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, November 11, 2015

Charter Schools, An Exchange: Part VI (Final)

This is the last installment of an exchange about charter schools between myself and Dmitri Mehlhorn. 

Part I: Mehlhorn's opener.

Part II: My reply.

Part III: Mehlhorn's response.

Part IV: My second reply.

Part V: Mehlhorn's second response.

Part VI (this post): My final reply.

I hope everyone has found this enlightening. My sincere thanks to Dmitri Mehlhorn for engaging me in this debate.

* * *

In his final installment in this debate, Dmitri Mehlhorn posed five questions to me. Here are my responses.

Q: "Jazzman, why don’t TPS (traditional public schools) test results go down as charters expand?"

A: We don't really know that they don't. But even if they don't, there are other pernicious effects for district schools when charters expand. 

As I explained in Part II, the evidence we have about the effects of charterization on neighboring public district schools is quite limited. The Texas study Mehlhorn cited earlier (Booker et. al, 2008) shows a small positive effect for hosting districts; however, the proliferation rate of charters was quite small. In that study, most districts had well under 5 percent of their students in charters, so it's reasonable to think any "cream skimming" -- the process where charters take only those students who are more likely to thrive under a "no excuses" model -- had only a small influence on the district schools.

What happens when the charter enrollments get up to 40 percent, as they are in Washington, D.C., or soon will be in Newark? We really don't know, and it's going to be very difficult to figure out the answer when it happens. The plain fact is that there are many confounding variables when trying to figure out the effects of charter school growth on sending districts' outcomes. Test scores may go up or down, but pinning the cause on charter schools is going to be a formidable task.

In Washington, D.C., for example, the past decade has seen large changes in the city's demographics. Can we really attribute any changes, positive or negative, to charter school proliferation when the city is undergoing such large shifts in its student population characteristics? 

In addition: how sure are we that the students enrolling in charter schools would have otherwise gone to public schools? There is good reason to believe charters are attracting at least some of the population of students who would have gone to private or parochial schools. That could explain, in part, why public district schools'  test scores remain static when charter enrollment grows.

All of this, however, is speculation. I and others will continue to dig into the issue... but let's be clear about one thing: test scores are not the only measure of the potentially pernicious effects of charter schools.

As I said previously in this debate: high quality research shows that charter schools have a negative effect on the budgets of their hosting schools. This makes sense, as charters are redundant systems of school administration, and do not allow districts to fully leverage economies of scale. In other words: when every charter school has its own high-paid superintendent and administrative staff, that's inefficient. And we have more and more evidence that is the price to be paid for "choice."

I'd rather see money go into the classroom. I'd rather we cut back administration as much as possible, and put our funds into hiring the people who actually educate our children. Having multiple systems within a single community runs counter to that goal.

I am also very concerned "no excuses" charters are reinstalling a hidden curriculum of obedience within our schools that is only being foisted on students of particular races and socioeconomic classes. I've cited Pedro Noguera several times during this debate, and I'll do so again right now: we don't teach kids in the suburbs the way "no excuses" charters teach urban students of color. Chanting and marching and teacher tracking and rote repetition is not the type of education suburban parents seek for their children. Why, then, is it acceptable for children coming from segregated, economically disadvantaged communities?

This has consequences outside of the charter schools. When the public schools feel the pressure of charter "accountability" breathing down their necks, are they more likely to open up their curricula to exploratory and experiential learning, or narrow them with a focus on test prep? Are they more likely to have their youngest students marching through the halls, or will they instead give them extra time for play? Will they allow their teachers and principals to have the autonomy with accountability of professionals, or force them towards pre-scripted instructional methods that are "proven" to be "successful"?

Those who define "success" through test scores are not likely to ask such questions.

Q: "Jazzman, why aren’t race and history relevant to the burden of proof here?"

A: They are -- and history teaches us school "choice" is often a front for school segregation. Further, the "choice" offered urban parents is not suburban "choice."

Here's an ugly truth: school "choice" has a segregationist history. Here's another ugly truth: today's "choice" plans appear to be leading to more segregation, not less. The Civil Rights Project at UCLA found that "that charter schools, in many ways, have more extensive segregation than other public schools."

I approach the idea of reintegrating schools with some caution as I think there can easily be a deficit perspective inherent in the idea: that somehow we need to "save" students of color by mixing them in with more white students whose families have the "right" values. That said, we also have to acknowledge that this country deliberately segregated itself, and that segregation extends to its schools.

