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 18, 2014

Charter School "Gibberish"

I thought I was moving up in the world. I was actually getting some high-quality pushback on my writing from folks like Dmitri Melhorn, formerly of StudentsFirst, and the KIPP Kids here in Jersey at TEAM Academy. Not to say I think their arguments have much merit -- they don't. But at least they think a little about things and they understand they have to deal with the facts as they are.

The exchanges have been tart at times, but I can at least respect these folks are willing to hold themselves to a reasonable standard of intellectual rigor. At least I can gauge some good will here as they are willing to acknowledge some basic truths about charter school enrollments and outcomes.

So I was feeling like I had finally earned a better class of critic; that maybe I was getting a little respect.

Then I read this:
Charter school opponents like Julia Sass Rubin and Mark Weber (”New Jersey Charter Schools: A Data-Driven View, Part I”) claim that these recognized differences make charter populations “fundamentally different” demographically, and put their analytic energies towards claiming that the academic success of charter school students is a result of demographics rather than hard work in an effective school. 
New Jersey has 87 public charter schools, which educate nearly 40,000, mostly urban, students. Those students, like their urban district peers, are overwhelmingly poor and minority. But, by and large, charter school students achieve superior results. Why is this?
The explanation isn’t found by statistically parsing minor differences in degrees of poverty -- it is found in the fundamental differences in the effectiveness of instructional practices, the supportive environment, and the culture of accountability found in New Jersey’s high-performing charter schools. 
Charter schools have done more to provide high-quality education to disadvantaged students, and to provide equitable access, than any other educational reform effort in New Jersey.
The data, as presented by Weber and Rubin, obscures the larger picture of public-education equity and, as such, represents statistical gibberish. It ignores the centrality of effective education in addressing all the other ills that plague our urban centers. It also fails to address the significant positive impacts of charters in communities where district schools have failed multiple generations of students. And it does not offer any rationale for why public education in many of our urban areas largely failed parents during the 40 years before charters even became an option. [emphasis mine]
This comes to us courtesy of Rick Pressler, interim president and CEO (they need both?) of the New Jersey Charter Schools Association. It appears that Mr. Pressler, like his predecessor, Carlos Perez, does not much care for the report I authored with Dr. Julia Sass Rubin: NJ Charter Schools: A Data-Driven View, Part I. Apparently, our graphs and numbers and data are nothing more than "gibberish."

Mr. Pressler, when I hear two people conversing in Mandarin, it sounds like "gibberish" to me. But that's not the fault of the people speaking; it's mine, because I don't speak Chinese. "Gibberish" is what people call things they don't understand.

Bruce Baker and I have both explained this numerous times: the "minor differences" in student demographics between charter schools and district schools matter. Mr. Pressler, if you're going to be the spokesperson for charter schools throughout the state, save yourself some eventual embarrassment and read my post (it's quite understandable) about why poverty measures matter. An excerpt:

You'll notice the pattern remains the same, but the dots are "tighter" to the trend line in the middle of the graph. Statistically, half of the variation in test scores can be explained by FL rates. That's stronger than the correlation above, so right away, we have a clue: in a community with large numbers of students in economic disadvantage, FL explains more of the variation in test scores than FRPL.

But let's take it one step further. How does RPL affect test scores?

Whoa! When we looked at FL and FRPL, test scores when down when the rate went up. But look at this -- we've flipped the relationship! In a community like Newark, when RPL rates go up, test scores go up!

Keep in mind that this is a relationship we'll only see if we limit our sample size to a community like Newark. If we tried to do this across the state, we wouldn't see the same relationship: that's because, relative to the entire state, RPL is a measure of economic disadvantage.

But when we limit our framework to Newark only, the relationship changes. Why? Because in Newark, RPL is a sign of relative economic advantage, not disadvantage.
I know this is a little quanty, but do us all a favor, Rick, and drill down a little so we can have an honest conversation. Please.

As to this idea that the alleged "academic success" of charter schools is "a result of demographics rather than hard work in an effective school," let's first acknowledge that there is no evidence of any academic success in New Jersey charter schools outside of Newark. The NJ CREDO report, long touted by charter cheerleaders throughout the state, plainly says that students in charters everywhere but Newark learn less than their peers (p. 16).

The most generous reading of the Newark charter school gains in the CREDO report shows they moved students from the from the 50th to the 60th percentile in math and from the 50th to the 59th percentile in reading: good, but hardly fantastic. The measure of those gains, however, does not take into account the aggregation I discussed above of free lunch and reduced price lunch eligible students. Nor does it take into account the aggregation of special education students of all types.

Nor does it take into account the patterns of attrition at charters like North Star Academy.

Nor the peer effects that even Newark's State Superintendent Cami Anderson, a huge charter cheerleader, acknowledges gives charter schools an advantage (maybe this the reason the author of the CREDO report has since disavowed the "market model" charter cheerleaders laud).

All of these realities keep charter schools from being replicable. Which is why even the big national CMOs like KIPP, which has been free of the disgusting money grubbing found in so many other parts of the charter sector, consistently refuse to expand their networks to the point that they would have to take all comers within a school district. Even they acknowledge that their model works for some students -- but not all.

Now, I will give Pressler one point: we need a more thorough discussion of magnet schools. I've actually done some recent work on this, and hopefully will be putting it out when ready over the next year.

But if Pressler's read even a small portion of the posts in this blog, he knows that I, probably more than any other commenter on education in New Jersey (with one big exception), have harped on the indefensible segregation and inequitable funding that plagues New Jersey's schools. But here's the thing: charter schools do nothing to address the underlying problems. Using charter school proliferation to shuffle kids around within poverty-stricken, inadequately funded, segregated districts does nothing to fix the root problems with our state's public schools.

And this is the ultimate issue with the arguments of shills like Rick Pressler: his charter cheerleading is leading us away from a serious discussion of how to improve the lives of impoverished children. He gives cover to plutocrats like Chris Christie, who guts education funding and turns New Jersey back from its historic commitment to equity. Christie famously said his "reform" plan consisted of vouchers, charters, teacher merit pay, and gutting tenure.

But raising taxes to pay for school funding adequacy? Perish the thought! Luckily, he's got folks like Rick Pressler in his corner, ready to tout charter school proliferation without giving a thought to desegregation and adequate school funding and improving the lives of the poor.

Now that's gibberish.

Rick Pressler explains charter school proliferation.


Dienne said...

Minor point:

"The NJ CREDO report, long touted by charter cheerleaders throughout the state, plainly says that students in charters everywhere but Newark learn less than their peers (p. 16)."

Well, yes, it does say that, but there is nothing to back up that assertion. All they can really say is that students in charters everywhere but Newark *score lower* than their peers. Nothing can be inferred from scores on a standardized test to actual learning, since learning is not something that can be measured (it hasn't even been adequately operationally defined). Yes, it's nice when the charterites fail even by their own metric, but please let's not cede ground that test scores actually mean anything.

Robert D. Skeels * rdsathene said...

Numbers tend to confuse the charter industry folk, with the exception of the huge numbers accumulating in their bank accounts.

jcg said...

Question for the community: I read somewhere that congress was considering giving all children free lunch. They would no longer be collecting FL & RL data. Does anyone know if this gift to the charter industry was inserted into the omnibus?