I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Thursday, July 20, 2017

When "Miracle" Charter Schools Shed Students

A follow-up to yesterday's post:

As I noted, NBC's Sunday Night with Megan Kelly broadcast a story earlier this month about Boys Latin Charter School, a "successful" charter school in Philadelphia which claims to have ten times the college completion rate of its neighboring high schools.

To his credit, reporter Craig Melvin didn't swallow the claims of the school whole, and pushed back on the idea that Boys Latin serves an equivalent student population to those surrounding high schools. But he did miss two important points:

First, and as I documented in the last post, Boys Latin raises funds outside of the monies it collects from public sources. The amounts add up to thousands of dollars per pupil per year.

As Bruce Baker notes in this (somewhat snarky) post, you really can't make a comparison between two schools and call one "successful" without taking into account the differences in resources available to both. Philadelphia's public school district has been chronically underfunded for years. It's hardly fair for Boys Latin to collect millions in extra revenue, then brag about their college persistence rate compared to schools that don't have enough funding to provide an adequate education.

But there's another issue Melvin missed -- an issue that Boys Latin's founder, David Hardy, has been refreshingly candid about in the past:
Hypothetically speaking, say a charter school is authorized to serve up to 500 students, but, for whatever reason, 50 students leave through the course of a school year. A charter that "backfills" will enroll the next 50 kids on its wait list as space becomes available.
Other schools will replace those empty spots at the beginning of the next school year, including filling seats in the upper grades.
Charters that don't do this will watch their total enrollment in a grade dwindle year by year — retaining only the students tenacious enough to persist.
In contrast, district-run neighborhood schools and renaissance charters must enroll all students living within a prescribed catchment zone, no matter what time of year or grade, when they show up asking for a seat.
At first glance this difference may seem a subtle nuance, but Philadelphia educators say the policy difference tremendously affects school culture and performance. 
David Hardy, CEO of Boys' Latin, subscribes to the same theory. He oversees a rigorous admissions process that begins well before the school year.
Boys' Latin asks prospective ninth-graders to submit letters of intent in November, nearly a year before they would enroll. Staff then interview students and parents to ensure that they understand the school's rigor -- classes run until 5 p.m., students must learn Latin, wear a uniform, and adhere to a strict code of conduct.
Those who commit attend a month-long freshman academy in July before the school-year-proper begins.
By September, he said, the kids are all on the same page.
"You introduce new people into that, and it can kind of mess up the environment," said Hardy. [emphasis mine]
This is an issue that comes up over and over again in charter school research: student cohort attrition. As a cohort of students (Class of "x") moves from freshman to sophomore to junior to senior year, it may lose students. Sometimes students drop out; sometimes they move. If a charter school "backfills," they then replace the students who left with new students who come into the school in later years.

Many charters have high student cohort attrition rates, meaning students leave the school before graduation -- often returning to the public, district schools, which must take them no matter when they arrive at the schoolhouse door. These same charters don't backfill, so their cohort sizes shrink as they move toward their senior years.

What are the patterns of cohort attrition for Boys Latin?

This is based on federal data as reported in our School Funding Fairness Data System. Each cohort or "class" at Boys Latin is tracked as it moves from freshman to senior year. Every year, Boys Latin loses at least one-third of its students, and never replaces them.

Again: Hardy is completely upfront about this:
So why do kids leave?
"Normally it's because a student doesn't want to take the volume of the work that we do," said Hardy. And when that happens, "there's a mechanism to kind of go after them."
At Boys' Latin, this process includes tutoring, probation, and Saturday school.
"If the student makes the decision that they really don't want to do the work, then what's the point?" Hardy said. "That normally is a family decision. They say, 'Why keep him in a school that he really doesn't want to be in?' That's the beautiful thing about school choice."
Hardy says his school doesn't actively push kids away.
"You can stay here and fail," he said. "But that doesn't make sense, does it?"
OK -- Why, then, would you ever make a comparison in your college completion rates to neighboring high schools?

I'll give Hardy this: he's at least more intellectually consistent than Steve Perry, who can't get his story about "ham shaving" straight. But can we at least acknowledge a few things?

- It's a lot easier to have high college acceptance and persistence rates when you don't have to educate everyone who shows up on your front steps.

- It's a lot easier to have high college acceptance and persistence rates when kids who can't cut it in your program decide it's a "beautiful thing" to leave.

- Why does a school like Boys Latin, which skims the cream, get all sorts of extra funding while the Philadelphia public schools, which must educate everyone, remain chronically underfunded?

I have no doubt the staff of Boys Latin is full of dedicated, caring professionals who are working hard every day to give their students a great education. But I see very little in their model that could be scaled up.

Do you?

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

School "Choice": A Failure of Honesty and Will

It's starting to feel like the Summer of School Choosiness.

Here's Nick Kristof, making the case that privatizing Liberia's schools is the only sensible way to ensure they are stocked with books.

Here's Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, telling her personal story of how her mother snuck her into a "better" school, which widened the "narrow funnel that leads to the nation’s elite institutions" for her.

Here's a story on Megan Kelly's new show (which, like the rest of America, you almost certainly missed) about a "successful" charter school in Philadelphia. Give reporter Craig Melvin credit: he does push back on the platitudes that are standard fare for such reports, even if he misses one of the biggest parts of the story (hang on...).