I don't see that the charter movement has done anything to address this reality. The "high performing" charters we hear so much about in the press (thanks to those charters' extensive public relations machines) seem to be very happy to embrace a school system where urban "choice" means choosing between a racially segregated, underfunded public school and a racially segregated, better-funded charter school.

As I've asked throughout this series: is this really the best that we can do?

And let me state once again: suburban "choice" is not urban "choice." Contrary to the claims of those who don't seem to know much about how suburban schools work (more on that soon), suburban "strivers" do not go into separately governed school systems that abrogate the rights of students and parents. Disruptive children in suburban schools -- and yes, they are there, believe me -- do not get booted out of their schools except under the most extreme circumstances.

Those who point to the suburbs to justify the proliferation of charters are making a false analogy. As they do, poverty and institutional racism calcify, resources are distributed inequitably, and a pedagogy of compliance is foisted on the most underserved and deserving of our children.

Again: is this really the best we can do?

Q: "Jazzman, why don’t you push for good charters?"

A: I'd rather push for equity: equity of resources, equity of access, equity of lives.

There is a place for school choice if we adequately fund schools and equalize the lives of children. But choice is not a substitute for equity.

That's worth repeating, loudly:

Choice is not a substitute for equity.

Why would anyone put promoting school choice at the top of their social justice agenda when our schools are being massively underfunded? Why would anyone think expanding charters is a top priority when 22 percent of our children live in poverty, and 45 percent live in low-income households?

I am a capitalist. I believe a well-regulated market generally is the most efficient way to move capital where it is needed, and I believe ingenuity, talent, and hard work should be rewarded. I have no problem with people who create useful goods and services making lots and lots of money as their reward.

But America's economic system is leaving far too many of our families behind, and our children are paying the price. It is utterly shameful that the most powerful nation in the history of this planet allows so many of its children and their families to live in squalor while a select few gather up all of the income gains we have made over the past few decades.

The idea that a few more schools operating outside of democratic control can make up for this is, frankly, ridiculous. Who could possibly believe this? Who could possibly think setting up more of these schools is a serious response to our current situation? Who could possibly imagine that New Orleans or Newark will all of a sudden become an economic paradise where poverty and inequality are magically swept away by a few bumps in test scores thanks to charter schools?

It's long past time for the charter cheerleading sector to stop pretending they have found a large-scale solution to poverty. Too many in the charter industry pat each other on the rump because their schools put the pennants of elite colleges on their walls, never stopping to think for a moment that millions of people in this country are doing necessary work that does not require a college degree, yet are struggling to survive. Should they all go to Yale? Should all the truck drivers and brick layers and home health care aides get Ivy League degrees? Would that make things better?

Social mobility is not social equity. The minute you guys realize this is the minute I'll consider pushing for more "choice." Until then, I've got bigger concerns -- and so should you.

Q: "Jazzman, how much improvement would be enough?"

A: Hey, I'm not the one who said charters are closing the "achievement gap"; I'm only pointing out they aren't closing it.

Dmitri, you missed the point of my argument on effect size, so I'll try one more time:

The spokespeople for the charter sector -- not me, but them -- are the ones saying their schools are somehow proving that poverty isn't destiny. They are setting up the comparison between affluent and economically disadvantaged schools and students, not me. They are the ones saying their schools are closing the "achievement gap."

They are wrong:

Yes, higher test scores are better than lower scores -- duh. But tiny, incremental gains are not enough to close the "gap" that the charter cheerleaders say they are closing.

Again I ask: is this really the best we can do? A few more answers correct on a bubble test? For a select few students who manage to make it through the gauntlet that is a "no excuses" school?

A fully functioning, well-funded, and equitable education system is a necessary precondition for a just society. We need good schools if we are going to lift people out of poverty; nobody disputes this. But you can't expect schools to solve the problems of chronic poverty on their own.

This, however, appears to be exactly the argument the charter sector keeps making for itself: expand charters and the effects of poverty on school outcomes will simply fade away. Except the evidence shows it won't. So let's stop pretending that school "choice" a some sort of substitute for a meaningful, wide-scale program of social and economic justice. Clearly, it isn't.

Q: "Jazzman, do we already have some areas of agreement? If so, what do they mean?"

A: We'd be more likely to find agreement if your side would stop bashing teachers unions and public schools.

Here's the reformy LA Times, claiming charters are "...free of sometimes stultifying union rules." Here's a charter staffer saying her school is "Free from union contracts..." Here's a pro-charter film excoriating the "...sorry statistics of union-fueled schools..." Here's the NY Post saying that the UFT, NYC's teachers union, is "...associated with yet another education failure" because its charter school "...can’t compete with the non-union charters." Here's a report from the "liberal" MSNBC that claims charters are "...unencumbered by teachers unions or antiquated rules and regulations that can choke innovation." Here's a pro-charter think tank claiming charters are better off when they "... reject the fixed salary levels that have been comfortably adhered to and influenced by teachers unions."

