Saturday, July 16, 2016

How The Charter Cheerleading Industry Is Abetting The Destruction Of Public Schools

Folks, I've had some real problems with Blogspot lately. For some reason, this post disappeared, and I can't figure out why. It's troubling because if I can't count on this remaining a stable platform, seven years of work is in jeopardy.

Luckily, Rosi Efthim at Blue Jersey had cross-posted this post, so I recovered what I could and moved it here. But I seem to have lost the links to graphics, and the formatting is messed up. I'll try to fix them soon.

Wordpress, you're looking better all the time...

I know I swore off wasting my time (and yours) criticizing reformy edu-bloggers. But I've been watching a back-and-forth on social media for the past few days that is such a good example of how destructive the charter cheerleading industry has become (fueled with an insane amount of money from ideological foundations) that I have no choice but to comment.

This all started on Tuesday, July 5, when NJ Spotlight (full disclosure -- I write regularly for them) ran an excerpt of an address a graduating senior at North Star Academy Charter School gave to his classmates. Which is fine: all kids should be proud of their accomplishments and their schools (although it's a shame Spotlight has not, to my knowledge, published the excerpts of any other graduating senior's speeches -- especially students graduating in Newark).

So why does that matter? Well, this past month Governor Chris Christie proposed a radical shift in the allocation of state aid for schools -- one that would slash funding and jack up taxes in urban school districts while giving the state's wealthiest districts, already paying relatively low effective tax rates, a huge infusion of state aid (I wrote about it for Spotlight here).

How did Christie justify such a radical plan? Simple: if urban charter schools, like North Star, had higher graduation rates than their hosting public district schools, that then "proves" the extra funding New Jersey sends to urban districts is going to waste. Here's Christie's very first press conference where he justified his scheme:
Do not let anyone tell you that failure is inevitable for children in those 31 districts or that money is the answer. The Academy Charter High School in Asbury Park had an 89% graduation rate compared to 66% in Asbury Park; Academy spends $17,000 per pupil while the traditional public schools spend $33,000 per pupil. The LEAP Academy Charter School has a 98% graduation rate in Camden, while the district has a 63% rate; LEAP spends 16,000 per pupil while the school district spends $25,000 per pupil. In Newark, the North Star Academy Charter has an 87% graduation compared to the citywide rate of 69%; North Star spends $13,000 per pupil compared to $22,000 per pupil district wide. [emphasis mine]

I'll get to Academy Charter High and LEAP in due time; for now, let's concentrate on North Star. First of all, let's ask the obvious question: is an 18 percentage point difference really so impressive that it justifies slashing Newark's state aid by a reported 69 percent? Especially after Christie's own hand-picked state superintendents of NPS, Cami Anderson and Chris Cerf, have bragged repeatedly about Newark's rising graduation rates?

Next: are those spending figures accurate? Not if you believe the data from Christie's own Department of Education's Taxpayers' Guide To Education Spending:

As I pointed out previously, Christie shamelessly made up his spending comparison numbers; further, it's bogus to compare the district's total spending to the charter schools' spending when the district has costs like transportation for charter and public school students that the charters don't have to bear. When looking at Budgetary Per Pupil costs, which the state itself says is the appropriate comparison, the difference between North Star and NPS is about $1,700 per pupil.

Which makes sense given the differences in student populations:

North Star has a much smaller proportion of special needs students than NPS -- and even Chris Christie admits special education students need more money for their education.

Christie's argument is garbage: North Star's graduation rate in no way shows that NPS can sustain a huge cut in its budget. So while it's nice to reprint the graduation speeches of students -- and, again, all kids should be proud of their school -- it's more than fair to point out that a graduating senior's pride might be masking a larger truth that is directly relevant to a policy discussion occurring in New Jersey at this very moment.

Which is what Julia Sass Rubin did in the comments section of the NJ Spotlight piece. Before I go further, let's get this on the record: Julia is a professor at Rutgers-New Brunswick where I am working on my PhD (she's in a different school and I've never had a class with her). Julia is also a founding member of Save Our Schools NJ, a group that believes that local residents should have a say in whether charter schools should be allowed into their communities, draining money from their local budgets.

Julia and I co-wrote a report on NJ charter schools that got a lot of local charteristas in a snit, even though the report was almost entirely graphs, like the one above, showing (with publicly available state data) that charter schools in New Jersey do not serve the same student populations as their hosting schools.

