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

Friday, August 29, 2014

Once Again: There Are No Miracle Charter Schools

Relinquishers gotta relinquish:
It’s not a stretch to say that charter schools are some of the biggest winners in this year’s high school rankings list. Even though charters educate just five percent of American students, they represent 30 percent of the top ten schools in this year’s rankings. What’s more—and this is really the kicker—they’re the only ones in the top ten that do not use selective admissions. That is, BASIS Scottsdale, BASIS Oro Valley, and Signature School are the only schools in the top ten who don’t choose their students. They’re open-enrollment schools: anyone can come, and if there are too many applicants for the available seats, they determine the student body by lottery. Nonetheless, they’re still competitive with the hyper-selective private and magnet schools rounding out the rest of the top ten.
What’s going on? What makes charter schools different—and how does it contribute to their success? I taught at a charter school in Brooklyn some years ago, and my principal would frequently call out three types of flexibility that made our school successful: 1) hiring (and firing), 2) schedule, 3) and curricula. That’s about it.
 Oh, well, if it's just that simple...

This is an accompanying piece to the The Daily Beast's truly awful "America's Best High Schools 2014," an exercise in "journalism" that substitutes ranking things for reporting on them. The methodology, like most methodologies for these sorts of things, is absurd:
The Daily Beast reached out to the nation’s best high schools to find out which were turning out the top students. To come up with our initial pool, we consulted 2012/2013 data from the Department of Education and contacted public schools with above-average graduation rates of at least 85 percent. Around 1,200 public schools completed our survey, then we crunched the numbers further, comparing schools by graduation and college acceptance rates, as well as their academic rigor using AP, IB, and AICE classes and test scores, and finally, student performance on college admission exams, another indicator of a school’s preparation. [emphasis mine]
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, there were 24,544 secondary public schools in the United States as of 2011, and another 6,137 combined elementary/secondary schools. This survey got responses from around four percent of those schools. On this basis alone, The Daily Beasts's rankings aren't worth the hard drive space they're stored on.

But we'll set that aside as we usually do and address Conor P. Williams's contention that "BASIS Scottsdale, BASIS Oro Valley, and Signature School are the only schools in the top ten who don’t choose their students." Is it true?

Let's ask a real education researcher, Gene V. Glass:
U.S. News & World Report loves to rank everything. It sells.
Their most recent ranking of high schools shows two Arizona charter schools in the top ten in the nation: BASIS Tucson (#2) and BASIS Scottsdale (#5). As always, the back story is more interesting than the numbers.
The BASIS charter schools – about a dozen of them, mostly in Arizona but a couple outside, like in San Antonio – are the brainchild of Michael and Olga Block. Michael is a former free-market economist from the University of Arizona. BASIS schools have made their reputation by ruthless screening of all applicants to insure that no special needs or English language learners make the cut and repeated testing until the wheat is separated from the chaff. BASIS Tucson advertises itself thus: "BASIS Tucson uses an accelerated curriculum that includes Advanced Placement courses in subjects ranging from calculus to music theory."
The great irony with BASIS Scottsdale is that the Blocks first chose to create it as a private schools with tuition in the $20,000 a year range, but when only 7 students had signed up they quickly converted to a charter school to collect the guaranteed $6,000 a year from the state – quite a failure out there in the free market. As a charter school, BASIS Scottsdale has attracted a student body that is 40% Asian.
And now U.S. News & World Report crowns BASIS Tucson & BASIS Scottsdale in the top 5 high schools in the nation. One need not dig deeply to discover that the recent graduating class of Basis Tucson & BASIS Scottsdale COMBINED is 44 students! I'm not kidding, 23 and 21 students, respectively. [p.s. I rarely resort to typography in search of emphasis, but extraordinary stupidity calls for extraordinary measures.]
Heh -- well, you're a better blogger than I am, Gene!

Glass has looked at BASIS several times, and the answer is always the same: these "winners" serve small student populations, and they have high levels of cohort attrition. In this, they are not alone: as a guest poster at Diane Ravitch's blog recent pointed out, cohort attrition is a phenomenon that defines "successful" charters in New York, Chicago, Denver, New Jersey, Texas, Tennessee, San Francisco, and, yes, Arizona, home base of the BASIS chain.

And - surprise! - it turns out Indiana's Signature School is also hip to the game.
Enrollment By Grade
Grade 9961151049889
Grade 108583958783
Grade 116266748379
Grade 126061637077
Total Enrollment303325336338328

From the IDOE data portal, Compass. Look at the Class of '14: started with 115 in Grade 9, ended with 77 in Grade 12, which means about one-third of the students transferred out. Things are only a bit better for the class of '13, and it looks like the Class of '15 will follow suit. Yet the school keeps claiming a 100% graduation rate.

And as for not using "selective admissions":

Compared to the surrounding public schools of Evansville, Indiana, Signature only serves a small number of children who are in economic disadvantage. And the racial profile of its student body is quite different from most of the other surrounding high schools.

As always, here's my standard caveat when discussing these schools: in the absence of any other evidence, I am happy to concede that Signature, BASIS, and any other charter school serves its particular students who remain enrolled in the schools well. It is possible that there are personnel, scheduling, and curriculum innovations that contribute to the "success" of these schools. And, of course, the students and staff should be proud of their accomplishments.

But Williams's charter cheerleading here is, at best, incomplete. And The Daily Beast really should step up its game if it wants to be considered a serious news organization (quite an assumption on my part, I know). Even if this is an op-ed piece, you shouldn't allow work this sloppy on your website: at the very least, Williams ought to have been made to acknowledge the very basic and easily verifiable facts Glass and I have outlined.

