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, December 8, 2011

Are Charters Really "Impressive"?

Any time I hear the words "data" and "school" together, my reformy radar goes "ping!":
Walk through the doors of Bergen Arts & Science Charter School in Garfield and you'll see a computer kiosk that lets parents see all their kids' test mistakes so they can practice more at home. 
The database also gives information on the day's quizzes, homework and any demerits for misbehavior. For live updates, parents can tap into a "student database app" on their cellphones. 
At a time when many parents and teachers worry that schools have gone overboard in testing children and lament the time spent on test preparation, families here embrace the school's intensely data-driven approach. Indeed, its children spend almost a week in December and again in March taking practice rounds of NJ ASK, the state's annual four-day testing spree for Grades 3 through 8, and then they take the real thing in May. [emphasis mine]
I'll give credit to reporter Leslie Brody, who has done good work in the past on education; she thought to look at the data and see if it backs up any claims of the school's successes:
Opened in 2007, the charter gets impressive results. In 2010, the latest year for which data are officially available, its students passed state tests at higher rates than students in their home district and statewide. In most of the tested grades, more than 85 percent of the charter's children passed NJ ASK in math. That's particularly high for a school where 56 percent of students were poor enough to get free or reduced-price lunch.
There's some truth here, although I'm not sure how "impressive" it is (especially when you consider how much time these kids spend taking practice tests). Here, for example, is a quick-and-dirty comparison of 5th Grade NJASK scores:

What we want is less red (Partial Proficient) and more blue (Proficient or Advanced Proficient). And, yes, Bergen A&S does do that, although I wouldn't say the difference is overwhelming (that is largely a matter of opinion, and somewhat a matter of the content of the tests). I'd also point out that the district does BETTER on Advanced Proficient scores in Math. But, in general, it's fair to say Bergen A&S does better than the neighborhood schools, although the difference isn't what I'd call enormous.

Brody, much to her credit, understands the critical issue that comes out of comparing charter scores to public school scores:
When charters outperform nearby traditional schools, outsiders often say that's because they attract more involved, organized families, leaving behind higher concentrations of children facing severe financial distress, disabilities, transiency and other hardships. Bergen Arts & Science had a smaller share of special needs children (8 percent in 2010) than Garfield district schools overall. The charter reported no students who came or left midyear, compared with challenging mobility rates of 10 to 22 percent in district schools. State data, however, showed the charter and district overall had similar rates, of children getting subsidized lunch.
I went to the Common Core of Data at NCES to get the demographic data for all of the schools in the zip code of Bergen A&S. Using Bruce Baker's method, I made another another quick graph:

Many of the schools have a larger population of "free lunch" kids than Bergen, but not by a huge amount; some have a slightly smaller percentage. But look carefully at the other columns. Something jumped out at me right away.

Let me highlight it for you:

The raw data for 2009-10 shows that Bergen A&S had more Asian students in its school (63) than the rest of the schools in the district combined (59). Bruce Baker's analysis confirms mine:

The zip code for Garfield is 07026; look how it spikes on the chart. What are we to make of this? Well, you know me and my numbered conclusions:

Keep this in mind as you read this passage from Brody's article: 
Garfield schools Superintendent Nicholas Perrapato said academic files of his students who switched to the charter showed many were top students. "If you're getting the cream of the crop, you should do well," he said.
"It's not that our kids are the smartest kids in the area, but we prepare them," countered the charter's CEO, Nihat Guvercin, a former physics teacher from Turkey. "Students have potential. They only need someone to give them options." [emphasis mine]
I leave it to you, dear reader, to decide if maybe Perrapato has a point.

2) The debate about "boutique" charter schools in the 'burbs of New Jersey often swirls around charters that have a decidedly ethnic flavor to them. Maplewood's and Livingston's proposed charter is a Mandarin-immersion school; so is the one down around Princeton. In Highland Park, it's a Hebrew language charter.

This is occurring at the same time there has been a renewed push for the Opportunity Scholarship Act - a voucher program - by folks from both Catholic and Jewish groups.

Is this what we want in a pluralistic society? A return to segregation in our schools? Yes, I know we have highly segregated schools right now, but should we make the problem worse by clustering ethnic groups into different charter schools? As Baker says:
These figures raise important questions about the contribution of charter schools in the broader education policy and public policy context in a state already grappling with significant segregation and racial isolation (and consolidation, or lack thereof). These concerns may be particularly relevant as increased numbers of culture (ethnicity) specific charter schools are proposed, dispersed throughout the state.
3) Again: I think Brody is a good reporter. She looked at the actual data, which is better than many newspaper folks out there. She's hip to the controversy about charter schools run by Turkish immigrants and referenced it in her report.

But if there's one thing I've learned in writing this blog, it's that there's always another layer to peel back with this stuff. And school operators who tell you they've got a pouch of magic beans are often selling something else. Always approach stories about high-performing charters with skepticism.


Anonymous said...

"It's not that our kids are the smartest kids in the area, but we prepare them." Prepare them to...? Take tests? I daresay that many public schools could match or beat their scores if they devoted that much time to test prep. It may be teaching kids a skill, but what are they actually learning? And how will it help them become lifelong learners, which is the goal of education?

Anonymous said...

You continue to be highly offensive by bringing racial factors in like Asian or African American population or free lunch statistics. There is no reason for these children to be considered lower quality human beings by you or anyone else. Shame on you.

Anonymous said...

No one said they are 'lower quality human beings'. If anything Jazzman is a voice for the underprivileged who are being short changed with education 'reform'. There is plenty of research that proves that poor, minority students have more roadblocks to learning than financially stable students, and the current crop of education 'reforms' will not necessarily meet their needs.

Mike said...

The demographic information is how the state breaks down and judges the schools/districts. Literally, reports are issued by ethnicity, gender and economic status (free/reduced lunch). As cold as it sounds, it's how the state measures whether the schools are closing the achievement gap.

Lower performing schools are forced to skinny down curricula to devote more time to test prep activities.

Anonymous said...

The 2nd anonymous is just being an acrimonious provocateur. He adds nothing to the conversation, just swift boating and sliming. The one who should be ashamed is anonymous # 2 for using Joe McCarthy type tactics.

Duke said...

Mike, well put. NCLB divides the students by demography, but when critics of reforminess use those same categories, we're racists.