And of course we have the steady stream of laudatory essays about charters and school vouchers from outlets like The 74 and Education Post. Similar to the pieces above, they almost all revolve around stories of how students are being saved from "bad" schools because they are being given a "choice" to attend "good" schools.

The clever thing about this construction is that anyone who challenges the narrative is immediately put on the defensive: Why are you against helping people get a better education? Why don't you care about these children? It must be that you care about your own interests more than theirs...

And so on. It's a neat rhetorical trick, but it keeps us from asking and answering the questions that really matter. For example:

What, exactly, makes a "better" school? Lemmon says her mother risked arrest to get Lemmon into "... what she judged to be the best public elementary school in our area." OK -- on what basis did her mother make that judgment? Test scores? We know these correlate tightly to family socio-economic status. Peers? That's obviously problematic: peer effects matter, but you can't have everyone attend a school where their peers are above average. Resources? It's easier for a wealthy community to tax itself to provide more resources for its schools. Was Lemmon's new school more economically advantaged?

The easy answer we often get about what makes "good" schools from the "choice" industry is that charter and voucher schools are free from bureaucracy, which allows for innovation. But there's very little evidence these schools are engaging in practices that are truly "innovative."

It's becoming increasingly clear that those "no excuses" charters that get some gains -- and, understand, many of them do not -- do so because of longer school days and years, resource advantages, peer effects, "free riding" on public school teacher wages, student attrition (often exacerbated by extreme disciplinary policies), and a focus on test outcomes.

It's perfectly fine to argue in favor of these things; I happen to be in favor of some of them (resource advantages) and against others (student attrition when prompted by extreme discipline, overly focusing on test prep). Some are logically impossible to bring to scale (peer effects, "free riding"). But even if we agree on the benefits of some of these advantages, it's a leap to claim that "choice" is the only way to deliver them. Which leads to...

How, exactly, is "choice" creating "better" schools? Kristof claims that Bridge International Academies, the for-profit company delivering schooling in Liberia and elsewhere, hasn't yet turned a profit, so fears about monetizing children are "misplaced." So why, then, does BIA have to be structured as a for-profit company? 

"In fact, it’s a start-up that tackles a social problem in ways similar to a nonprofit, but with for-profit status that makes it more sustainable and scalable."

Sorry, but that answer is far too facile. Why would a for-profit be more sustainable? What about BIA's for-profit model makes their schools more "scalable"? Could it be related to this?
How do you improve education, make it cheaper and also make it profitable? May and Kimmelman have come up with an “innovative pedagogical approach.” The possibility of setting up a few thousand standardized schools within a few years is to be the first innovation. The profit made from each school may be low, but once half a million pupils are recruited — the number of enrollments that Bridge needs to break even — business really takes off. The plan is to reach two million pupils by 2018 and 10 million by 2025.
This rapid growth would be made possible by using Bridge’s second innovative method, namely its very own approach to the role of teachers and their salary scale. May believes that “qualities such as kindness” are more important than diplomas and this allows for significant savings. In Kenya, where the starting salary for qualified teachers is around US$116 dollars a month, Bridge teachers usually earn less than US$100 a month. However, as Kimmelman explains in a presentation, teachers can earn bonuses by recruiting new students themselves. Marketing is a core task for both teachers and school principals. [emphasis mine]
This is disturbingly similar to the charter/voucher "advantage" in the United States: teachers earning less while forced into marketing roles for their employers, all while being touted as superior in some unspecified way to teachers who bargain collectively for better wages within public district schools.

Gary Rubinstein, a Teach For America alumnus, has often described TFA's construction of the myth of the "miracle" teacher: that some select schools (and, by extensions, their leaders) have figured out the "combination to the lock" and that we should just all go along with their methods, never stopping to question what exactly is going on, or...

What, exactly, is the financial cost of "success" in "choice" systems of schooling? Again, I give Craig Melvin credit for pointing out that the "miracles" of schools like Boys Latin in Philadelphia are not available to all. What he failed to uncover, however, is that schools like Boys Latin almost always have resource advantages over their public school counterparts.

Remember that Philadelphia's public schools have been under state control for years, and are chronically underfunded compared to suburban schools a few miles away. Boys Latin, however, has found a way to make up the difference:
PHILADELPHIA >> Boys’ Latin of Philadelphia hosted its newest event, “Magnum Opus,” April 27 at the Please Touch Museum in Fairmount Park, Philadelphia. The benefit raised vital funds for the school so it can continue to offer world-class educational experience and pays tribute to the great work of David Hardy and Dick Williams. The achievements of the school would not have been possible without the leadership of these two men, both of whom are in their final year of service at Boys’ Latin. 
“Magnum Opus” welcomed comedian Jay Pharoah, Saturday Night Live alumnus, as entertainment for the evening’s festivities. The fundraiser has already raised over $500,000 in sponsorships and ticket sales. The school relies on these funds to support areas of college counseling, enrichment programs in engineering and the arts, technology programming, academic interventions and athletics. [emphasis mine]
According to its 2015 tax forms (available at Guidestar), Boys Latin pulled in $1.1 million in government grants and $1.7 million in charitable giving in a single year.* That's in addition to the revenue they get from the Philadelphia school district. In 2014-15, Boys Latin enrolled 747 students; that's an extra $1,464 in government grants and $2,228 in philanthropy per pupil.

And again: extra funding is only one way to gain a resource advantage if you're a "choice" school. If you don't enroll many Limited English Proficient students, your costs stay lower. If the few special needs students you do enroll have less-costly learning disabilities, your costs stay lower. If you employ a less-experienced, less-credentialed staff, your costs stay lower. If you only enroll students who choose to attend, your costs probably stay lower.

