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, January 25, 2016

Once Again: The FACTS On Newark, Charters, and Spending

I see we have to go over this once again. Fine:

- TEAM Academy Charter School, the Newark branch of the nation charter chain KIPP, outscored the Montclair School District one year in one grade on one test -- by 0.2 scale score points.

The next year, that same cohort of students, who were now in Grade 4, showed substantially different results on the same test; the Montclair average was now substantially higher than TEAM/KIPP's.

I don't point this out to suggest either that Montclair's schools are superior, or that TEAM/KIPP's schools are inferior. Without adequately controlling for at least the observed variations in each district's populations (and acknowledging that there are likely many unobserved variations), any comparison between the two systems is utterly pointless.

My point here is that facile, a-contextual, cherry-picked factoids like these are completely meaningless, and that people who bring them up time and again show themselves to be fatuous.

- The latest official figures for TEAM/KIPP's post-secondary (college) enrollment rate is 82 percent. I think this is very good and TEAM/KIPP should be proud of their work; however, once again, it is pointless to say that TEAM/KIPP is getting far superior results than the district schools unless and until you account for the differences, both reported and unreported, in the student populations. Further, simply citing one year's post-enrollment rate, which has not even been confirmed by official sources, is at best incomplete and at worst just plain old lazy.

- Dale Russakoff's book, The Prize, does not make the claim that TEAM/KIPP spends $400 per student on custodians while the Newark Public Schools spends $1,200 per student. As I wrote in my brief on Russakoff's (mis-)use of data, here is the relevant passage from the book:
“Christie had not funded the full formula since taking office, citing the state fiscal crisis, but the allocation was still equivalent to about $20,000 per student. Less than half of this, though, reached district schools to pay teachers, social workers, counselors, classroom aides, secretaries, and administrators – the people who actually delivered education to children. For example, the district calculated that it spent $1,200 a year per student on Avon’s janitorial services; BRICK founder Dominique Lee researched the cost on the private market and found it was close to $400 per student.” (p.135)
First of all, there is nothing in here about TEAM/KIPP. Second, the claim of $1,200 per year at BRICK, an NPS school, is unsourced. My review of NPS data calls into question the veracity of the claim; NPS documents showed spending of about $225 per pupil on custodial salaries (see my brief for the data source). Finally, there is no documentation of how Lee calculated her figure, or what the "private market" means.

I think I've been more than fair to Russakoff, but I also think it's simply unacceptable for "facts" like these to work their way into the mainstream media. She has actually misquoted her own book in interviews. It's important to be clear and rigorous with this stuff; I have found Russakoff's use of data in The Prize to be neither. Sorry to be blunt, but enough's enough.

- The notion that Newark's charters have less bureaucratic bloat than NPS schools is contradicted by state data.

Newark spends more on classroom instruction per pupil than most Newark charters, including TEAM/KIPP.

NPS spends far more on student support services -- guidance counselors, nurses, librarians, psychologists -- than the charters.

This is reflected in the large number of these support personnel per student at NPS compared to most charters.

While TEAM/KIPP has equivalent numbers of social workers per student compared to NPS, the district also has many more psychologists, school counselors, and nurses per student.

NPS has lower administration costs per pupil than any Newark charter school.

NPS's administrative salary costs are among the lowest in the city.

Despite having a crumbling infrastructure, NPS plant costs are not inordinately high compared to the charters.

Russakoff has claimed that only half the money spent by NPS makes it "into the classroom." Yet she never explains what that means, she never explains her methodology for arriving at the figure, and she never fully sources the figure. In the face of all this contradicting evidence that comes directly from the state, Russakoff and the people who quote her have an obligation to explain the apparent contradiction here. Is the state data wrong? If so, how do we know?

You can't just fling data around without explaining how it was created, where you got it, and how it should be interpreted in the proper context.

I'm tired of hectoring people who clearly don't give a damn about their own reputations. But I'm not going to stop pointing out when claims are made about schools that have no proper context, are cherry-picked, are poorly sourced, or are just plain wrong. What I have above are the facts. You can check them out yourself. If I'm wrong, I'll correct them.

But if I'm right...

You can't argue with people who repeatedly bury their heads in the sand. All you can do is point out the facts to those who are willing to listen.

ADDING: This is very, very frustrating to me. In an otherwise excellent conversation about Newark and its schools, Owen Davis, who I admire greatly, uses Russakoff's book as a source to make the case the charters have less bureaucratic bloat than NPS:
OD: Of course the district should undergo the “forensic audit” that Russakoff suggests. More money should be going to the children in the classrooms, especially when that means more social workers, counselors, teachers assistants, etc. But it has to be understood w/in the context of a depressed local economy where middle class jobs are scarce.
The charter schools in Newark aren’t weighed down by that economic drag, and Russakoff shows how kids and teachers benefit from leaner bureaucracies and more agile administrators. There’s no question that kids are better off when their schools can provide them with more, faster. But the existence of charter schools doesn’t answer the question of wider economic impacts when the district shrinks. [emphasis mine]
Again: Russakoff's tale is contradicted by official state data. Further, she has absolutely not made the case that her sources are better than the state's own reporting.

This has got to stop. We are telling the wrong story, and it's going to lead us to the wrong conclusions.

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