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

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Charter School Debunking: Boston Edition

How about one more round of charter school myth-busting before the end of the year?

Richard Whitmire is the man who brought us the legend of Michelle Rhee, educational miracle worker of Baltimore and Washington. His biography of the blessed Saint Michelle of Arc, The Bee Eater, naively swallowed whole Rhee's buzzing claims about her test score gains while she was a teacher -- gains G.F. Brandenburg later debunked definitely.

Whitmire should have hung his head in shame for ever believing Rhee's clearly outrageous claims without proof; instead, he brushed aside Brandenburg's work, even though it was far superior to his own.

Keep in mind the level of rigor Whitmire demands from himself, then, as we read his latest paean to charter schools in USA Today:
Big-city school superintendents warrant their own "tough jobs" TV show. On average, they cycle out every few years — the result of a hard job made harder by charter schools appearing to outperform them.
Some react by accusing those charters of cheating. New York City schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña is one. Recently, she insisted that charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately managed, achieve better results only by pushing out "bad" kids.
Fariña and the mayor who tapped her, Bill de Blasio, are national leaders of the surging progressive movement, so her words quickly confirmed the beliefs of hundreds of school superintendents and union leaders who assert the same: Charters cheat, so let's stop them.
Some charter schools do have too-high suspension and expulsion rates. But those rates explain little about why these charters succeed. What really matters are attrition rates — students who actually drop out. After all, if you get suspended but return, maybe that's not a bad thing. 
Take Boston's high-performing Brooke Charter Schools as an example. The suspension rate there is 20%. Sounds high, but the attrition rate is only 5.5%.
"We use suspension to help draw clear lines about the responsibilities all members of our school communities have to each other," says Brooke founder Jon Clark. [emphasis mine]
Is it true? Do only 5.5% of the students at Brooke Charter Schools "actually drop out"? Has this vaunted school found the magical, chartery "secret sauce" that keeps urban students enrolled and achieving excellence -- without dropping them if they can't get with the program?

Let's start with this: Brooke Charter does, indeed, have an attrition rate around 5.5%. Brooke is actually a small chain of three charters, and the attrition rates (available from the MA Department of Elementary and Secondary Education) for the schools are 5.6, 6.9, and 4.7 (percent). Which must mean, according to Whitmire's construction, that only about 5-and-a-half percent of Brooke's students "actually drop out." Right?


Notice that Whitmire gives his own definition of attrition -- "students who actually drop out" -- but he never tells us how the MA Department of ESE defines attrition. And that actually matters quite a bit:

Attrition Rate:: The percentage of attrition by grade from the end of one school year to the beginning of the next for students enrolled in public schools, including charter schools, in the state. 
Catch that? "Attrition," as defined by the state, is the summertime loss of students; in other words, attrition, as defined by Massachusetts, is the percentage of kids who finished in the spring, then didn't come back to the same school the next fall. Attrition is not, in any, meaningful way, the number of students who "actually drop out."

What Whitmire does here is very slick, but ultimately deceptive: he's talking about "students who actually drop out," but he's not giving us any relevant data to back up his claim.

Let me see if I can help.

I used enrollment data from the state's Statistical Reports. Out of the three charters in the Brooke chain, only school #0428 had enough data for me to make this chart. I took last year's 8th Grade class (which will graduate high school in 2018) and followed them from Grade 5 through Grade 8, counting the number of students in each grade along the way. I then did the same for the last six classes to pass through Brooke.

Yes, I'll admit this isn't perfect: we don't know how many students were "backfilled" in each class, meaning they came in and took the place of other students who left. Still, this gives us a much clearer picture of the "students who actually drop out" than Whitmire's summertime attrition rates.

Uh-oh -- looks like there are quite a few "students who actually drop out" of Brooke. In fact, I'd say the number is a good deal higher than 5 percent:

Brooke Charter School's Class of '18 shrank by 35% from Grade 5 to Grade 8. Earlier classes were mostly worse -- in some cases, far worse.

I'll say what I always say when I do this sort of analysis: absent any further evidence, I am not accusing Brooke of kicking out kids. I simply don't know why or how this cohort attrition occurs -- I only know that the classes are shrinking.

Further, in the absence of any evidence to the contrary, I am happy to concede that Brooke is a fine school, full of dedicated teachers and deserving students. They should be proud of their school and proud of their work.

No, once again, my problem isn't with the charter schools themselves; my problem is with the charter cheerleaders, like Whitmire, who keep us from having a serious conversation about what is really ailing our urban schools. They do the students and parents of cities like Boston no favors by continually selling myths about charter school superiority.

As 2014 draws to a close, I ask the charter school sector to start policing itself. You have many good people who, I believe, truly care about disadvantaged students. Many of you work in fine schools. But you're not miracle workers, and it's well past time you started admitting it. You ought to distance yourself from the shoddy work of pundits like Whitmire who continually misuse data to make claims that are at best inflated and at worse just flat out wrong.

Civil conversations are honest conversations. Let's make this our goal for 2015, shall we?

ADDING: EduShyster was hip to Brooke's attrition rates a couple of years ago:
Well that seems perfectly obvious. Let’s try that again, shall we? Start with 47 sixth graders, subtract 30 and you end up with… Got it! $1.5 million. Did I mention that closing the achievement gap is the civil right$ i$$ue of our time?
Ye$, you did...

ADDING MORE: One other simple point that often gets lost in the charter school wars:

In 2013-14, the three Brooke charter schools enrolled a total of 1,140 students.

The Boston Public Schools, in contrast, enrolled 54,300. 

Doesn't that data point by itself suggest a little more caution is warranted before calling for increased charter school proliferation? 


Unknown said...

We've seen how "self-regulation" works on Wall Street, where so many charter touts and funders reside: why should it work any better in these schools, which have shown themselves to be contemptuous of any real fiscal or democratic oversight?

Either they comply with the same basic rules as the public schools they siphon resources from - serving the same children as the local public schools, and replace those lost to attrition - or they get their Overclass patrons to support them as the private schools they essentially are.

Anonymous said...

Happy for the insight on Brooke, but the headline on this piece calls out all Boston charters while the content focuses exclusively on Brooke. What about the rest of Boston charters? Is this representative, or exceptional?

John Lerner said...

I've done some digging here in Boston. It seemes as though all Boston Charters work this way - If you don't mind, this is a link to a google doc where I've charted out similar results: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1u7cdmDlWo8TRlbmuKcd303XLb6ub_sqzf9Y9MX8AW_E/edit?usp=sharing