Here's Julia's comment in its entirety:
It's great that Aaron Caraballo-Ugaro was happy at North Star Charter. Apparently, that was not the case for many of his classmates.

North Star graduated only 55% of the students who were in Mr. Caraballo-Ugaro's class in 5th grade (84 out of 153).

According to the NJ Department of Education enrollment files, between 5th and 12th grades:

North Star lost 61% of the Black males (30 out of 49), who were in the class of 2016.

North Star lost 31% of the Black females (21 out of 68).

North Star lost 71% of the Hispanic males (10 out of 14)

North Star lost 43% of the Hispanic females (9 out of 21)

And the students who attend North Star are very different than the students who attend Newark's public schools.

In 2014-15:

North Star had ZERO English Language Learners vs 11% in Newark Public Schools.

North Star had a 9% special education rate vs 17% for Newark Public Schools.

North Star had a 69% Free Lunch rate vs 76% for Newark Public Schools.

North Star students were 55% female vs 49% for Newark Public Schools.

In evaluating North Star Charter School, it is important to keep in mind that North Star is educating a much easier population of students than Newark Public Schools and it is losing a very large number of those students on the way to graduation.
That's it. That's the entire comment. Go back and check if you doubt me.

Do you find this at all insulting to the young man whose words were reprinted in NJ Spotlight? Do you think Rubin was at all sarcastic? And do you think that the points she's making here are irrelevant given Christie's funding proposal, which had been introduced only two weeks before?

If you're Laura Waters, NJ's reformiest blogger, these questions can only be answered in one way -- the way that serves charter schools best:

Minutes later Julia Sass Rubin sarcastically rained on his and thousands of other Newark students’ parade. Let’s hope that Aaron and his college-bound classmates (100% of whom were accepted to 4 year colleges by the way) don’t end up in classes with professors like Rubin. Instead, we hope that his professors are objective people who can present facts to their readers and not selectively cherry pick some facts over others to try to push their status quo agenda that hurts urban kids like Aaron.

First of all, someone needs to buy Waters a dictionary so she can look up the meaning of the word "sarcastic." Because no reasonable person could possibly think Rubin was sarcastic in her comment. This is so typical of the "tone" arguments the reformy side loves so well: somehow, if you dare to question the (largely self-reported) claims of charter "successes," you are going after those charters' students or teachers or parents. It's a cheap argument and so transparently dumb I'm embarrassed for anyone who makes it.

Next: Waters takes a swipe at Rubin's professional integrity (classy) to claim she's cherry picking her data. To rebut Rubin, Waters brings out her own set of facts:
What she doesn’t tell her readers is that North Star’s attrition is actually half of the Newark Public School system’s average. North Star loses about 10% of its students a year—while NPS schools on average lose 20% or more. The NPS rate is not surprising for an urban school district, but what is surprising is that Rubin, a university professor, would present a completely one-sided number and not even bother to compare it to a constant. Clearly it’s because she wants readers to think that North Star’s attrition rate is high rather than the truth—that North Star’s attrition rate is low—and other schools should be flocking to it to find out why.
Now, that's a curious statement. Because I've been working with NJDOE data for a good long while now, and I can tell you that school-level attrition figures -- data that shows the rate at which students leave their schools -- are not available publicly (at least, I've never seen them).

Where is Waters getting her data? She doesn't say (hold on...).

In addition, whether a school "loses" students isn't really the important metric for this discussion. Yes, it's likely that NPS schools see a big turnover in students year-to-year, as schools enrolling a high proportion of students in economic disadvantage tend to see higher student mobility rates. This has a negative effect on student outcomes (Waters seems to believe schools can influence student mobility; I'd like to see some evidence that's the case).

But leaving that aside, the real question here isn't mobility caused by family circumstances; it's whether North Star students are leaving and not being replaced with new students. I mean, we're always hearing about the long (unverified) wait lists for charter schools, right? Well, if kids are dying to get in, why don't they rush to take open spots once an enrolled student leaves? Why are North Star's cohorts -- the "classes" that move from grade-to-grade together -- shrinking?

Enter Bruce Baker,* who just posted a series of updates on Newark's charter schools at his blog. Baker has been writing about the patterns of "cohort attrition" at North Star for a while now. What did he find in his latest data dive?

Let's break this down starting with All Students. The NPS class of 2016 had 98 percent of the students that the same cohort had when they were 7th Graders. Were they all the same kids? Surely not, but as students moved out of the district, other students moved in. That would explain a high student mobility rate -- the one Waters tut-tuts about above -- but a fairly stable cohort size.

