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

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Another Day, Another "Miracle" Charter School Debunked

Some of you who read this blog might think I've got something against charter schools. I really don't; I started my career in a charter. There are some good charters out there, and a few really excellent ones. We can even have a discussion about the similarities between urban families who enroll their children in charter schools and families who move to the suburbs to enroll their children in low-poverty public schools.

But here's the thing...

What really makes me freakin' bananas is when the press -- often abetted by the charter cheerleading class and charter school leaders themselves -- pushes yet another "miracle charter school" story that is based on nothing but half-truths and distortions.**

Let's go to Trenton for the latest example:
The city’s public schools saw a graduation rate as low as 48 percent last year, but at one charter school this year, officials expect not only to graduate every 12th-grade student, but also to see all 17 go on to four-year colleges. 
“There’s no secret to what we do,” said Graig Weiss, intermediate school principal for Foundation Academies. “It’s really, really hard work. 
“We will not make any excuses for why our students do not and will not achieve, because we believe in setting high expectations for our kids, both behaviorally and academically. And when you set high expectations for kids, they absolutely rise to the challenge, and our students are proof of that, year after year,” he said.
Let's stop right here and point out the obvious: in a city where the public schools enroll ten thousand kids and there are 492 seniors this year, this school is graduating seventeen. On that basis alone, the comparison is specious.

But let's continue to get to the heart of the matter:
In last year’s NJASK standardized testing results for eighth grade, students at Foundation Intermediate scored well above the average for Trenton and other urban schools in literacy, science and math. 
The numbers were striking. For math, students at Foundation scored 66 percent proficient, compared with 23 percent for Trenton students in general. And the statewide average for that subject, 69 percent proficient, was only a few points higher than what Foundation has achieved. 
It just so happens that, last month, I took a look at charter schools in Mercer County. And what I found was this:

Yes, Foundation Academy does well on tests compared to the rest of Trenton; here, the scores on the Grade 8 English language arts test are plotted on the vertical axis, meaning that the higher you go, the better your school did. There's no doubt: Foundation is at the top of Trenton.

But notice how many low-poverty schools in the exurbs (Princeton, Lawrence, the Windsors, Robbinsville, etc.) did even better. Foundation is actually in the same league with the inner suburbs: Hamilton and Ewing.

Is it fair to compare Foundation with an extremely low-poverty district like Princeton? Obviously not: so why is it fair to compare Foundation to the rest of Trenton? If you look at the horizontal axis, you'll see the percentage of students who qualify for free lunch. No charter school in Mercer County, including Foundation, has as high a percentage of free lunch-eligible students on this graph as any school in Trenton.

It would be embarrassing to Foundation if they didn't beat Trenton, given that, in Mercer County, 90 percent of the variation in Grade 8 ELA scores can be explained by free lunch eligibility (look at the number in the lower left corner - that's geek speak for: "Poverty matters!").

Now, let's be fair: Foundation does significantly beat prediction, which is the green line running through the graph. Proportionately, they have many more kids in poverty than the schools in Hamilton or Ewing (and that's not a knock on those schools, which are right where we'd expect them to be), yet they get equivalent test scores. Good for them.

But is something else going on here? Let's ask Weiss:
Though the school is not able to cherry-pick the best students from among the public school population, the charter manages to coax good results out of most grade levels, said Weiss, whose intermediate school handles students from 3rd through 5th grades. [emphasis mine]
Really? The school isn't "able to cherry-pick the best students"? Well, that must mean that the students are just like the students in Trenton's public schools, right?


Again, Foundation has one of the lowest rates of free lunch-eligibility in the area. But it doesn't stop there:

57 percent of Robbins Elementary students are Limited English Proficient (LEP). In contrast, only 1.4% of Foundation's students are LEP. And what about kids with special needs?

These are the special education rates for schools in Trenton. Foundation is on the low end...  but that's a bit deceiving. Because there are all different types of special education classifications:

Let's procede with caution: the special education data from the state is only at the district level (the state considers a charter school its own district), and there are rules that require the suppression of data when the numbers are low, ostensibly to protect the rights of the children who are classified. The asterisks here indicate suppressed data (although I personally believe the special education data can be dirty and we shouldn't assume anything - that said, it's the best we've got). With all that in mind...

Trenton Public Schools has to educate the nearly one percent of its population that has been classified as autistic; Foundation has no autistic students. Same with intellectual disabilities.