Money matters, and in education it matters a lot. I can certainly sympathize with the parent Melvin interviewed who declared that she was willing to do whatever it took to get her child a good education. But let's be clear that part of what makes an education "good" is having adequate resources. 

Even Kristof acknowledges this: "It would be odd if schools with teachers and books didn’t outperform schools without them." OK, great... Are you saying that the only way to get teachers and books into African schools is to turn them over to for-profit companies that can't turn a profit?

That brings us to the last question:

What, exactly, must students, teachers, families, and citizens give up under a "choice" system to get more resources into their schools?

As a long-time observer of all things reformy, this is the one argument from school privatizers that frustrates me the most: that extra resources can only come if schools slip away from governmental control. That the hope for competent, corruption-free governance is so far-fetched -- be it in Nairobi or Philadelphia -- that the only chance schools have is to move away from democracy and towards market models dominated by providers with ties to Wall Street or Silicon Valley.

In fact, this is exactly the case reformy CEOs like Reed Hastings of Netflix make: school boards, which allow citizens a direct say in how our society's children are educated, are actually an impediment to educational improvement. In other words: we have no "choice" but to move school governance away from governmental structures and put it in the hands of the not-really-all-that-free market.

So how's that working? It hasn't helped Detroit, or the students of cyber charters of Pennsylvania, or the taxpayers who subsidize the charter school land grabbers in Miami. It hasn't helped the citizens looking for transparency from Gulen-linked charters, or the taxpayers of Ohio. It hasn't helped students and families who lose due-process rights when enrolling in charters. It hasn't helped those who care about good government in North Carolina, or those who want to control school administration costs in New Jersey, or students left in the lurch in Michigan, or all those affected by numerous examples of waste, fraud, and abuse throughout the nation's charter school sector.

Are there examples of bad behavior in our public schools? You bet. Are there decent charter schools getting good results? Sure. But it increasingly seems as if there are at least as many bad apples in the charter barrel as there are good.

Carol Burris, who spent years as a public school principal and now advocates for public education, has been putting examples of charter school malfeasance on her twitter feed lately with the intro: "Another day, another charter scandal..." She's almost literally right; I'll bet she could put up a new scandal a day if she really tried.

There's a very good case to be made that the "choice" system our reliquishy friends in the reform industry tout actually encourages this sort of behavior. Self-dealing, profit-taking, cherry-picking... it's not necessarily a part of "choice," but it does seem the odds of such behavior increase when the market becomes the primary mechanism through which we hold schools accountable.

* * *

Let's bring this all together:

There is little evidence that the fraction of "choice" schools that appear to get better results do so because they are "innovative" in their educational practices. But the "choice" schools that do get gains all seem to have structural advantages, starting with resource advantages -- gained through a variety of strategies -- that allow them to offer things like longer days, longer years, smaller student:staff ratios, and extended educational programming.

By all appearances, we seem to be able to adequately fund our schools in the affluent, leafy 'burbs, even as we shrug our shoulders at the prospect of doing the same for urban centers enrolling many students who are in economic disadvantage. Millburn has what it needs; Newark does not. Gross Point has plenty; Detroit doesn't. New Trier is fine; Chicago is not. Lower Merion thrives; Philadelphia withers.

It's a story that plays out across the nation. Somehow these affluent communities manage to scrape together enough to provide adequate educations for their children, even when burdened with unionized teachers and step contracts and democratically elected school boards. Somehow they manage to get their schools what they need without giving up transparency and governmental accountability and agency for all of their citizens through the democratic process.

School "choice" is the result of a failure of honesty and will. 

The failure of honesty comes from failing to fully acknowledge that structural inequities -- inequality, chronic poverty, racism, inadequate school funding -- lead to unequal educational outcomes. It also comes from failing to acknowledge that the advantages a select few "choice" schools have accrued to themselves are directly responsible for their outcome gains.

The failure of will results from a failure to act collectively in ways that would move adequate resources to all schools where they are lacking, without giving up democratic governmental control.

Neither Kristof nor Lemmon nor Hardy nor anyone else has given us any reason to believe that the only way to get more resources into schools that need them is to abandon governmental control. There is, however, plenty of reason to believe shifting school control to private entities will reduce transparency, student and family rights, and efficiency -- both here and abroad.

When children live lives free of want and attend well-resourced, government-controlled schools they do very well. Certainly, there are problems and room for improvement. But communities don't need to give up control of their schools if the pre-conditions for success are in place.

Instead of upending the entire system, why don't we try that?

ADDING: I've been looking at the data, and we need to talk about student attrition and Boys Latin. Stand by...

* At the same time, David Hardy, founder of Boys Latin and prominently featured in Melvin's piece, took in $200K in salary and another $66K in benefits; again, Boys Latin had 747 students in 2014. In contrast, William Hite, the superintendent of the entire Philadelphia district, reportedly makes $300K/year running a district with over 130K students.

