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

Monday, February 26, 2018

Guest Post: Graduation Rate Analysis Contradicts Reform Propaganda in Newark

I recently published an analysis of Newark's and Camden's graduation rates that contradicts the narrative that state control in both cities has led to improvements in educational outcomes. Soon after the brief came out, new graduation rate data was released by NJDOE; I updated my analysis on this blog, and found my conclusions hadn't changed.

A reader contacted me after publishing this pieces; it turns out they had also been analyzing Newark's graduation rates, and came to the same conclusions I did -- but with a different take. I asked if I could publish their work here, and they agreed.

So enjoy this post by "Carolina Orwell" [yes, it's a pseudonym]. It's got some cool graphics that illustrate additional reasons why the "reformers" of Newark Schools missed the mark. -- JJ

* * *

Ex-Superintendent Chris Cerf and researchers who were paid by him have claimed persistently that state control and recent reforms of Newark Public Schools promoted student success. These advocates, along with the New Jersey Star Ledger, the Wall Street Journal, and several others, point to a rise in graduation rates at NPS as evidence of successful reforms. However, as rigorous and independently produced report after report after report have demonstrated, Cerf and his fellow advocates are wrong when they point to graduation rate changes as evidence that their favored types of school reform were successful.

The 4-year graduation rate at NPS increased from 2011 to 2017. However, many similar districts – most of which were not under state control and did not go through the reforms seen at NPS – saw similar increases in graduation rates. Factors similar to all New Jersey students may have caused increases in graduation rates and not any unique changes in NPS. Moreover, some non-“reformed” districts that had democratic local control saw much larger increases in graduation rates.

Consider the Orange Township, which is located a few miles east of Newark. The reported graduation rate in Orange increased 33 percentage points between 2011 and 2017. Newark’s reported rate increased 17 percentage points over the same period. Given that Orange’s increase was double that of Newark’s, it is difficult to support the claim that Newark’s reforms were necessary or relatively successful – especially if the goal was to increase graduation rates.

Newark could have had a much higher graduation rate if Gov. Chris Christie’s Department of Education had not used its control of Newark to promote charters and advance other reforms that were not based in research evidence. Of course, a bald claim that state control caused harm to Newark’s children is too simplistic, although not necessarily wrong. But the claim that state-control, Facebook-funded charterization, or Chris Cerf himself caused improvements in Newark is equally simplistic.

Comparisons among Newark and other school districts adds context and goes beyond simplistic propaganda. The graphic below compares NPS graduation rates to similar districts. As this cut of the data shows, the NPS graduation rate increased at a slightly faster rate than similar districts in New Jersey in the last year, but at a slower rate, on average, in the six years prior.

Note: NJ Districts w/ Free Lunch Rates >50% are averaged and included as “High Poverty.” This display includes districts with more than 3,500 students, which are more comparable to NPS (which has more than 35,000 students) than smaller districts. Including smaller districts does not change the general relationships, although smaller districts had higher graduation rates. 4-Year adjusted graduation rates and lunch data from NJDoE: http://www.nj.gov/education/data/grate/ and http://www.nj.gov/education/data/enr/.

By one hopeful measure, the graduation rate at Newark would be just as high as districts with wealthier children. If state control, promoting charter schools, expanding teacher evaluation systems, PARCC testing, and “no excuses” mentalities were worthy of the turmoil they inflicted, then Newark children would have graduated at the same rate as wealthy children. But Newark’s graduation rate, after the “success” of state control and neoliberal reforms, is far lower than districts at the top of the income inequality pyramid.

The interactive graphic below shows that in each of the last seven years, the relationship between economic status and graduation was quite strong. Richer districts remain in the top-left section, which indicates high graduation rates and low levels of poverty. Although graduation rates in Newark and most other districts shifted up over time, the relationship between economic resources and graduation rates was strong in each year.

Note: This part of the analysis includes NJ districts of any size, which includes some charter operators. Also, the free lunch rate is for the entire district the year of graduation. The correlation between district free lunch and graduation rates ranged from -0.80 to -0.87 across the seven years analyzed, which indicates a strong, consistent and inverse relationship between the two variables. The relationship would likely be stronger if the free lunch data were for just the students in the graduating cohort. However, NJDoE does not make those data available publicly.

NPS Reformers Didn’t Even Earn the “Low-Bar Award”
Graduation rates for high-income districts were close to 100% for all of the last 7 years. The graduation rate in high-income districts thus hit a “ceiling” years ago. A ceiling is one reason that changes in grad rates are poor indicators of the contribution of schools to positive student experiences. For example, in 2011, Montville had a graduate rate of 99% and it remained at 99% six years later. An unchanging, maxed-out grad rate would be observed even if Montville improved the quality of the curriculum, decreased class sizes, taught more music and improved bilingual instruction.

Newark’s graduation rate didn’t even rise as fast as more than a dozen districts with grad rates below Montville’s – so NPS reformers don’t even win the “Low Bar Award.”

This contextualized analysis of graduation rates raises the specter that, although Newark’s rate increased over the last several years, that rise cannot be legitimately used to claim state control and recent reforms were beneficial. The duping machine of Cerf and the so-called reformers in Newark continue to propagate misleading propaganda based in simplistic portrayals of graduation rates. The same goes for a reformy crowd in the nation’s capital that lead the Washington D.C. school district into an FBI investigation of fraudulent graduation rates.

Whatever spin the duping machines produce, it is clear that a country that allows only the richest children to be at the graduation “ceiling” needs something quite different than recent school reforms.

p.s. There are a number of fast moving dots in the animated figure above. Some districts move quickly along the horizontal axis from year to year because the reported free lunch rates varied wildly. This is likely due to measurement error. This issue is especially significant between 2014 and 2015, which indicates a massive error in the data made available by the NJDoE. For example, it is unlikely that Bridgeton City went from 4,909 students eligible for free lunch in 2014 down to 596 a year later. The observed relationship between graduation and economic position would be even stronger without this measurement error.

p.s.s. The definition of the graduation rate changed throughout NJ around 2011, so claims about changes over time that go further back (as when Cerf and others claim the graduation rate at NPS was in the 50’s at one point and now it is significantly higher) are misleading and ideological.

1 comment:

Michael Fiorillo said...

"Miss the mark?"

Alas, Jersey Jazzman, you're too kind and gentle.

These people don't "miss the mark;" they lie.

They lie with impunity. They lie with brazenness. They lie with chutzpah. They lie with a pathological lack of concern for the consequences of their lies.

They lie to us, and to themselves, to the point where they are incapable of recognizing, let alone speaking, the truth.