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, October 10, 2014

Only You Can Prevent Charter Cheerleading

Dearest friends,

I'd like to take just a moment of your time today to describe a dangerous and debilitating threat to America. Sadly, this terrible condition is growing to epidemic proportions; otherwise healthy people are increasingly succumbing to this awful disease:

Charter cheerleading.

Understand that charter cheerleading is not the same as charter school advocacy. It's perfectly reasonable for the leader of a charter school to speak well of his or her own schools; what school leader wouldn't? And there is a case to be made for including charters in the mix of schools available to America's students. Reasonable discussions about charter schools often include people who believe that charter schools are a fine idea, but understand that their effects are limited.

But charter cheerleading is not charter advocacy; it is, instead, an insufferably smug form of braggadocio, lacking in any sort of reasoned consideration of the facts. Charter cheerleaders suffer from delusions of grandeur, fully confident in their own good will while casually questioning the motives of others who may disagree with them.

Sadly, once infected, no treatment can save the charter cheerleader from the self-righteousness that almost always accompanies this horrible malady:
One thing I’ve learned during 20 years in urban education reform is that the forces of the status quo will challenge any new idea, even one that offers tremendous hope to children. So I am not surprised by the recent onslaught of articles from those opposed to expanding excellent educational opportunities for children in the state of New Jersey, and warning of negative consequences if charters are allowed to expand.
Pity poor Ron Brady of Freedom Prep, the Camden branch of the Democracy Prep charter chain. His charter cheerleading has metastasized to the point that he not only has hallucinations about an imaginary "status quo" that will "challenge any new idea"; he has also dreamed up arguments against charter schools that no one actually makes!
Unfortunately, anti-charter forces spend more time spreading false rumors about charter schools than trying to fix district schools. Despite what you may have heard, charter schools aren’t private schools. They don’t charge tuition. They don’t require entrance exams. They aren’t religiously affiliated. And they aren’t trying to take money away from district schools. We’re actually trying to share what we know works, so that every school -- district or charter -- can get better.
As we all know, nobody serious says any of these things; only in the fevered mind of a charter cheerleader do such "false rumors" exist. What charter critics do point out is that:

As to the charge that critics contend that charters are trying to take away money from district schools... well, in this case, Brady is right. But only because it's true -- especially in Camden.

Friends, please be aware of the signs of charter cheerleading. The number one symptom is cherry-picking; not necessarily cherry-picking students (although that is quite often a concurrent symptom), but cherry-picking facts:
What strikes me about those committed to maintaining the status quo is that their arguments do not offer a shred of evidence that public charter schools aren’t serving kids well. That’s probably because 15 of 16 independent studies of charter schools between 2010 and 2013 show just the opposite: Charter schools consistently outperform traditional district schools, especially in urban areas. And as a matter of fact, many public schools in some of New Jersey’s highest need areas have a long history of failing students year after year.
Like many of his fellow victims, charter cheerleading sufferer Brady doesn't like to give sources for his "facts." Those of us who have studied this dreaded disease, however, know well that the "15 of 16" virus originated from the not-quite-"independent" National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, which conveniently ignores other studies questioning the efficacy of charters. NAPCS also touts many of the state-level CREDO studies without mentioning the serious questions researchers have raised about their methodology and generalizability.

Brady does cite the CREDO study directly; what he forgets to mention is that the New Jersey study was not particularly favorable towards charters in his own city of Camden:

When we investigate the learning impacts of Newark charter schools separately, we find that their results are larger in reading and math than the overall state results. Grouping the other four major cities in New Jersey (Camden, Trenton, Jersey City, and Paterson) shows that charter students in these areas learn significantly less than their TPS peers in reading. There are no differences in learning gains between charter students in the four other major cities and their virtual counterparts in math. [p. 16; emphasis mine]
Yes, the delusions of the charter cheerleader are truly heartbreaking: they actually cite reports that contradict their belief in the power of "choice." But that's not surprising, given how Brady's charter actually came to New Jersey. Back when former Acting Commissioner Chris Cerf ran the NJDOE, his department refused to renew Freedom Academy's charter until the school, which had been a local outfit, surrendered its operations to Democracy Prep, a national chain Cerf had worked with while he was in New York City:
Freedom Academy's board initially chose the local group, Foundations Inc. of Mount Laurel, to run the school.
Foundations was the lowest responsible bidder for the management contract at the grade 5-8 school, board president Keisha Usher-Martin said. It came in at less than half of Democracy Prep's $585,000 bid.
But then "there was an uproar within the school and the state" over the choice of Foundations, she said.
"Then Foundations withdrew its bid," Usher-Martin said, adding that the board was left with no option but to hire Democracy Prep. She called it a "touchy subject." [emphasis mine]
As I reported in 2013, Democracy Prep had already developed a reputation in NYC for leaving certain children behind: it served fewer children at risk, fewer children who were English language learners, and far fewer children with special needs than its neighboring public schools. Brady seems to be under the delusion that his charter management organization earned its access to New Jersey on merit; pitifully, his charter cheerleading has left him with a rather distorted view of reality.

We don't have much data yet on Freedom Prep's student population since Democracy Prep took over. We do know, however, that while the school's students last year all qualified for free lunch, not one was listed as Limited English Proficient -- this in a city where 9 percent of students enrolled in the local district are LEP.

And, as I've reported before, Camden's charters have a history of leaving special education students in the public schools, then claiming credit for their "successes":

To repeat: we don't yet have data from the "new" Freedom prep to confirm this trend.* Of course, that means there isn't any data to justify Brady's bragging either:
Whatever path we walk, all charter schools are united by a commitment to high standards and student-centered learning. At Freedom Prep, our goal for students is simple and lofty: “Work hard. Go to college. Change the world!” In an environment where kids are energized to learn, they meet the high expectations parents and teachers set for them.
This is yet another symptom of charter cheerleading: boasting on results before actually getting any.

Again, it is perfectly acceptable to be proud of your school; in fact, I'd be wary of any school leader who didn't express pride in his or her staff and students. But charter cheerleading takes this pride and twists it into obnoxious boasting and unjustified sneering at arguments charter skeptics don't even make.

My friends, there is hope: while charter cheerleading is rarely cured, it can be contained through the extensive application of facts and logic. We must all do our part to force victims of charter cheerleading, like Brady, to see the truth about charters: while they may have their place, they are not nearly the miracles their most ardent adherents believe them to be.

Let's all stand together and work for a better world: a world where charter cheerleading never again afflicts a poor, deluded soul like Ron Brady. Your support is appreciated.

Show your love for charter cheerleaders:
Give them the facts they so desperately need to overcome their affliction.
Many thanks.

* An important side note: the data on the "old" Freedom Prep is highly questionable. The district-level special education rates didn't even come close to matching the school-level rates found in the NJDOE's Performance Report Cards. I use school-level rates in the scatterplot above, but I can't honestly say I have a lot of faith in the integrity of the data from that school. Caveat regressor.

1 comment:

Giuseppe said...

The charter school propagandists bandy the term status quo around as some sort of pejorative. Considering that NJ schools always rank near the top along with MA and CT, I'd say that the status quo was performing quite well. In some areas, NJ is number one in the nation even with the struggling schools in poverty war zones like Camden, Newark and Trenton. The charter school cheerleaders are paid well to be deluded.