Just saying.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Shooting Themselves in the Foot: Teacher Certification and NYC Charter Schools

When you run the most awesomest schools, you shouldn't have to follow everyone else's rules -- they're only going to keep you from being even more awesome:
Teachers at some New York City charter schools may soon have a new way to become certified — without completing typical state requirements.
New regulations proposed Thursday by the SUNY Charter School Committee would allow teachers at charter schools authorized by SUNY to work without obtaining a master’s degree or passing certification exams. Instead, charter schools would be able to use their own training programs. 
If the regulations are approved, they would mark a win for the city’s charter school advocates, who say networks have struggled to find and hire certified teachers and that the state’s certification rules don’t correlate with effective teaching. Currently, only 15 uncertified teachers are allowed in a given charter school.
“The charter schools have identified what they see as a serious gap in their ability to hire teachers and their ability to meet and comply with the current statute,” said Joseph Belluck, the charter school committee chair on the SUNY board.
These new regulations say, “If you’re getting better results for kids, we’re going to get out of your way,” said executive director Jenny Sedlis of the pro-charter StudentsFirstNY. [emphasis mine]
Yes, "better results" are all that matters, no matter how practically small they may be. And no matter how you got them: if your gains are from student attrition, or narrowing the curriculum, or onerous disciplinary policies that drive out students, or resource advantages, that's just fine with SUNY (State University of New York). You should be able to bypass the teacher certification rules the loser NYC district schools have to follow, so long as those test scores stay high...

We've been through this over on my side of the Hudson. The charters, usually affiliated with larger networks, believe that their "successes" entitle them to train their own staffs outside of standard regulation by the state. The theory seems to be that traditional university-based teacher training programs are too... well, traditional.

Since the big charter chains have come up with such awesome new ways to teach kids...

...they shouldn't have to subject their teachers to all that boring research and theory and intellectual inquisitiveness and whatnot. Just bring these prospective teachers into the charters, let them soak up the awesomeness, and then put them into schools...

Oh, sorry: charter schools. The data is thin, but that's what appears to be happening with the Relay "Graduate" "School" of "Education," the premier charter teacher training center in the Northeast. Despite some unsourced claims from Relay's leadership, and some professional development contracts with districts like Newark and Camden and Philadelphia, it's clear that Relay has become more a staffing firm for a particular group of charter chains than a broad provider of teacher training.

Here, for example, is Relay's NYC Residency webpage:


Achievement First
Great Oaks Charter School
Harlem Children’s Zone
Launch Expeditionary Learning Charter Schools
Brooklyn LAB
Coney Island Prep
Blue Engine
Democracy Prep
Except for Blue Engine, which is not a school, all of these partners are charters. As Bruce Baker and Gary Miron have pointed out, this leads to a "company store" style of professional development, where charter teachers essentially pay back a part of their wages to their employers (or their employers' partners) in exchange for the right to continuing working at their jobs -- usually for lower wages than their public district school counterparts.

As many have noted, Relay is steeped in the "no excuses" style of pedagogy, exemplified by Doug Lemov's Teacher Like a Champion. I contend it's a type of teaching that would never, ever be accepted out in the leafy 'burbs; one that makes the teacher the focus of the classroom instead of the student. This is yet another instance of the charter industry selling its schools as an antidote to race and class inequality, even as it imposes a different kind of schooling on urban students of color than the schooling found in affluent, majority-white suburban schools.

Relay has been at it for a few years now, but I've yet to see any empirical evidence that they're doing any better than the university-based teacher training programs. Relay is placing most of its teachers into a separate group of schools, and most (if not all) of the teachers in those schools are being trained by Relay. Both Relay and its client charter schools make what Angus Shiva Mungal calls a "parallel education structure." We're not likely to see many Relay grads move into jobs currently held by traditionally trained teachers, which is what we would need to properly compare the two training paths.

Still, Relay has had to at least adhere to the form of university-based teacher training. Their "professors" may be inexperienced and utterly lacking in scholarly qualifications, but their graduates do get an actual teaching certification, based on a "graduate" "school" teacher training program. The SUNY proposal, however, does away with even the pretense of college-level training.

Some have been framing the issue around the correlation (or lack thereof) between teacher certification and teacher "effectiveness." Matt Barnum, who is as good as anyone at digging through the research, recently tweeted out a series of links to studies looking at the connection.

The problem is that this research generally looks at the difference between teachers who graduated from a university program* where they did their student teaching and teachers who took an "alternate route." But that route (at least in New York State) requires university-training while on the job.

Take this study, for example, by a trio of economists who looked at the various certification routes in New York City schools. Initial certification status has only small effects on student outcomes. But in New York State, alt-route teachers get college training and supervision before and immediately after they start working in a classroom:
How do ATP programs differ from traditional teacher preparation programs?
In a traditional teacher preparation program, a candidate completes all the necessary study and required exams leading to the first teaching certificate before beginning employment in a school district. The program could lead to a baccalaureate or a master's degree, or a certificate of program completion. Institutions offering the programs ensure that all the required preparation has been completed before a candidate can be recommended for a teaching certificate and employed as a teacher. 
ATP programs are designed for candidates who already have strong academic backgrounds in the areas they wish to teach. They are designed to prepare candidates to be teachers of record before completing the requirements for initial certification. Candidates complete a 200-clock hour introductory component (including 40 clock hours of field experiences) and must pass several New York State Teacher Certification examinations to qualify for the Transitional B teaching certificate. The candidate then becomes eligible for employment in a partnering school or district as a beginning teacher. The candidate receives mentoring support and college supervision while completing his or her degree while teaching. [emphasis mine]
So the difference between novice traditional and alt-route teachers isn't in degree status, or ability to pass certification exams, or access to college training, or even in whether they had field experiences. The difference is in the amount of field experience the teacher had prior to coming to the classroom, and whether more of their teacher training was after they began their jobs.

