(Astrid Riecken)

The reasons behind this are plenty. A new charter school may not hew closely to the guidelines that made an original site successful. It may not have the community support, or leadership, of the first school. Charter schools may also have the advantage of working with parents and students who pursued a spot in a better school, raising concern about how well charter schools would scale in the general population. The issues are myriad but the problem clear: replicating charter school success can be difficult.

It’s difficult, but a new study suggests, it’s also doable. Harvard economist Roland Fryer published research last week showing that the education policies that have succeeded in charter schools can also increase test scores in traditional, public schools.

Fryer looked at “No Excuses” charter schools, places like the Harlem Promise Academy and KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) schools, to get a sense of how they had made such big education gains in low-income communities. He boiled it down to five “best practices,” including longer school days, better teachers and data-driven education, that emphasized education gains.

Fryer went into nine of the lowest performing, public middle and high schools in Houston during the last school year, and implemented those five principles. The changes didn’t just nibble around the edges: Fryer did things like add 10 days to the school year and replace 100 educators, including all of his test school’s principals and more than half the teachers.

Across the board, students’ math and reading scores went up compared to other Houston schools where these changes weren’t implemented. “These results provide the first proof point that charter school practices can be used systematically in previously unsuccessful traditional public schools to significantly increase student achievement,” Fryer writes.

But at the same time, the study is also far from a silver bullet for education reform: many of the changes that the researchers implemented in Houston would have a hard time gaining traction elsewhere.

Sweeping out sitting principals, for example, would often draw vociferous opposition from teachers’ unions. As the authors note, Houston currently has “a remarkably innovative and research driven Superintendent” with a supportive school board. The program comes with a big price tag, too: it cost more than $2,000 per student to implement. That’s a big budget item when most states are in the midst of slashing education budgets.

Fryer’s paper is a bit of proof-of-concept: given the ideal circumstances, the policies that have made charter schools successful can improve public schools, too. It’s also the first study to look at whether these principles could work in a traditional public school setting. The next big question will be whether, in less amenable political and budget climates, these kind of reforms stand a chance.