Research News

Research briefs offer answers on school choice

The National Center for School Choice at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of education and human development has released a series of five research briefs explaining new findings on charter schools. The briefs explore the inner-workings of charter schools to look at a variety of issues such as how the teaching environment differs from other public schools, whether those differences affect student achievement and what factors parents and teachers consider when deciding whether to enroll or teach in charter schools.

School choice continues to be a focus of education reforms at the national and local levels. The new research briefs are based on scholarly papers, but take them a step farther by explaining how the researchers conducted their studies and what major points they found. They are written in plain language and provide breakout boxes on key concepts and findings, making them useful to policymakers, educators and the broader public.

The briefs are summarized below and can be found in full at: More information about current events related to school choice is also available on the center’s blog, The center will continue to issue new briefs as more findings become available.

Instructional Conditions in Charter Schools and Students’ Mathematics Achievement Gains
This brief explains an ongoing project that seeks to understand how conditions inside schools differ between charter and traditional public schools and whether those differences affect student achievement. The researchers have surveyed hundreds of principals and thousands of teachers in charter and traditional public schools about a wide range of factors, from use of instructional innovations to teacher decision-making authority, and linked the responses to test scores for their students. The researchers found achievement gains in mathematics were similar for students in both school sectors and that greater instructional innovation did not result in greater achievement gains. Students did experience higher gains, however, in schools where teachers reported they had high expectations for achievement, believed it was important for all students to do well, and emphasized challenging work and completing assignments than in schools where the focus on academic achievement was weaker. One particularly useful feature of this brief is a box summarizing some key issues about charter schools.

Researchers: Ellen Goldring, Xiu Cravens, Peabody College; Mark Berends, University of Notre Dame; Mark Stein, Johns Hopkins University

Teacher Turnover in Charter Schools
A growing body of research has indicated that charter school teachers are more likely to switch schools or quit the profession than teachers in traditional public schools. But why would that be the case? The study found that charter school teachers are more likely both to leave the profession and to switch schools than peers in traditional public schools, and that differences in teacher characteristics explained much of the differences in attrition between the two sectors. Still, many charter teachers said they left because of dissatisfaction with working conditions. They were also more likely to leave involuntarily. The findings are instructive for anyone concerned about stability inside schools, a factor that can be important for creating and sustaining academic quality.

Researchers: David Stuit and Thomas Smith, Vanderbilt University

Charter Schools and the Teacher Job Search in Michigan
Attracting good teachers is key for any school to succeed. This brief explains a paper that surveyed newly minted teachers in Michigan about factors they considered when deciding where to apply for their first jobs, and asking whether they considered working in charter schools.  The findings are particularly instructive for charter school operators. For example, few prospective teachers give equal consideration to charter schools and traditional public schools and many said they included charters only if positions in traditional public schools were not available. Charter schools were more popular with teachers who had personal experience with them – they came from cities with charter schools, for example – but many teachers did not understand how charter schools work. Also important, new teachers who accepted jobs in charter schools earned less money than peers in traditional public schools and were much more likely to say they planned to look for a new job at the end of the school year. The brief includes a clearly written sidebar explaining the theoretical framework behind the study, labor market segmentation.

Researcher: Marisa Cannata, Vanderbilt University

Choosing Indianapolis Charter Schools: Espoused Versus Revealed Academic Preferences
Understanding what drives families to switch schools taps into central questions of the school choice movement. What do they prefer about the chosen school? And what do their choices reveal about their understanding of the available education offerings?   This brief explains a study that looked at the extent to which a quest for academic quality motivated families to switch to charters from traditional public schools — or whether other considerations prompted the changes. The researchers surveyed parents about why they chose a specific charter school and compared those explanations with characteristics of both the school they chose and the one they left. The findings were surprising. A majority of surveyed parents indicated that academics were a top priority in their decision, especially if they considered their child’s previous school average or below. But that preference wasn’t evident in many of the actual moves. About equal numbers of students moved to schools with worse academic records than the ones they left as moved to schools that were higher performing.

Researchers: Mark Stein, Johns Hopkins University; Ellen Goldring and Xiu Cravens, Vanderbilt University

Charter School Effects in an Urban School District: An Analysis of Student Achievement Gains in Indianapolis
It is common to assess the success of schools by looking at internal measures like test scores. And by that measure, Indianapolis charter schools perform well, with students producing bigger gains in mathematics after a year in charter schools than they would have experienced if they had stayed in public schools. But the paper behind this research brief digs deeper by asking whether Indianapolis’s unusual system for authorizing charter schools and holding them accountable might affect academic quality. The Indianapolis mayor’s office has unusual powers to authorize and review charter schools, and the setup has resulted in an innovative group of schools founded by heavy-hitters from the city’s business, service and philanthropic sectors. The paper concludes that civic factors, including long-term efforts to build local capacity for Indianapolis charter reform, contributed to the schools’ performance. The paper is relevant for anyone interested in the intersection of education, politics and civic involvement.

Researchers: Anna Nicotera, Maria Mendiburo, Vanderbilt University; Mark Berends, University of Notre Dame

The NCSC is funded by a 5-year, $13.3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences. Its lead institution is Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of education and human development, ranked the No. 1 education school in the nation by U.S. News & World Report for the past two years. For more information on Peabody College, visit For more Vanderbilt news, visit