Again, the new SUNY regulations appear to be something entirely new: no university-level training, support, or mentorship, either before or after hiring. The question, then, is whether a SUNY charter school -- having no previous structure to implement teacher training and no accreditation program to ensure high standards -- can provide the same level of instruction in a mere 30 hours of coursework and 100 hours of supervised fieldwork as a college-based teacher training program.

On its face, the question answers itself.

So why, aside from the money grab from their own employees, do the charter schools want this program so badly? Reading further into the regulations, we find:
(3) Transferability. The certification created by this section shall be transferrable to another school within the education corporation and to another education corporation/school authorized by the Board of Trustees even if the transferee education corporation does not have an approved Instructional Program. [emphasis mine]
This isn't as explicit as the New Jersey regulations that were proposed (and ultimately rejected - for now**), but the intent is clear: the certification will only be valid at a charter school authorized by SUNY (NY has multiple charter authorizers). Which means the teachers getting this certification won't be able to move to better paying, unionized jobs.

Instead, teachers getting this training would be locked into their schools, with no chance of moving on to the public school districts. It's clear the charters hope that will solve their labor problems; if you doubt me, just read the regulations:
The Committee acknowledges that many schools and education corporations it oversees that have demonstrated strong student performance have had difficulty hiring teachers certified in accordance with the requirements of the regulations of the commissioner of education. The Committee, therefore, through its authority to adopt regulations with respect to the governance, structure and operations of the charter schools it oversees, desires to provide an alternative teacher certification pathway to charter schools in meeting the requirements of paragraph a-1 of subdivision 3 of section 2854 of the Education Law.
There you go: the charters can't compete in the labor market with the public, unionized schools. Their solution is to rig the game.

I have to admit that this is one way to attempt to fix the "free rider" problem that charter schools cause. Charters -- especially the "no excuses" ones in the big networks -- rely on a steady stream of younger, less expensive, constantly churning staff to keep their relative labor costs low. With this advantage, they lengthen their school days and school years, which helps them get their test score gains (provided they enroll only students who thrive in this environment, and they focus almost entirely on tested subjects).

But teachers who start their careers in charters will only stay a few years because they know they can move on to better paying and less stressful careers in public district schools. In this way, the charters "free ride", as Martin Carnoy puts it, on the public school districts, who by paying experienced teachers more create incentives for charter teachers to enter the profession. The charters never have to pony up for these incentives, making them free riders.

But if a charter school is the end of a teacher's career road, the free ride is over. Charters are going to have to create the incentives for prospective teachers to join their staffs all by themselves. Except... that means the charters will lose their staffing resource advantage.

Why would a young person considering a career in teaching ever follow a certification path that ends in a relatively low-paying job with worse working conditions? To attract and retain qualified teachers, the charters will now have to offer similar wages and working conditions.

It seems to me that the charters are sabotaging themselves in the long run to solve a short-term problem. If a prospective teacher knows that a "no excuses" charter is the cul-de-sac of her career, she may decide her future prospects are too bleak to ever consider working in one, for even a few years. How is that charter then going to attract the workforce it needs? Yes, it might be more likely the charter can retain a teacher once they hire her under SUNY's scheme. But will they be able to hire enough teachers in the first place?

I came to the conclusion a while ago that the charter sector, as it is currently configured, is not going to be able to sustain itself for much longer if it continues on its current growth trajectory. But a plan like this may well hasten the halting of the sector's expansion. Without more teachers willing to longer hours for less pay and less control over their classrooms, the charters can't offer longer days and years, and smaller class sizes, for their students. The advantage disappears; the model falls apart.

But don't expect any concerns about this to stop the sector, especially in NYC. Charter schools there have been getting whatever they want for some time now. There's a good chance they'll get to train their own teachers...

And eventually come to regret it.

Are you sure you want to do that?

* A significant limitation on studies like these is that they lump all "traditional" teacher training programs together. But there's a big difference in the types and quality of these programs. There are a few other things worth noting here, which I will try to get to at some point...

** It's obvious that the Christie administration's recent firing of Mark Biedron as President of the NJ State Board of Education was directly related to the board's rejection of regulations that would have established separate certification for charter school teachers.

I had plenty of disagreements with Biedron, but I always found him to be willing to listen to a contrary point of view. The New Jersey charter school industry, however, is not interested in prolonged discussions of policy; they know, like everyone else in the state, that Chris Christie's miserable approval ratings have all but assured that Phil Murphy, endorsed by the NJEA, will be the next governor (barring Russian interference).

So the charter lobby is grabbing what it can while the grabbing is good. Watch for them to push this proposal once more before Christie leaves office.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Chris Christie, The Beach, and Our Leaders' Massive School Funding Hypocrisy

So you all know about this by now, and none of you are the least bit surprised.

You aren't surprised because, like me, you've been reading for years about Chris Christie's petty greed, childish indulgences, lack of commitment to his job, aversion to hard work, absence of self-restraint, and just general "who gives a s***?" attitude toward ethicsThis is what Chris Christie does, and it's why he's currently the least popular governor in the nation.

But this last incident was, to me, telling for another reason.