Specific Learning Disabilities (SLDs) can be some of the least onerous disabilities a learner has. Many times, children with SLDs have such mild learning issues that they spend most of their time in the general education classroom. That's certainly the case at Foundation:

All of the kids classified as having SLDs at Foundation are able to spend most of their time in a regular classroom. In Trenton, many of the children with SLDs need much more extra help outside of the general education classroom.

The point here is that this charter school's already low special education percentage is masking a reality: Foundation Academy isn't serving many, if any, children with profound learning disabilities. And that's not surprising: most charter schools aren't set up to handle the most difficult special needs. Charters overwhelmingly serve the middle-and-above of the bell curve.

So why don't they admit it? My guess is that if they did, it just wouldn't help tell the story certain politicians, the credulous press, and the charter cheerleading class wants to hear:
According to Weiss, Foundation differs from other public schools in numerous ways. 
Foundation students have a longer day, attending school from 7:15 a.m. to 4 p.m. — 8 hours and 45 minutes — with an additional hour for extra help or detention. 
By contrast, the average public school day is about 6½ hours long. The school year at Foundation is also longer, with 200 school days; the minimum required at public schools in New Jersey is 180 days.
That's nice, and it's probably a good idea for kids who don't have high-quality opportunities for extra-curriculars after school. But there's no evidence a longer day trumps poverty; when you look across the entire state, there's just no correlation between school day length and test score outcomes:

Juniors and seniors leave the campus at noon on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays to take community college classes, for which they receive college credit. 
“College is definitely what we do at Foundation Academy, and we’re seeing it come to fruition, we’re seeing it come alive,” Falconer said.  
The high school is very tech-oriented, Falconer said. Sophomores get their own e-book readers for school use, every classroom uses an electronic whiteboard and teachers are equipped with laptops, smart phones and personal websites to assist their teaching. 
The Foundation intermediate and middle grade levels also put a special emphasis on individual achievement, focusing on each student’s strengths and weaknesses and adjusting their curricula accordingly. Much of this, Weiss said, is done through rigorous data gathering on students throughout the school year. 
“When a teacher says, ‘Well, I taught it,’ we want to be able to say, ‘OK, you taught it, but did the kids learn it, and where is the proof that the students learned that material?’” Weiss said. “The data allows us to meet the students exactly where they’re at and push them forward.” 
Teachers at the intermediate school, instead of teaching out of textbooks, use a “teacher resource room” where they can customize their teaching materials to fit the needs of their students, Weiss said. 
Textbooks are still used in the high school, though, Falconer said. 
Reading skills are a very important focus at Foundation’s intermediate campus, in particular, where students will spend three hours of their day in various reading and writing classes. 
The school uses a “guided reading” class where students of varying levels of reading comprehension are split into different groups and assigned different books that will challenge their skill level.
Those of you who teach are probably cringing, just like I am, at reading this. Does anyone with a background in education think any of this is "innovative"?

Every school with decent resources offers college courses in high school - it's called "AP"! Every reasonably funded school in New Jersey gives their teachers computers and websites! Every school worth its salt uses data! Every teacher who graduated from a real college education program learns how to individualize instruction! Every school expects its teachers to customize resources!

And "guided reading"? Seriously?! Maybe that was innovative back in the Carter administration...

I don't want to bust on the folks from Foundation too much here: as I always say, everyone should be proud of their school. I'm sure there are some good things going on at Foundation; maybe they have even come up with a learning strategy or two that's worth emulating. It's also worth noting that they have far more kids proportionately in poverty than any school in the outer suburbs of Mercer County.

But this "miracle school" nonsense needs to stop. There's no evidence that Foundation has come up with some pedagogical elixir that can overcome the correlation between poverty and academic achievement. Like so many other "successful" charter schools, they simply do not serve the same population of students as their neighboring public schools. The data is all there, if anyone cares to look at it*, and it doesn't lie.

The time has come for the charter cheerleaders to stop this mendacity: it's polluting the debate about education, and it's making them look like fools, charlatans, or both. If you really care about children and their education, the very least you can do is step up your rhetoric and set an example of integrity and self-respect. For once and for all, just cut the crap.

