High Quality Schools and the Educational Achievement Gap

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The Promise Academy public charter schools in the Harlem Children's Zone will increase a [student's probability of scoring at grade level]...by 11.6 percent ... in sixth grade, 17.9 percent ... in seventh grade, and 27.5 percent ... by eighth grade.

The Harlem Children's Zone occupies a 97-block area in New York City and offers over 20 programs to 8,058 youths and 5,291 adults. One of those programs is The Promise Academy elementary and middle schools, which enroll about 1,300 students. The Academies offer extended school day and year, tutoring, remediation, learning incentives, and a number of parental support programs. When applications exceed the number of places, enrollment is awarded by lottery.

In Are High Quality Schools Enough to Close the Achievement Gap? Evidence from a Social Experiment in Harlem (NBER Working Paper No. 15473), Will Dobbie and Roland Fryer find that in the fourth and fifth grade, the math test scores of charter school lottery winners and losers are virtually identical to those of a typical black student in the New York City schools. After attending the Promise Academy middle school for three years, black students score as well as comparable white students. They are 11.6 percent more likely to be scoring at grade level in sixth grade, 17.9 percent more likely to be scoring at grade level in seventh grade, and 27.5 percent more likely to be scoring at grade level by eighth grade. Overall, Promise Academy middle school enrollment appears to increase math scores by 1.2 standard deviations in eighth grade, more than the estimated benefits from reductions in class size, Teach for America, or Head Start.

The benefits accrue to all subsets of students in the middle school including those entering above or below median test scores, those eligible for free lunches, and those who were and were not eligible for the Harlem Children's Zone's student-family service bundles of nutritious fruits and vegetables, advice, pre-made meals, and money and travel allowances. The total cost of the Promise Academy charter school was about $19,272 per student including after-school and "wrap-around" programs. The New York Department of Education funded every charter school at $12,443 per student in 2008-9, and the median school district in New York State spent $16,171 per student in 2006.

-- Linda Gorman