Let's review how Christie spun his beach excursion when he got caught straight out lying:
Christie addressed the issue in a phone call Monday morning to Fox-5 New York, explaining how every New Jersey governor is allowed to use two residences in the state: the Drumthwacket mansion in Princeton and the summer house. The governor said last week that he and his family planned to celebrate their son's birthday party at the latter this past weekend. 
"The governor is allowed to go to his residences, and I'm at my residences," Christie told the television station. "I'll tell you this: I said last Monday, a week ago today, that no matter what happens, we were coming here as a family this weekend. ... This is one of the places we live." [emphasis mine]
Ah, I see: he was with his family. So it's not an abuse of power at all, or a case of massive hypocrisy. Because it was his family.

Allow me to go back into the memory vault. June, 2011:

“Hey, Gail, you know what? First off, it’s none of your business. I don’t ask you where you send your kids to school, don’t bother me about where I send mine. Secondly, I pay $38,000 a year in property taxes for a public school system, predominantly in Mendham, that my wife and I don’t choose to utilize because we believe – we’ve decided as parents – that we believe a religious education should be part of our children’s everyday education so we send our children to parochial school. Third, I as Governor, am responsible for every child in this state, not just my own, and the decisions I make are to try to improve educational opportunities of every child in this state. So, with all due respect, it’s none of your business.” [transcript link]
As I've pointed out before, Christie's rationalization that he only wants to provide a religious education to his children masks the fact that he sent his children to private schools that spent, per pupil, far more than the public schools he has underfunded during his entire two terms.

The gap between what his own children' schools spend and what the public schools spend is further compounded by the fact that the public schools educate all children, not just the ones who can afford high tuition rates and can pass admissions standards. The Christie kids went to schools with few at-risk, special needs, or limited English proficient students, keeping their costs much lower.

The high tuition charges and different student populations allow those schools to have smaller class sizes, lower student:teacher ratios, a broad curriculum, and extensive extracurriculars. The Christie family enjoyed all of these benefits, even as the governor repeatedly ignored the state's own law and kept public school spending below levels needed to obtain adequacy.

Understand that this disparity in school funding has been taking place in an environment where the wealthiest New Jersey residents -- like the Christies -- pay a lower overall state and local effective tax rate than the least affluent residents.

In other words: When it comes to school funding, Christie's kids have been playing on the beach while most other children in the state have been locked out.

To be clear: I really don't have a problem with Christie, or anyone else, sending their children to elite private schools, or to wealthy suburban public schools. What I find so disturbing is when some of those same people then turn around and declare how important education is for purposes of social equity, but refuse to support policies that adequately and equitably fund schools.

Even worse is when these people substitute funding reform for "reforminess." They claim that things like charter schools, gutting teacher workplace rights, expanded testing, test-based teacher evaluation, curricular changes, "personalized learning," and school vouchers can serve as substitutes for adequately and equitably funding schools.

But they then turn around and put their own children in elite private schools that spend far more per pupil than public schools -- especially urban public schools. And again: these schools enroll very few children with special needs, keeping their costs relatively low.

You will often hear these reformsters acknowledge that factors such as economic inequality and segregation negatively impact educational outcomes; however, in the same breath, they will gravely intone, "We can't wait to fix poverty!"

And so, their thinking goes, we have to expand charter schools no matter the negative consequences, or expand testing and its unvalidated uses no matter the negative consequences, or put more unproven digital stuff into schools no matter the possible negative consequences, and so on. And we have to do all this right now.

It seems to me, however, that we now have more than enough evidence that school funding matters. It matters a lot. I mean, funding really matters. It does.

Maybe we can't solve poverty and segregation quickly; we could, however start getting more resources into schools that need it todayBut getting adequate funding to schools -- a necessary pre-condition for educational success -- isn't so much a problem of a lack of resources as it is a matter of political will.

We've got plenty of money in this country (even if it is distributed extraordinarily unequally). There's very little evidence we're overspending on schooling relative to the rest of the world. We could drive more resources into the schools that enroll our least advantaged students much more quickly than we could expand private schools using vouchers or expand properly regulated charter schools.

But we don't. Instead, our leaders keep pushing reformy schemes based on outlier "successes" rather than funding reform, a policy that would quickly provide improvements across the K-12 education system. Worse, many of these same leaders then refuse to subject their own children to their designs, opting instead to enroll them in highly resourced schools.

Chris Christie will be gone in a few months, and New Jersey might then begin to have a serious conversation about education funding. Sadly, many of our nation's leaders, Republican and Democrat alike, are following Christie's example. They refuse to address the issue of inadequate and inequitable school funding head on.

Fortunately, even conservatives are starting to realize that effective schools and other government services come at a price. Let's hope the era of Chris Christie and his ilk -- and era where unproven reformy nonsense has replaced a commitment to getting schools the resources they need -- will soon come to an end.

If I had to pick one...

ADDING: In the very earliest days of this blog -- April, 2010 -- I said that where Chris Christie sent his own kids to school was no one's business.

I was wrong.

Of course, this was before Christie repeatedly underfunded the public schools, even after the Great Recession. This was before the lies of Chapter 78. This was before Christie tried to slash funding to the urban districts with his cruel "Fairness Formula." This was before Christie showed repeatedly he never took education policy seriously. This was even before Christie unloaded some of his worst invective at the NJEA and teachers around the state.

But I still should have known better. Anyone who is against the adequate and equitable funding of public schools yet sends their own children to a well-resourced private or public school is a massive hypocrite.

They should be called so in no uncertain terms.