Time and again, the charter industry has stated, both implicitly and explicitly, that their "freedom" from teachers unions is a key part of their success. I've been looking at this a good long time, and I can only find one theory that explains a charter advantage that comes from having a non-unionized staff:

That fraction of the charter sector that is "high-performing" has schools that churn their staff and keep experience levels low. They are, consequently, able to keep staffing costs low compared to the public schools in their host communities. Experienced teachers on traditional union-negotiated step guides make considerably more than their charter counterparts, but that doesn't matter much for the charters, as they have only a few teachers with experience into their second decade and beyond.

These charters are able to offer higher starting salaries than the neighboring district schools. For that higher salary, teachers work longer hours and more days, allowing the school to spend more time drilling its students and, in some cases, offering extracurriculars. Consequently, the children score higher on test scores.

That's it. That's the "non-union charter advantage": a less-experienced staff working longer hours, incentivized by higher starting salaries but ultimately having shorter teaching careers.

This is a smart strategy from a business sense, but I think it's ultimately bad for the teaching profession to move more and more educators into what is essentially temp work. Further, I don't think this is scaleable. "High-performing" charters, in my opinion, are going to exhaust their human resource pool soon; then what?

In any case, there is no reason to believe charters have found some magical efficiencies because they don't have to worry about unions stifling them. Those who make that case are engaging in unwarranted union bashing instead of honestly and carefully analyzing how charters really get their test score gains.

The charter industry has also built the justification for its existence on claiming our public schools have "failed." Not only is this extremely unhelpful in garnering the necessary financial support our schools have been lacking; it's also unjustifiably sanctimonious considering that charter schools do not do he same job as public schools.

Even charter operators like KIPP, who pride themselves on attempting to serve the most disadvantaged students, do not follow the same enrollment procedures as public schools. In Camden, KIPP decided it would only enroll kindergarten students in its first year and grow each year after that. But the Camden Public Schools don't have that luxury. Neither can they, like Mastery's and Uncommon's schools, pick and choose which grades they would like to serve and how many students they would like to enroll.

Success Academy's attrition practices are now well known; however, even if we put them aside, Eva Moskowitz herself says she won't take new students into her schools after Grade 4. She says it's "not really fair" to the higher-performing students to be slowed down by the lower-performing ones who might come in. Again, that's fine for her schools, but the public schools she is muscling out through colocation don't have that option.

As I've said before, I am sympathetic to the point of view of urban parents who want the positive peer effects they see suburban families enjoying for their own children. I've never criticized a parent for enrolling their child in a charter school, and I never will. But it's unfair to seek out that peer effect while simultaneously claiming public schools are "failing," even as they serve a different population of students.

The charter industry has made a lot of noise lately about putting aside the district vs. charter battle and moving on to areas of agreement. If their spokespeople are sincere, however, they ought to stop beating down teachers unions and public schools. I'm not saying unions are always right, and I'm certainly not saying urban public schools don't need a lot of improvement, starting with -- but certainly not limited to -- more resources.

But justifying your existence by continually wagging your finger at the teachers and the schools that are doing a different job than the charters is, frankly, obnoxious. My charter school friends: a little humility would go a long, long way.

Thank you, Dmitiri, for this exchange.


Dienne said...

Brilliant. Of course, you already won the match back in round I, but this just finishes off what little credibility remained for Mr. Mehlhorn - you've exposed him for the disingenuous shill he is.

Those who do the ed blog circuit every day are familiar with frequent commenter "Teaching Economist". Dimitri's distract, deflect and distort tactics (all under a surface veneer of polite interest and pretending to seek understanding and agreement) remind me so much of TE that I wouldn't be surprised to find out that Dimitri and TE are one and the same.

CrunchyMama said...

Dienne, I know T.E. lives in Northern Virginia, not far from me; it absolutely is entirely possible. Kicking myself for not having noticed or thought of that myself. LOL

Marie Corfield said...

Thanks for this in-depth conversation. I've been engaged in my own tete-a-tete with Dmitri over on Twitter. It's very frustrating because he, and many other charter cheerleaders, keep skirting the issue of 'choice' vs. 'access'. Taxpayer funded schools that call themselves 'public' should never, EVER exclude any child. If they want our tax dollars, they should be willing and able to accept anyone who shows up at their door—no exceptions.

