; he is currently co-editor of the American Educational Research Journal and recent editor of Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis; a fellow of the American Educational Research Association; current (and former) vice president of the American Educational Research Association's Division L, Educational Policy and Politics; and the AERA Program Chair for the 2014 annual meeting. His books include Leading with Data: Pathways to Improve Your School (Corwin, 2009), the Handbook of Research on School Choice (Routledge, 2009), and School Choice and School Improvement (Harvard Education Press, 2011).
  • Kristi Donaldson
    University of Notre Dame
    E-mail Author
    KRISTI DONALDSON is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology and a research assistant in the Center for Research on Educational Opportunity at the University of Notre Dame. Her research interests include the expansion of advanced programs and courses; equity, access, and persistence in such programs; and the racial-ethnic stratification of students within and between schools.
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