ADDING MORE: Seriously?
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Chris Christie is getting his shot at sportsradio.
Christie will fill in for Mike Francesa on Monday, July 10th and Tuesday, July 11th, as part of an audition on WFAN in New York.
There's no chance Christie will resign before the end of the summer -- he likes that beach house too much. But is it too much to ask that he at least pretend he's interested in being the governor in exchange?

Friday, June 30, 2017

The Charter School Free-Riding Problem

There's a piece by NY Daily News Editorial Board member Alyssa Katz that's been passing around the edu-bloggosphere to the great consternation of charter school cheerleaders. The piece points out, in personal terms, an issue that those of us who study charters have known about for a while:
The usual end-of-year school rites for our fifth-grader are especially bittersweet this year, because it is her last at the charter school where she has learned, played, made friends and grown since kindergarten.
Unlike many kids at her stage, she had a choice to stay at her K-8 school — but as a family we together decided to jump from the charter to a district junior high run by the city’s Department of Education.
Some extracurricular forces eased the choice. My husband, who’s logged hundreds of miles driving to and fro, will hand our girl off to a convenient bus. She in turn will be thrilled to shed a loathed uniform. Me, I look forward to an end to lunch box prep, thanks to an improved cafeteria menu.
But the bottom line is that her elementary-school years were marked with a whirlwind of teachers that, if she and her classmates were lucky, would last the year and then move on.  
The ritual became as certain as winter succeeded fall: Some parent would post on the school Facebook group that their child’s teacher was leaving mid-year. Moans and commiseration ensued.
Our child avoided that fate until last fall, when, two weeks in, her promising teacher — a veteran at three years served — suddenly vanished, and a substitute arrived much sooner than any explanation. Her class rebound its footing, eventually, with a new teacher — but never quite recovered from those lost weeks. [emphasis mine]
What Katz describes here is quite typical for charters around the nation. In my report on New Jersey charter schools' finances and staffing, I found clear distinctions between charter and public district educators: charter teachers have less experience, are less likely to have an advanced degree, and are paid less, even when accounting for experience.

There are exceptions. As I've noted before, the largest NJ charter networks, such as TEAM-KIPP and Uncommon (North Star), pay teachers more at the outset of their careers. But the lack of experienced teachers on the staffs of these charter networks suggests they don't hang around long enough to make the high-five figure salaries* district teachers start to make around their second decade in the profession.

The response I've had to this from charter cheerleaders, such as Peter Cunningham -- here writing in the News in reply to Katz -- is usually: "So what?"
Daily News editorial writer Alyssa Katz has decided to pull her daughter out of a public charter school in New York City because of high teacher turnover. Katz cites a statistic that teacher turnover in the city's charters is more than twice as high as in unionized district schools, which generally pay more, have shorter hours and, of course, provide tenure protections and other benefits.
To her credit, Katz acknowledges that New York's largest charter school organization, Success Academy, has "skyrocketing" test scores despite high rates of teacher turnover, which raises the question of whether teacher turnover is good or bad.
The more important question is, however, should we even pay attention to teacher turnover?
In theory, unions produce happier, more secure teachers and they, in turn, produce better educational outcomes. In practice, that's not the case. Lots of unionized teachers are very unhappy, enormous numbers of unionized teachers leave the profession, and lots of unionized schools get awful results.
I'll interrupt here to note that if unionized teachers are unhappy and leave the profession, there's little evidence it's because of unions themselves; "reform" and a lack of funding appear to play a much larger role in teacher dissatisfaction. Also, there is no evidence I am aware of that shows a negative correlation between school performance and unionization; research suggests quite the opposite, in fact.

Cunningham continues:
Too often, in the ongoing education debates, charter opponents will talk about anything except results. They will harp on "no excuses" discipline practices. They will attack charter funders. They will complain about public charters draining funds from public schools.
They won't talk about test scores, unless, of course, the scores are bad, in which case they will cite them and call for closing down low-performing charters. [emphasis mine]
Fine, let's talk about results:

In the aggregate and across the nation, there is little evidence charter schools get, on average, significantly better results than public district schools

For example, the CREDO studies, long cited by charter advocates, show on average that the gains of the charter sector are, at best, quite small (even if CREDO oversells them by using a conversion to "days of learning" that is wholly invalidated).

There are pockets, however, such as Boston, where charter gains are larger. To be clear: the gains almost never come close to "closing the achievement gap," no matter how some in the credulous press choose to spin the results. But there are gains. The problem is that too many reformy folks want to end the conversation right there; what they should be asking is:

1) Why?
2) At what cost?

Over the past several years, it's become clear to me what the answers to #1 are:

A longer school day and school year, smaller class sizes, and one-on-one student tutoring.

This is the resource-intensive part of "no excuses" chartering that seems to always get lost in the conversation. Well, more accurately: it's never fully explored. Because everyone loves the idea of more teachers working a longer day and year for at-risk kids -- but they don't really like talking about the cost.

Basic economic theory suggests that getting people of equal qualifications and effectiveness to work a longer day and year will cost an employer more in wages. So charter schools have two choices for getting more teachers to work longer: they can pay more, or they can recruit less expensive staffs.

We've already noted that some large charter networks (and even some smaller ones) rely on their ability to gather philanthropic contributions to supplement the public funds collected so they can increase staff hours/days, and reduce student-to-teacher ratios. But the other way they can gain a resource advantage is to maintain a less expensive staff by constantly churning it. There is, however, a problem...