* I'm going to allow myself a little personal indulgence here (what's the point of having a blog if you can't even do that?):

Now that my public profile is a little higher, I've noticed that folks will sometimes act like what I'm doing on this blog is some big quantitative deal. As if the graphs and scatterplots above are the policy equivalent of brain surgery.

I'll let you in on a little secret, folks: they aren't. What I am doing here is really basic stuff; I mean, really basic. OK, maybe I'm a little more comfortable with numbers than the average jazz pianist... but nothing I've ever published on this blog rises above the level of a first-year undergraduate course in statistics. And that troubles me...

Because there are far too many people in the press and in policy making positions and in government who could easily apprehend what I'm presenting here if they truly cared to do so. This is not rocket science - it if was, I couldn't do it. Most of the graphs on this blog could be made by anyone with the patience to get through "Excel For Dummies."

The journalist who wrote this story and his editor could have easily spent maybe an hour at the NJDOE data website, after which they would have known that they were being sold a bag of magic beans. Again: this sort of analysis is not hard to do. I barely remember anything I learned in math after 9th grade, but guess what? That's all you need to understand this stuff.

This is, ultimately, a matter of will. I read stories like this one and I think, "That can't possibly be right." And it inevitably turns out that it isn't. With a little effort and a few tricks that even a music teacher can learn, it turns out that it's not very hard to get at the truth.

But if I can do it, why can't someone who is paid to get at the truth do the same? Why isn't it standard practice in the media, the think tanks, and the government to check claims of miracles with data that is publicly available?

The answer, I fear, can be found in the words of Upton Sinclair: "It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it."

** I've edited this sentence for clarity. Unquestionably, some in the charter industry have told outright lies about charters, but that's not the case here. This story is based on distortions: we are being told only part of the story, and that's giving a false impression of Foundation relative to the Trenton Public Schools. But I wouldn't say anything here is an outright lie. The way I wrote that sentence originally could have left that impression; if it did, I apologize.

Also: one of the commenters said Foundation has no art or music programs. But the website clearly lists music faculty.


david milboer said...

I did not see any information on attrition rates. When I read the story on NJ.com I thought that the total of 17 graduates was rather small when the younger grades seemed to have more students.

Carter said...

Foundations also has no Art or Music programs - all of those extra hours and days are spent on test prep!
I also wonder about the data for undocumented students - since they do not fill out the free lunch application do they get left out of the report? As a teacher at TCHS main campus I can tell you we have many of these students and that 1 in 4 students has an IEP.

Bill said...

I tweeted when the story came out: according to the article, the school started with 100 students in two middle grades in 2007. So I estimate 50 students in top grade then. Thus, 34% made it to graduation in 2014. 5th grade math? Upton Sinclair indeed.

Duke said...

David & Bill, it's really hard to figure out attrition rates when you have a class that small. But I'll look.

Carter, the Foundation website clearly says they have music faculty. I didn't see any fine or practical art teachers, though.

Giuseppe said...

It is absolutely enraging that these charter school yahoos are always taking cheap shots at he REAL public schools. The teachers in the REAL public schools are constantly being demeaned, demonized and portrayed as ineffective and or lazy. The district school teachers are working their hearts out to teach and help the children and for their efforts they get nothing but scorn and calumny because the charter school crowd is not about cooperation but rather destruction. The public schools are being knee-capped (by defunding, closing schools and firing teachers) by people like Cami Anderson and Chris Christie and then being criticized because they can't compete with the "miracle" charter schools.

Carter said...

Bill - those kids that dropped out or were kicked out of Foundations ended right back in the Trenton schools where we had to scramble to supply them with books, supplies and teachers! Just like we had to do when all of the other Trenton charters failed!

Bill said...

The article does not explain why the class is so small, but 17 vs 50 is a glaring pair of data points, and the writer was obviously spoon-fed an advertorial. However one defines attrition, what is going on should be obvious to all but the naive or the willfully blind.

eric said...

Thanks for again doing the work that professional reporters should be doing. We have to imagine that eventually the truth will out...

edazare said...

Regarding your statement about how charters "do not serve the same population of students as their neighboring public schools" ...This is especially true in Hoboken, and I hear charter supporters (mostly the parents) saying "so what?" They see SOME cultural diversity in their charter school, and feel that is enough. They say the town should be happy that the charter schools are keeping young families in town. I say that is why it should't be up to parents - it must be regulated by impartial lawmakers that are familiar with education facts.

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