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

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Can We Please Get the Facts Right About Newark's Schools?

Let me start by saying I like David Kirp's work enormously; I think everyone who cares about education policy should read Improbable Scholars, a detailed and thoroughly readable piece of qualitative research about school reform in Union City, NJ. I have some issues with the generalizability of Kirp's work, but he's a fine writer and I think, like Jonathan Kozol, he does a good job of describing what actually happens in an urban public school system.

Let me further say I think Kirp is on to something in his piece today for the NY Times. There's little doubt the "creative destruction" approach to schooling found in Newark has not led to any measurable gains in student learning. Bruce Baker and I recently pointed out that any gains in test scores in Newark, if they even exist, are part of a larger, statewide pattern. And I'll have new work out soon that shows the same thing with the vaunted increases in graduation rates that the fans of Cami Anderson like to crow about.

Kirp is not the first to note that urban districts in New Jersey that have resisted charter schools, such as Elizabeth and Union City, have schools that do comparatively well on tests compared to state averages, even though they have large numbers of students in economic disadvantage. Of course, we rarely hear about these schools because, unlike the large, national charter chains, they don't employ entire offices full of people to tout their successes.

So I'm all for what Kirp is doing here: by all means, let's hear some more about how to build successful urban school districts without dismantling them. Let's consider that maybe "no excuses" charters don't have all (or even some) of the answers. Let's look more carefully at claims of "beating the odds," and stop credulously accepting the idea that all American urban schools are "failing."

But can we please get the facts right when we do so?
One of Mr. Booker’s goals was to make Newark the nation’s “charter school capital,” and he largely succeeded. While these schools have recorded higher test scores and graduation rates than the traditional schools, money explains much of that gap. Freed from the district’s bureaucracy, the charters have nearly a third more dollars to spend on each student, $12,650 versus $9,604, which buys additional teachers, tutors and social workers. [emphasis mine]
No. No, no, no.

That factoid comes from -- surprise! -- Dale Russakoff's The Prize. As I have said repeatedly, Russakoff does a fine job of telling the political backstory of Newark school reform; however, her numbers are way, way off. Many of the data points she uses are not properly sourced and outright contradicted by state figures. I wrote an entire brief about this, and no one -- not Russakoff, not the Newark Public Schools (NPS), not the state, not the Newark charters -- has challenged any of it (so far as I know).

Here's the passage in The Prize where Kirp, I believe, gets his figures:

- Newark District Schools: $19,650 (This amount represents remaining per-pupil sum after payments to charters and pre-K are subtracted; of the $19,650, and average of $9,604 per pupil reaches schools.)

- Newark charter schools: $16,400 (There is no available data on the average amount reaching charter school classrooms. According to Newark’s KIPP schools, $12,664 reaches its SPARK Academy elementary school.)” (p. 288, Appendix II)
Let's first start by pointing out that the $12,664 figure Russakoff gives is not an aggregated figure for all Newark charter schools; it is a self-reported figure from KIPP for one of the schools in its network (I am assuming Kirp has rounded up to get his $12,650; if he didn't he is citing a figure I have never seen before).

Further, as I pointed out in the brief, the calculation of those figures that show money "reaching schools" is never explained; what, exactly, does the figure represent? If we go to the state spending figures -- the most complete, uniformly reported, and relevant data -- we find the trope that NPS has a bloated bureaucracy while the charters are lean and mean is just not accurate.

NPS spends more money on instruction -- "in the classroom" -- than most Newark charters.

NPS spends far more on student support services -- guidance counselors, social workers, librarians, nurses, etc. -- than any Newark charter.

NPS has lower administrative costs than any Newark charter school.

NPS's administrative salaries are lower than most charters.

One argument charter advocates make is that the state figures may misclassify spending. But Newark has many more education service personnel on staff than the charters, suggesting the district really is spending more on student support.

Both Kirp and Russakoff assert KIPP's Newark network has many* more social workers per student. But the personnel files show that's just not true. Further, NPS hires psychologists and counselors that KIPP does not, and NPS has more nurses per student than KIPP.

Finally: if NPS is a patronage factory compared to the charters, why are their total plant costs right at the median? That's especially notable when you consider NPS's physical plant is in serious disrepair.

As I've explained before, charters often do have a resource advantage over public district schools. But the empirical evidence does not support the theory that the advantage comes from charters avoiding bureaucratic waste; in fact, there's plenty of reason to believe many charters are wasting the taxpayers' money in rent-seeking and other activities.

Instead, charters get their resource advantage by:
  1. Hiring less experienced and, consequently, cheaper teachers.
  2. Taking advantage of philanthropic contributions that are not available to public district schools.
  3. Enrolling a population with fewer special education and Limited English Proficient students, which keeps costs down.
This is what an appropriate analysis of the data tells us. It's not complicated and it's not a secret, even if it contradicts the conventional wisdom.

Again: I appreciate what Kirp is trying to do here. I've also pointed out Russakoff has many important points to make in her book. But if we're going to have a productive conversation about school "reform," we've got to get the facts right.


* Corrected: needs that adverb.


StateAidGuy said...

"But if we're going to have a productive conversation about school "reform," we've got to get the facts right."

Agreed, but we also need to get the context right too.

Union City's schools do better than you would expect given their demographics, but Union City's schools aren't the highest performing relative to demographics in New Jersey either and as an Abbott district Union City is comparatively well-resourced, spending $17,400 per pupil for 2015, getting universal Pre-K, and having a splendid, brand-new high school.

Union City's scchools are at the 25th-29th percentiles statewide, or the 65th percentile compared to demographic peers. That's good, but it's much less impressive than Dover which are almost as demographically poor but much lower resource and is actually significantly above the state averages.

Union City's scores are actually equal to many high-FRL/low-resource non-Abbotts such as Guttenberg, Manchester Regional, and Prospect Park.

The point of praising Union City in Improbable Scholars and Kirp's essay is to make an argument "charters aren't necessary (or even harmful)," but praising Dover would be an argument "big money isn't necessary" and that's not something Kirp wants to do.

Ajay Srikanth said...

I was thinking the same exact thing as I read this! Kirp assumes that strategies that work for ELLs of Cuban and Latin American descent in Union City (Bilingual Education and native language instruction) will work for African American students in Newark (the only groups of students served in charters and the racial group discussed in The Prize). This is just an inaccurate column that makes false equivalencies and uses inaccurate data.