Teachers, like so many other professions, gain increases in wages through accumulated experience. A teacher who has 20 years of experience in the same district will almost always make more than one with only 10. Some have made the case experience and salary should be decoupled, but there's more chance of my winning the next Olympic silver medal in the backstroke than of that happening. We'd have to either cut experienced teacher wages and distribute them to inexperienced teachers, or pour a lot more money into the system; neither is going to happen in this world.

When teachers enter the profession, they are well aware of how the step guides work. Which means they are already acclimated to the idea that they will make considerably less in their earlier years with the reward of better pay later on.

As a teacher, I can also add that my personal experience with younger teachers is that they expect their first few years are going to be much rougher -- in terms of their time commitments, their stress levels, their choice of assignment, etc. -- than what will follow later in their careers.

Which brings us back to the critical section of Katz's piece:
The big reason for charters’ turnover plague is plain as day: District school teachers are universally represented by teachers unions, and enjoy contracts whose ample benefits include generous pension plans, non-negotiable business hours and tenure. 
When our child’s teacher got an offer on Long Island last September, that was that. 
Charter school teachers, in glaring contrast are often called on to work extra hours after school, and during summers, and whenever. 
Which job would you pick if given a choice? Not even a close call. For all but the Teach for America types who intend to log a few years and switch tracks, the union jobs are better jobs, where educators build careers.
The data we have on charter teacher attrition is pretty thin, but we do know a few things. The teacher attrition rate at high-profile carter networks like Success Academy is very high compared to the NYC public schools, and switching between schools within the network doesn't account for the disparity. Charter teachers do often cite working conditions and job dissatisfaction as reasons for leaving their schools. Chris Torres finds that when a teacher perceives that their workload is too great at a charter, that teacher is more likely to leave (although there appears to be an interaction with teachers' perceptions of their schools' leadership).

We need better empirical evidence to back up a claim that charter schools are serving as springboards for teachers in search of unionized jobs in public district schools. But the anecdotal evidence is certainly piling up:
One veteran charter school teacher who requested anonymity, wary of her school’s response to her comments, says that even as schools use teachers, teachers use schools—as way stations to other, long-term goals. Often, she said, new teachers work for a year or two at a charter school to buff up a resume, ahead of a search for a union job. “People go there [to charters] until they can get another job. It’s a stepping stone to a teaching career, to a union job with benefits, like vacation, and tenure.” [emphasis mine]
There is, in my opinion, at least enough evidence so far to suggest this is a plausible theory. Which brings us to the problem of "free riding." Martin Carnoy explains:
The “free rider” aspect of teacher costs in private schools, whether voucher or charter, means that the supply of young people entering the teaching profession is maintained by the salary structure and tenure system in public education. Without this structure, many fewer individuals would take the training needed to become certified to enter teaching. Since teaching salaries are low compared with other professions, the prospect of tenure and a decent pension provides the option of security as compensation for low pay. This pool of young, trained teachers is available to voucher and charter schools, generally at even lower pay than in the public sector and without promise of tenure or a pension, but with the possibility of training and experience. Thus, the public education employment and salary system “subsidizes” lower teacher costs in private and charter schools. In other words, for private schools to have lower costs, it is necessary to maintain a largely public system that pays teachers reasonable (but still low) salaries and provides for a teacher promotion ladder and job security. [emphasis mine]
It's telling to me that Katz's teacher took a job on Long Island. The ultimate goal wasn't just a public school job; it was a job at a particular type of public school.** We know that teachers in urban schools, in schools with greater proportions of economically disadvantaged students, and in schools with worse academic performance are more likely to move to a new school.

What is likely happening now is that the pattern of teachers leaving urban schools for what they perceive as less stressful jobs is being amplified by the larger work demands and smaller pay of charter schools. 

Urban public school teachers might have been more likely to move to another district before, but at least their school days and years were similar to more affluent districts. Charter teachers, however, don't even have that in common: they get even lower pay and even longer hours.

Urban teachers might also have stayed in their districts because they earned tenure, which they'd have to give up when changing districts. Charter teachers often never gain tenure. So why would they ever stay if a better paying, less stressful, more secure gig comes along?

What Cunningham, with his focus on "results," fails to see is that the problem here is bigger than we'd think by simply looking at some -- some -- charters' somewhat better test scores. First, there's good reason to believe a model like this can't be sustained as charter proliferation grows.

Second: The charter school model depends on public schools subsidizing the free riding of charters. If that free riding isn't accounted for in resource distribution, the charters are creating patterns of inequity.

Charter cheerleaders often talk about what "high-performing" charters can teach public district schools. I'd argue that if "high-performing" charters are teaching us anything that can be applied to the entire system, it's that resources smatter. Charters may get those extra resources through things like philanthropy -- or they may artificially gain a resource advantage through churning an inexperienced staff that is ultimately subsidized through the public, district schools.

In either case, it's an unfair advantage, and it needs to be acknowledged before anyone makes the case that charters "do more with less." Increasingly, the evidence suggests the few charters that "do more" are doing so because they have more.

* Re-reading that sentence heightens its absurdity: "Ooh, high-five figures! In New Jersey! For college-educated professionals! After 15-20 years! What a deal!"

The teacher pay penalty is real and it cuts across the entire profession, not just the charters. But as poorly paid as teachers may be, charter teachers are paid even worse.

** OK, school districts on Long Island do vary considerably in their resources and their student populations. We don't know exactly where Katz's child's teacher wound up.