New NEPC Review: Investigating Charter Schools, Students with Special Needs and English Language Learners

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Key Takeaway from NEPC Review: Study of over-enrolled Boston charters is solid and makes a significant contribution but has little generalizability

A recent report from the School Effectiveness and Inequality Initiative (SEII) investigates the enrollment and achievement of students with special needs and English language learners (ELLs) in oversubscribed charter schools in Boston. Though it finds some interesting and positive patterns deserving of further study, the effects cannot be generalized to support broad advocacy statements such as, “special education and ELL students enrolled in charters perform better on math, English-language arts, science, and writing MCAS tests.”

As a review of the report explains, the report’s positive findings cannot be generalized to charter schools outside Boston or even to most students from these special populations inside Boston.

Julie F. Mead, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Mark Weber, a doctoral candidate at Rutgers University, reviewed Special Education and English Language Learner Students in Boston Charter Schools for the Think Twice Think Tank Review Project at the National Education Policy Center, housed at the University of Colorado Boulder’s School of Education.

The SEII report considers an important research question about the enrollment and success of special education and ELL students in charter schools, and it claims to “debunk” the common perception that these students are underserved in charters. It concludes that Boston charters and Boston Public Schools enroll similar numbers of both special populations, and that charter attendance has a positive and statistically significant effect for those who enter Boston’s charter school lottery and then enroll after being offered a seat.

The reviewers point out that the special-population enrollment claims are undercut by the assumptions made and the limitations of the study’s methods. Regarding the primary claim, about positive test score effects, the study is on more solid ground; the reviewers conclude that the models used in the report to estimate the effects are indeed appropriate.

But the review also explains the data and analyses are more limited than readers of the report might be lead to believe. “The effects,” the reviewers explain, “can only be generalized to those students who enter the lottery and comply with their assignment to either treatment (charter school) or control (district public schools).” The study, they find, also offers no context to compare the size of reported gains and it does not adequately examine how or why the reported test score gains are realized; for example, it does not account for peer effects or spending differences.

Mead and Weber conclude that ultimately, while this report takes an important step in studying how oversubscribed charters may affect the academic achievement of special needs students, a closer examination is needed in order to accurately inform those making education policy.

Find Mead and Weber’s review at:

Find Special Education and English Language Learner Students in Boston Charter Schools, by Elizabeth Setren, published by the School Effectiveness and Inequality Initiative, at:

The National Education Policy Center (NEPC) Think Twice Think Tank Review Project ( provides the public, policymakers, and the press with timely, academically sound reviews of selected publications. The project is made possible in part by support provided by the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice:

The National Education Policy Center (NEPC), housed at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education, produces and disseminates high-quality, peer-reviewed research to inform education policy discussions. Visit us at:

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William J. Mathis

Julie F. Mead
University of Wisconsin-Madison
(608) 263-3405
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