At the same time, however, North Star's Class of 2016 shrunk, and shrunk, and shrunk some more, until they were 61 percent of the size they were in 7th Grade. If the wait lists to get into North Star are so long, why didn't the students on the list take the place of the students who left?

Baker's also included the cohort attrition for black boys. Those numbers actually grew from Grade 7 to Grade 12 in NPS. But North Star's number of black boys shrank by half in the same time period. Again, if so many black boys are waiting to get into North Star, why didn't they take the place of the black boys who left?

Some obvious questions arise: why are students leaving North Star and not being replaced? And might that affect student outcomes? There's no way to know for sure without having student-level data, but, as I've shown before, we have some clues:

North Star's test scores tend to rise as their cohorts shrink. Now, what I've done here is actually a bit crude -- go to Baker's post to see a much more sophisticated version, which takes into account the shifting means year-to-year in test outcomes. Both graphs show the same thing: North Star's relative test scores rise as they shed students. Again, this is hardly definite proof of "cream skimming" -- the practice of cutting loose the students who struggle and then claiming superior results. It is, however, more than enough evidence to justify the release of student-level data (with the obvious privacy protections) to researchers to determine what might be going on at North Star.

What do you think the odds are that Chris Christie's NJDOE will do that?

Having botched up a defense of North Star's shrinking cohorts, Waters continues her missive with an attempt to explain away North Star's low special education and Limited English Proficient (LEP) rates. She claims, correctly, that there is great variety in NPS schools' LEP enrollment rates. But so what? Newark has several schools with high LEP rates; North Star isn't one of them. Isn't that entirely germane to any conversation about school costs and outcomes?

She then counters Rubin's correct assertion that North Star has a comparatively low special education classification rate with a few anecdotes from North Star parents which just happened to be published in the op-ed pages of the Star-Ledger, the state's largest newspaper. Let me be clear: these weren't letters to the editor; they were full-length opinion pieces.

One other story Waters links to is an NJTV news report that at least features a contrary point of view from the estimable Dr. Daniel Katz of Seton Hall. But the report also features Barbara Martinez, the Chief External Officer for Uncommon Schools, North Star's parent organization. According to Uncommon's tax forms (you can download them at, Martinez is one of over a dozen managers at Uncommon making a six-figure salary.

For those of you (like me) who aren't up on your corporate-speak, a Chief External Officer is basically in charge of marketing and PR. Someone who knows how to work the press. Someone who culls the data to create a favorable picture of product. Someone who knows how to get info out to friendly outlets and have them push the organization's brand.

I ask again: where did Laura Waters get all of her data points?

Look, I understand that any school -- public, private, charter, whatever -- is going to try to present itself in the best possible light. But facts are facts: North Star does not have nearly the proportion of special needs students as NPS. Waters can regurgitate all the op-eds she likes, but that's simply the way it is.

I don't want to belabor this further, so quickly:

- No, Laura, it's not the case that "the most commonly accepted marker of poverty in schools is free AND reduced price lunch." Those of us who take this stuff seriously know that FRPL is set at 185 percent of the poverty line, so it is technically inaccurate to equate eligibility for FRPL with poverty status. See Bruce Baker for an informed discussion of why this matters.

By the way: Julia Sass Rubin never said "that reduced price kids don’t matter." That is yet another mischaracterization by you, Laura, of someone else's words. It's cheap and it's lazy and if Peter Cunningham, your patron at Education Post, really cared about having a "better conversation" he'd take you aside and tell you to stop.

Because it really is obnoxious.

- We have no idea how the children who stayed at Alexander School when North Star took it over may have improved on their test scores, because -- as I explained to Richard Whitmire -- North Star's test scores are reported in the aggregate and not by individual school. We further don't have any publicly available data on how many students stayed and whether the students who stayed differed from the students who left.

And no, I don't trust data released by North Star itself -- any more than I trust McDonalds to tell me how much better people like their burgers than Wendy's.

I've spent more time answering Waters' post than it deserves; however, I'm doing so this time for a reason. Chris Christie has proposed a radical change in school funding -- one that even Peter Cunningham agrees is pernicious for this state's neediest children. Yet how does Christie justify his plan? With stories of charter school "success." And who has sold this tale?

Laura Waters, Peter Cunningham, and the well-heeled charter school operators themselves. In their zeal to pump up charters and shoot down honest critics like Julia Sass Rubin, these fine, reformy folks have set up the students who attend New Jersey's urban, public, district schools for a huge cut in their schools' budgets.

