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

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Charter School Propaganda: A Case Study

I really don't want to keep debunking this past Sunday's big, fat, wet kiss from the Star-Ledger's Julie O'Connor to the TEAM/KIPP charter school in Newark -- see here and here. But O'Connor has given us such a perfect example of reformy propaganda that it really does merit further deconstruction.

O'Connor's love letter to TEAM/KIPP is based on a collection of received truths: 
  • Urban public schools suck (and suburban schools aren't that great, either).
  • We've spent too much already on district schools.
  • Charter schools are awesome because they "prove" that poverty can be overcome in our schools; they are also "doing more with less."
To make her case, O'Connor gives us several talking points, clearly pre-digested by TEAM/KIPP for her easy consumption. Among them:
"One KIPP elementary school even outscored Montclair kids in 2013, a much higher income group."
"In a city where almost half the students don't graduate, nearly all its kids finish, and a remarkable 95 percent of them go on to college."
"At last count, nearly 10,000 families were on a waiting list to get their children in."
There are others, and I'll get to them in due course. But let's take these three for right now. Are these points of data factually correct? Yes, absolutely.

But are they true? That's an entirely different question.

The master propagandist never puts a piece of data before the public that isn't factually correct. Why would she? Facts are not malleable in and of themselves, but their application certainly is. And what O'Connor has managed to do here is tell a story that is certainly "factual," but leaves out so much critical information that it can hardly be called "true."

Let's take these "facts" one at a time:

- Did TEAM/KIPP's grade 3 students outscore Montclair's in 2013, and does that tell us something? In O'Connor's construction, it would tell us that TEAM/KIPP has "proved" that charter schools can, indeed, close the testing gap, because Montclair's students come from more affluent homes.

Let's go to the data:

There is no doubt that O'Connor is right: in 2013, TEAM/KIPP's students beat Montclair's district Grade 3 English Language Arts (ELA) average score. OK, it's only 0.2 points, and TEAM/KIPP's Grade 5 students were well behind Montclair's Grade 5 students, and it's only in ELA, not math:

TEAM/KIPP wasn't keeping up with most of Montclair in math on 2013. Still, O'Connor is factually correct. But it's curious that she chose 2013 as her year for comparison; what happened in 2014?

Uh-oh: those Grade 3 students at TEAM/KIPP are now well behind Montclair's students in Grade 4. And the new crop of Grade 3 students is behind Montclair as well.

Let me stop and say what I always say (and what I sincerely mean) at this point in these discussions: this data does not prove TEAM/KIPP is a "bad" school any more than it proves Montclair's schools are "good." Test scores are not particularly good measures of school quality to begin with, even if I do endorse using them to inform decisions as to whether or not schools need interventions.

No, my point is this: Julie O'Connor's comparison between Montclair and TEAM/KIPP is idiotic on its face. These school systems have completely different populations of students: for example, TEAM/KIPP's rate of students classified with a special education need is 12.32% (2013 data), compared to Montclair's classification rate of 17.20%. Given the difference in student socio-economic status and special education needs, why would anyone try to make a comparison between these two school systems?

The answer, I'm afraid, is all too simple: O'Connor had her story, and she was only going to allow those facts into her brain that affirmed her beliefs. All other relevant data is to be ignored, and all context not reinforcing her predetermined beliefs be damned.

- Do 95 percent of TEAM/KIPP's students go on to college, and does that tell us something? Once again, let's look at the data:

Hey, you don't have to take my word for this: look it up yourself. TEAM/KIPP's rate of Postsecondary Enrollment according to official sources is 82%. That is lower than three other high schools in Newark*, and not much better than several others.

So where did O'Connor get this "95 percent" rate from? Scroll to the bottom of her piece and you'll find this [emphasis mine]:
More about KIPP kids: 
- 95 percent of seniors went to college last year


Sources: KIPP New Jersey, NWEA MAP assessment
Two takeaways here: first, just like O'Connor cherry-picked her comparison in one grade and one test to one district when she came up her Montclair spiel, she now picks one class of TEAM/KIPP's seniors to make her point about the school's jewel-like shine.

Worse: O'Connor ignores standard, universally reported, public data and instead relies on TEAM/KIPP itself to give her the data points she needs to make her case. 

I'm not a professional journalist, and I've never pretended not to have a point of view. But this crosses a line even I know shouldn't be crossed. Relying on data that only comes from a self-interested party -- especially when data that is at least somewhat more objective is available -- is either unacceptably naive or unacceptably biased. Possibly both.

- Are there really 10,000 families on a waiting list waiting to get into TEAM/KIPP, and does that tell us something? It's hard to tell if O'Connor means 10,000 students are waiting to get into TEAM/KIPP, or all Newark charter schools. But it really doesn't matter...

The mythical New Jersey charter school "waiting list" is one of the great inventions of this state's charter advocacy industry. As I have explained previously, the only data we have that comes close to describing any wait list is from back in 2011. That data was all self-reported, and there is no indication that NJDOE did anything to check how many of the names on a particular charter school's wait list were duplicated on another.

Further, now that the One Newark universal enrollment system is in place, any talk of wait lists is superfluous. We should be talking about the results of that application system; unfortunately, media outlets like O'Connor's Star-Ledger don't seem interested in pursuing this story.

Luckily, NJ Spotlight, for whom I write, is interested. They published the results of the last One Newark application round, and I wrote a brief examining the data. Here's one of several things I found:

TEAM/KIPP is indeed popular. But it also enrolls a relatively low proportion of free-lunch eligible students compared to the rest of Newark. Julie O'Connor, however, doesn't much seem to care about this particular data point.

Once again: TEAM/KIPP gets solid results given its student population (and its advantage in funding -- more in a bit). It is a fine school; I'll even concede they may engage in practices that are worth considering. 

But the outsized attention Julie O'Connor, her boss Tom Moran, and the Star-Ledger have showered on TEAM/KIPP is completely unwarranted. There are many other "jewels" in the New Jersey public school system -- jewels that don't have a relentless public relations machine behind them.

O'Connor and Moran should be asking better of themselves. If they are determined to regurgitate the "data" they are being fed by charter chains like KIPP, the very least they should do is verify those claims and put them into their proper context.

In other words: let's take a little bit of pride in our work, shall we?

We left our pride around here somewhere...

* Of course, it's easy for North Star to claim such a high post-secondary rate when they lose so many kids between Grade 5 and Grade 12 in the first place.

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