Our story so far:
Uncommon Schools, a "successful" charter school chain, claims that its Newark school outperforms the best schools in the state, based on the scores of juniors on the PARCC test. Here, again, is Stephen Chiger, the "Director of Literacy" for Uncommon:
Here's the thing: yes, North Star beat Livingston and Millburn on the PARCC -- but that's because the suburban students blew off the tests:Take the most recent PARCC exams in New Jersey. About 41% of the state’s 11th graders met or exceeded expectations on the test.In Essex County, high-income Millburn High School (2.2% economically disadvantaged) saw 57% of students scoring proficient or advanced on the assessment. The juniors at Livingston High School (1.5 % economically disadvantaged) earned 56.5%.A few miles away, the juniors at Newark-based North Star Academy (83.7% economically disadvantaged) earned an 80.6% pass rate.The school achieved it through more systems and strategies than I could possibly recount here. The good news is that I don’t have to.Uncommon Schools, which manages North Star, publishes books — and books and books – to share its practices. It regularly films teachers to “show” and not just “tell.” It opens its doors to hundreds of visitors every year. It runs professional development for external audiences and sells trainings so they can turn-key them locally.And, there’s good evidence it’s working.[emphasis mine]
There are uncorroborated reports that North Star students were punished for refusing to sit for the PARCC. I've asked, via social media, for Uncommon officials to confirm or deny this. Until then, I think it's safe to say the suburban students who did sit for the PARCC likely had a nonchalant attitude toward scoring well. I say that because when it comes to tests that do matter to students' futures, like APs or SATs, the scores tell a very different story:
Again: I think this reflects the structural advantages of affluence far more than school quality. But this is why I find Chiger's argument so pernicious: he is making a clear implication that "choice" is going to overcome the effects of economic disadvantage on schooling outcomes when that's just not the case.
Chiger, to be fair, is not alone. TEAM/KIPP schools fed taking points to The Star-Ledger that their schools "beat" a suburban school district, even though the one score they cited was clearly an outlier. Eva Moskowitz has proudly compared the test scores of her students to the affluent 'burbs of New York, neglecting to mention those scores did nothing to help her students gain admission to the most elite NYC high schools.
In Moskowitz's case, the more disturbing part of the comparison between her schools and affluent suburban public schools is that Success engages in practices no parent in Scarsdale or Millburn or Livingston would ever tolerate. Does North Star do the same? Well...
North Star has a far greater suspension rate than either Millburn or Livignston High School. Keep in mind this is a comparison between high schools and a K-12 schools; the 9-12 suspension rate may even be higher at North Star. Also:
The instructional day is much longer at North Star... but this is a bit misleading. Because when the final bell rings at Livingston or Millburn High, the day is far from over for students. Many go to sports practice, or clubs, or music lessons, or tutoring, or community service, or a variety of other activities, both in and out of school, designed to pad their college resumes and help build their social and cultural capital.
These fundamental differences in schooling are reflected in other data points. For example, I showed this chart last time:
The curricular offerings in Advanced Placement courses at these different schools are obviously far different. This is reflected in the staff deployment of the different schools:
Again, we need to approach this with a bit of caution: Millburn and Livingston are high schools, while North Star is a K-12 school. But I still find this instructive. "Student loads" are the number of students per staff member for different job assignments; a lower student load means more staff per students are assigned to a particular job. What do we see here?
North Star has many more social workers per student than Livingston or Millburn. This is no surprise, nor is it a poor decision on North Star's part: their students are much more likely to be in economic disadvantage, so it makes sense that more staff would work with the students and families to overcome these disadvantages. This is a good thing -- but there is a price to be paid.
Because affluent high schools don't have to deploy staff to deal with issues of economic disadvantage, they can offer learning opportunities and other supports that even the most "successful" urban charter schools can't.
Livingston and Millburn have many more foreign language staff, arts staff, PE staff, librarians, school counselors, and other types of staff than North Star could possibly offer their students. This is a structural advantage that will not be overcome by choice.
In fact, there's a very good argument that "choice" makes the situation worse because redundant systems of school governance are inefficient -- they replicate administrative and other costs rather than putting resources into student instruction and support.
From the NJDOE's Taxpayers' Guide to Education Spending. "Budgetary Per Pupil Spending" is a metric that allows for comparison between districts while acknowledging that different districts have different fixed costs. It's hardly a perfect measure, but it is interesting that North Star's BPP figure is slightly higher than Millburn's or Livingston.
Where the money is spent, however, is far more telling. North Star spends less on classroom instruction than the suburban schools. The Support Services figure for North Star is clearly faulty... but even if North Star has moved that budget line into Administration, it doesn't explain why their Plant costs are so high, or why they spend nothing on Extra-Curriculars.
We can look at the staffing files again to delve further into this:
How might North Star bring down its instructional costs? Start by hiring a staff that has fewer standard certificates, and more provisional ones. A certificate of eligibility is for a new teacher who hasn't completed formal training. More than half of North Star's staff is provisional or holds a CE.
This aligns with the staff training of the different schools: suburban schools are much more likely to hire staff with traditional teacher training. And this aligns with experience:
North Star has many more staff who are inexperienced compared to suburban schools. We know that teachers gain the most in effectiveness within their first few years of teaching; this is why the USDOE has made it a priority to address the unequal distribution of inexperienced teachers by race in America's schools.
We're back to the same question: is the schooling experience of North Star students really equivalent to that of students in the leafy 'burbs? The answer, once again, is: no. Despite all of North Star's advantages over its hosting district, the Newark Public Schools, the data tells us the following:
- North Star's students don't get equivalent scores on college entrance exams or AP tests, likely because suburban students have more access to college counseling, engage in test shopping, and access economic, social, and cultural capital not available to urban students.
- North Star's students don't get nearly the breadth or depth of curricular offerings, particularly in AP courses.
- North Star's students are far more likely to be suspended and spend more time in instructional settings, while less is spent on their extra-curricular offerings.
- North Star's students don't have the same access to the same well-trained, experienced staff as suburban students.
I'll be the first to say these inequities are also visited upon Newark's public, district students -- in fact, they are, in many cases, even worse. I don't pretend for a second that North Star's student population is at all equivalent to Millburn's or Livingston's in terms of the realities of their lives outside of school. I don't at all justify this inequality -- far from it.
My point here is to show that even North Star's students, who are in much better school facilities than NPS students and who are less likely to be in the deepest level of economic disadvantage, are still not being given access to an education that compares to the schooling found in the affluent suburbs. Is this Uncommon's fault? Well, no... but yes.
Because every time a charter school cheerleader implies that their school uses "systems and strategies" to "...giv[e] lie to the implication that school improvement needs to wait for the country to heal poverty," he is diverting us from acknowledging that school choice can't and won't solve the structural inequities that vex America's disadvantaged students.
I'll wrap this up next time.
“Educational reforms cannot compensate for the ravages of society.”
Jean Anyon (1941-2013)