I've said this before and I'll say it again: I don't ever pretend that I don't have a point of view. I'm a New Jersey public school teacher and I am damn tired of being blamed for things completely out of my and my colleagues' control. I think the celebration of charter school "success" is largely a pretext for beating up teachers unions, gutting teacher workplace protections, and cutting back even further on public school funding, particularly in urban districts. I think charter cheerleading keeps us from having a real conversation about the structural problems related to race and economic inequality in America.

But now we're seeing the consequences of unbridled charter love are even more dangerous than mere charter expansion. Charlatans like Christie are using the very arguments charter cheerleaders spout daily to make the case that we can simply turn our backs on urban schools and their students. So long as a few charter schools get better than average test scores -- by whatever means necessary -- it's perfectly fine to cut the budgets of urban district schools.

This awful rhetoric can be laid directly at the feet of the charter industry and their willing saps in the media -- and that includes the professional reformy propaganda machine that exists solely to counter informed critics like me or Bruce Baker or Julia Sass Rubin.

I won't speak for Bruce or Julia, but I'm pretty sure they'd agree with me when I say this: I am not against school choice or charter schools per se. I started my K-12 career in a charter school. I think there are worthwhile reasons for having charters and other forms of alternative schools. I have been teaching long enough to know not every kid is going to fit well in her neighborhood school, and that there are good reasons to offer other choices. I think there are charters that have practices that may well be worth studying.

So folks like me and Bruce and Julia may have a point of view our opinions, but we aren't questioning charter cheerleading simply as a reflex; our criticisms are reasonable and informed by the evidence. Do you disagree? Fine, I'm happy to debate.

But understand: your ill-informed, statistically-inept charter cheerleading is no longer simply about justifying your own school; it's now being used to excuse a wholesale defunding of our urban public schools.

Do you really want that on your hands?

Gimme a "C"!

More to come...

1 comment:

  1. Hi JJ, thanks for the alert that the blog posting has been recovered.

    Forgive me if I'm wrong, but I get the impression that you and Julia Rubin and Bruce Baker sometimes look at charter school enrollment data and jump to conclusions about how many students are "lost" without paying adequate attention to grade-level retention. I wonder whether any of the 5th graders Julia cited as having been "lost" might instead have been retained, bumping up those 5th grade numbers, and successfully graduated in 5 years instead of 4. If your analyses do pay attention to the effects of grade-level retention, where do you find the NJ school-based grade-level retention data? I discussed this issue with a Colorado-based opponent of charter schools in the comments here without getting a convincing explanation of the validity of her calculations:

    BTW, if you haven't read the Angrist and Setren papers I quote from below, I think you'll find them of interest; while focused on Boston schools their findings may have some helpful relevance to your analyses of what's transpiring in Newark.

    "Stand and Deliver: Effects of Boston’s Charter High Schools on College Preparation, Entry, and Choice" - Joshua Angrist, et al

    “Charter schools are sometimes said to generate gains by the selective retention of higher-performing students — see, e.g., Skinner 2009. In this view, charter effectiveness is at least partly attributed to a tendency to eject trouble-makers and stragglers, leaving a student population that is easier to teach.”
    “These results suggest that positive charter effects cannot be attributed to low-quality peers leaving charter schools. If anything, selective exit of low achievers is more pronounced at Boston’s traditional public schools.”

    "Special Education and English Language Learner Students in Boston Charter Schools: Impact and Classification" - Elizabeth Setren
    “Charters generate academic gains even for the most disadvantaged charter applicants. Special needs students who scored in the bottom third on their state exams in the year of the lottery experience large positive effects of over 0.22 standard deviations in math. English Language Learners with the lowest baseline English exam scores have the largest gains. Students with the most severe needs–special education students who spent the majority of their time in substantially separate classrooms and ELLs with beginning English proficiency at the time of the lottery–perform significantly better in charters than in traditional public schools.”

    “I also document striking differences in special needs classification practices in Boston charter and traditional public schools. Charter enrollment nearly doubles the likelihood that a student in special education at the time of the lottery loses this classification by the beginning of the following school year. Moreover, charters are three times as likely to remove an ELL classification. Charters are also three times more likely than traditional public schools to move special education students into general education classrooms."

    Best wishes. I thoroughly concur with your desire for the NJDOE to release far more detailed data.
    - Stephen


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