But this has become standard operating procedure in Reformyland: unabashed love for the "market" trumps any worries about pesky, uncooperative data. Of course, I'm so old, I remember when "liberals" used to make fun of the wing-nut right for their faith-based policy initiatives. 

I guess all parts of the political spectrum are now in denial when it comes to education. How grand... 

If you look very carefully, you can see Eva Moskowitz's face...


Alan Singer, Department of Teaching, Learning and Technology said...

What Brand Is Your School? ​

On the first day of school every September students want to wear the right brand of sneakers, jeans, and accessories. Cigarettes come in brands too. So does soda. Who would have thought that schools come in brands also?

Catherine DiMartino, a close colleague at Hofstra University recently coauthored an academic study for the journal Urban Education. It was called "School Brand Management: The Policies, Practices, and Perceptions of Branding and Marketing in New York City's Public High Schools." It is an excellent academic article, but as I read it I started to laugh hysterically at the idea that the way so-called educational "reformers" propose to improve urban (a euphemism for inner-city schools with student populations that are overwhelming minority and poor) education is to have better school branding so low performing schools can compete for better students and basically ignore the rest.

What DiMartino and her co-author Sarah Butler Jessen uncover is the way high schools in New York City, especially new small schools, create a brand name that they market to attract the type of students and families they want to attend and discourage the students and families they do not want.

According to DiMartino and Jessen, "Over the past 20 years, market-based choice initiatives have become a popular approach to education reform." The New York City Department of Education now operates more than 400 high school programs. Many communities no longer have a zoned or neighborhood high school. Instead there is a market place of competing schools that are all trying to attract better performing students so they can improve their own report card grades. Middle school students attend school fairs where even the worst performing schools have seductive names and elaborate and attractive advertising displays and distribute "swag" or goody bags. They then apply to as many as 13 high schools, many at a great distance from their homes. If they are "interested" in law at the age of 13, they can take a highly competitive exam and attend the Bronx High School of Science, Brooklyn Technical High School, the High School for American Studies at Lehman College, or one of four other high schools in the Bronx with Law in its name, or one of the nine non-law named Bronx high schools that offers a law program. There is similar market confusing in all the other boroughs as well.

Amongst New York City's highest ranking and most desired schools are the Bronx High School of Science, also known as Bronx Science, Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan, and The Beacon School in Manhattan.

Now that we know how to fool parents and attract higher performing students, I am looking forward to a clever charter school entrepreneur opening Brooklyn Science, Bedford Stuyvesant High School, and The Beacon Light School. Charter entrepreneurs and so-called reformers could also start Harvord University Prep with a slight spelling alteration to avoid trademark infringement.

Students, as you return to school this September, remember that the most important brand in your wardrobe is the brand of your school. Welcome back!​

Giuseppe said...

Thanks for your data supported and factual article on the charter school mythology. It's a relief from and an antidote to the latest Tom Moran op ed (The confessions of a worried Cami Anderson supporter: Moran). I had to force myself to read Moran's usual charter school cheerleading, the barf bag was close at hand.

White's World said...

Americas "Best" High Schools...in Newsweek

Are you out there as disturbed as I am about the yearly list that Jay Matthews puts out in Newsweek purporting to list America's best high schools? I really don't know where to begin to state why it is so inaccurate, distrubing and damaging. The list ranks high schools by the ratio of the number of AP tests taken to the size of the school.

1) There is no evidence whatsoever that there is a correlation between simply taking AP courses or tests and students' post high school performance: Klopfenstein and Thomas in The Link between Advanced Placement Experience and Advanced Placement Experience and College Success (2005) find, in a rigorous study, that participation in "the three most popular categories of AP classes, math, English and history, do not consitently improve college retention or GPA... Students are no better prepared for the academic rigors of college than their non-AP taking counterparts."

2) There might be some justification (llittle in my mind) for ranking high schools by their participation rate AND their performance on the tests. But to 'reward' participation only is like praising that kid in little league to never gets a hit but gets a walk from not swinging. "Good eye, Jonnie, good eye."

3) There seems to be some misguided attempt at social engineering here that I don't get. I do not think there is enough evidence out there to state that increasing participation in AP courses is a social good. Yet this list is clearly an attempt to do just that. As with the case of the US News list of colleges, this is another case of the tail wagging the dog.

4) I don't really have any idea what this list is really measuring, except maybe a school or state's emphasis on testing and appearance over learning. Florida is by far number one on this list with 21 of the 'top' 100 schools. My father, who lives in the state and is a PhD. in psychology and a highly trained psychometrician, complains constantly of the state's obsession with standardized tests. I look at the state of Florida's students' scores on tests like the AP's, the PSAT's and other national tests and they are no where near the top in the nation. Yet those states and schools who do score the highest are almost absent from the list. Alabama, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Tennessee each apear as many times on the list as Massachettes, New Jersey and Connecticut COMBINED.

5) The school list does note the percentage of free lunch kids, but does not use it in the formula. If the formula were something like (Mean AP Performance) X (Participation Rate) X (free/reduced percentage), there might be improvement from both a predictive and social engineering point of view.

6) This is simply, in my mind, bad science and lazy and sloppy journalism. It is taking numbers and pretending they mean something without doing the work that such a activity should entail: controlled study and expert analysis.

That the journalism community has been allowed to define educational quality in this way is an indictment of both the education and journalism professions.