If charters want to call themselves 'public' schools, they should be held to the same accountability standards as TPS. In NJ at least, let's get the QSAC monitors all over the charters and see how well they hold up.

Ajay Srikanth said...

Good conversation. What bothers me about charter school advocates is that for them choice begin and ends with where a child goes to school. The way I think of choice, there are a variety of components to it:

1) School Assignment: where a child goes to school. This seems to be the only thing charter school folks think about. And even within this category, a child cannot enroll at a charter once enrollment is capped or in middle of the year (and as you mentioned, sometimes even past 4th grade)

2) Curriculum: no choice at "no excuses" charter schools. Mostly test prep

3) Course offerings: appear to be limited at charter schools. For example, Eva Moskowitz decided that at Success Academy kids don't need to bother learning another language (http://qz.com/309143/a-case-for-cutting-foreign-languages-from-us-schools/). I'm sure this issue resonates for you too as a music teacher. I'd like to see data on the % of kids in no excuses charters who take art and music (choir, band, orchestra)Just this idea alone bothers me.

4) Assessment: kids constantly taking practice tests. Considering the entire curriculum built around test prep, it follows that this is not a choice. I'm guessing any parent who tried to opt out at a no excuses charter would have their child expelled

5) Extracurriculars/sports: guessing charters don't talk about their marching bands or debate team or their sports teams either because they don't have those

6) Discipline: students have no voice or say in whether they get suspended. And should they speak out, they will have their names dragged through the mud.

Peter Greene had a good analogy- he compared the big public school to a large buffet that offers a bit of everything. Charters are more like the restaurant that only serves one item, and if you don't like that item you can leave.

The other thing that bothers me about non educators like Dmitri Melhorn is that he consistently fails to discuss the wide variation in the Sp Ed and ELL category. Anyone who has worked on an IEP, attended an IEP meeting, or worked with special needs students knows that you can have students varying from mild learning disabilities who outperform their Gen Ed peers to students with behavioral/emotional disorders who can't sit still for an exam. Same with ELL, you get newcomer/refugees who don't know any social English (let alone academic English) up to students who are practically fluent in academic and social English

Dmitri Mehlhorn said...

Deb Stahl, nice to hear from you. I don't know of "Teaching Economist" but I write under my own name across all platforms.

Dmitri Mehlhorn said...

Dienne, I understand that you are angry -- a lot of people get angry about public education for lots of good reasons. But as an educator, you understand that anger is not a great place for conversations, understanding, or learning. The terms disingenuous and shill both imply an intentional dishonesty. If you attribute that to anyone with whom you disagree, you're unlikely to ever change your mind -- not a great position for an educator to take.

Dmitri Mehlhorn said...

Marie, I've enjoyed our exchanges. A couple of longer thoughts for you:

(1) I agree that taxpayer-funded public schools should not exclude children. If you really don't want public schools to have the ability to proactively exclude children, then you should have a lot of enemies before you get to charters. You should absolutely oppose all public magnet schools, such as Thomas Jefferson in Virginia or Bronx Science, which have selective admissions. You should be furious that Carmen Farina is the Chancellor of NYC schools, given that as principal she was well known for pushing both students and teachers into other school zones. Most of all, you should be furious about schools that are residentially based, because they mean that the best public schools are available only to people who live within the relevant geographies. When parents like Kelley Williams Bolar and Hamlet Garcia tried to get their kids into schools in the "wrong" zip codes, they were subjected to criminal sanctions, including jail time. The awfulness of that statement bears repeating: their kids were physically far from the best school districts because their parents did not live in the "right" neighborhoods, and then they were arrested by police with guns and put into physical jails (cages) as punishment for sending their kids to the right district. As long as that is the reality, your rhetoric about traditional public schools rings false. Every TPS in this country is segregated by residential location, and the VAST majority are therefore segregated by both race and class. If you wanted to enable parent choice without charter schools, you would campaign against zip code laws, and force all TPS to manage their enrollments according to anyone who wanted to attend and was willing to get there.

(2) In terms of charters, I agree charters should be forced to backfill. But the notion that parents who want TPS are being deprived of that choice by charters is a very weird thing. The reality is that parents who live in areas with bad public schools would vastly prefer to have choices. The anchor of hostility to school choice is urban whites. The polling data on this are not even close to ambiguous. This was my point about Karran Harper Royal -- she is one dissenter whose voice may be valuable, but make no mistake the vast majority of parents in low-income areas do not want to stick with TPS.

Dmitri Mehlhorn said...

Away Srikanth, thank you for your thoughts. Most of your comments make sense only if you ignore how TPS operate and compare charters to some sort of theoretical platonic ideal that does not actually exist.

Consider your points about extracurricular activities. For the relevant populations of kids in poverty in urban areas, do you really think they get a voice in whether they are pushed out of public schools? Do you really think they have debate and dance teams? Just compare Harlem Success, which Jazzman loves to critique, with the co-located public schools. Harlem Success Academies have LOWER attrition, at 10% per class per year vs. 20% per class per year for co-located TPS. SCA has higher "suspension" rates, yes, but the TPS find other ways to push kids out. SCA has dance, public speaking, and leadership classes which seem to far exceed anything available at the local schools. I agree that charters have not generally been radical innovators in instruction, but that is a direct consequence of the political hostility to charters since the moment they were put into place. If a charter innovates, it will be attacked.

As for your point about SPED and ELL, the idea that "non-educators" ignore those populations is interesting. The education establishment, including a lot of educators, did not do a particularly good job of engaging with SPED students even after funding for such students increased. But getting to the main point, if charters were concentrating severe SPED and ELL students, you'd start to see a tipping point where places with lots of charters had very difficult-to-serve cohorts in TPS. But, with 14 urban areas now having more than 30% charter penetration, the argument is very hard to make. Mark / Jazzman falls back on the fiscal issue, which I will address at some point, but the skimming / ELL / severe SPED argument just remains the dog that doesn't bark.

jc grim said...

hahahhahahahahahahaha. Dienne, you've been written off as angry & at public schools, no less!
I'm always surprised at the naked contempt these reformers have for their critics. Mammering elf-skinned louts, they are.

Michael E said...

I think this debate, despite an honest effort to find some, failed to find common ground. It seems to me that even if agreement about many basic facts was found, the contexts in which those facts are viewed remain wildly separate. These are, I think, the biggest differences:

1) Melhorn is focused on individuals and Jazzman is focused on communities. I do not mean to imply that either writer ignores individuals or communities, but their evaluations hinge on these two ideas in very different ways. Melhorn seems to think that if a few students can be removed from adverse school environments, then they should be. Jazzman doesn't necessarily disagree with that claim in the abstract, but he is worried about the costs to the broader community of "rescuing" those few students.

2) Melhorn and Jazzman have different assumptions about the degree to which traditional public schools can be improved. Melhorn implies that many traditional public schools are lost causes. Or at least, they cannot be improved quickly enough, and in the meantime, charters can allow at least some kids can escape those schools. Jazzman sees public dollars as needing to stay within the traditional school system to improve those schools as much as possible (as well as provide other social services) rather than being diverted to pull out just a small number of students from those problematic schools. The point of departure seems to be that Melhorn views public dollars spent on the current system as essentially wasted, whereas, Jazzman sees the public system as fixable.

3) The largest difference seems to be about the value of standardized test scores. Jazzman is clear that they are an imperfect, and probably harmful, measure of academic success that excludes and marginalizes many important parts of learning. Unfortunately, Melhorn does not really take up this point and defend his faith in test scores as the measure of academic progress. Jazzman’s rhetorical question—“Is this really the best we can do?”—is aimed, from my reading, at this idea. In other words, we should be trying to improve far more than just test scores. Melhorn does suggest briefly that many charter schools offer more than just test prep, and he is in all likelihood correct; however, Jazzman’s critique is that as long as test scores are used as the primary measure of school quality, those other valuable parts of a child’s education will continue to be undervalued and underrepresented, especially for children from poor and minority communities.

I emphasize the disagreement about test scores for a couple of reasons. First, it underscores an underlying philosophical disagreement about the overall purpose of schooling. I think Melhorn’s position views schooling as a means to an end, primarily an economic end—at least, it is more a means to that end than an end in itself. Jazzman’s argument treats education as a good for its own sake and does not single out economic success. Second, agreement about the value of test scores is an especially thorny problem, because the allure of measurable outcomes is so very great. If we can attach some numerical result to an intervention, then that intervention seems inherently superior to one for which no such numerical data exists.

Okay, here I need to admit my own ideological biases: I am myself more in Jazzman’s camp than Melhorn’s. In fact, I think that even being willing, as Jazzman is, to frame the debate in terms of test score data may be a mistake. I think that the most important benefits of education are not economic, are not measurable, and may not even be academic in the traditional sense. By using test scores to measure success, we diminish the qualitative values of schooling, and those qualitative values are by far the most important. The key features of the “no excuses” model, and indeed of most traditional schools,—grades, homework, rewards and punishments, obsession with measurable outcomes, and an emphasis on behavior and compliance—are antithetical to learning, especially to creative, thoughtful inquiry.