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

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Camden, Charter Schools, and a Very Big Lie

This latest series on Camden's schools is in three parts:

Part I

Part II (this post)

Part III 

Let's get back to the deeply flawed editorial from this week's Star-Ledger that I wrote about yesterday. In that post, I explained how "creaming" -- the practice of taking only those students who are likely to score high on standardized tests -- is likely a major contributor to the "success" of certain charter schools.

Charter school advocates do not like discussing this issue. The charter brand is based on the notion that certain operators have discovered some special method for getting better educational outcomes from students -- particularly students who are in disadvantaged communities -- than public district schools. But if they are creaming the higher-performing kids, there's probably nothing all that special about charters after all.

It's important to understand this debate about charters and creaming if you want to understand what's happening now in Camden's schools.

Because Camden was going to be the proof point that finally showed the creaming naysayers were wrong with a new hybrid model of schooling: the renaissance school. These schools would be run by the same organizations that managed charter schools in Newark and Philadelphia. The district would turn over dilapidated school properties to charter management organizations (CMOs); they would, in turn, renovate the facilities, using funds the district claimed it didn't have and would never get.

But most importantly: these schools would be required to take all of the children within the school's neighborhood (formally defined as its "catchment"). Creaming couldn't occur, because everyone from the neighborhood would be admitted to the school. Charter schools would finally prove that they did, indeed, have a formula for success that could be replicated for all children.

Well, guess what?
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY
CITY OF CAMDEN SCHOOL DISTRICT July 1, 2015 to February 28, 2018 
[...]
  • The current enrollment process has limited the participation of neighborhood students in renaissance schools. Per N.J.S.A. 18A:36C-8, renaissance schools shall automatically enroll all students residing in the neighborhood of a renaissance school. Instead, the district implemented a centralized enrollment system in which families must opt in if they prefer to attend a renaissance school. This process has left the district with fewer than half of neighborhood students being enrolled in their neighborhood renaissance school.
That's from a report from the State Auditor that was released earlier this year -- a report ignored by many in the NJ the press, including the Star-Ledger (the Courier Post and NJ Spotlight ran stories on the lack of oversight for renaissance schools, but didn't address the problems with the neighborhood enrollments).

Understand, the SL played a pivotal role in spreading the news that renaissance schools would enroll every student within their catchments. Here, for example, is an editorial from 2012 [all emphases mine]:
The campus will grow one grade level at a time, serving every kid in the neighborhood — including those learning English, or with special needs.
In real time, only snarky teacher-bloggers expressed any skepticism. But the SL continued to assure Camden's families that the renaissance schools would accept all students in the neighborhood; here's a piece from 2014:
District officials said the renaissance schools serve specific neighborhoods, where all students within that neighborhood are guaranteed enrollment.
2015:
According to the district, renaissance schools differ from conventional charter schools in that they guarantee a seat to every student living in its local neighborhood, and that they contract with the local school district.
This exact phrasing was used in an SL piece just a month later; apparently, the newspaper couldn't come up with new ways to assure residents every local student would have a seat. Here's yet another piece from 2017, where the SL gave South Jersey political boss George Norcross space to assure Camden's parents that every neighborhood child would get a seat at their renaissance school:
Renaissance schools are neighborhood schools that serve students in a defined catchment area, guaranteeing enrollment for any student living in that neighborhood. In other words, a child's fate is not left to a lottery.
Now, if anyone at the SL had read the Urban Hope Act, which created renaissance schools, they'd know what Norcross wrote in the pages off their newspaper simply wasn't true:
  1. If there are more students in the attendance area than seats in the renaissance school, the renaissance school shall determine enrollment by a lottery for students residing in the attendance area. In developing and executing its selection process, the nonprofit entity shall not discriminate on the basis of intellectual or athletic ability, measures of achievement or aptitude, status as a handicapped person, proficiency in the English language, or any other basis that would be illegal if used by a school district.
This directly contradicts Norcross, and the repeated reports in the SL. But, hey, what did the newspaper know back in 2017, before the Auditor's report? Maybe they thought it was a good idea to give a powerful political figure the benefit of the doubt; maybe every neighborhood kid really was getting into a renaissance school, no matter what the actual law said.

But then, in 2019, the Auditor's report was released, and all doubt was erased: the renaissance schools were not enrolling all neighborhood students. The previous reporting was false. How embarrassing...

Surely, from now on when the SL writes about renaissance schools, they will acknowledge the promise of a guaranteed seat for all students within those schools' catchments was broken. Surely, they will admit their previous reporting was inaccurate, and apologize for getting the story wrong. If not that, at least they will demand to know why the promises the district and the state made to Camden's families were now being broken.

Won't they?
South Jersey political boss George Norcross also deserves credit for using his political weight to push these reforms in Camden. Just because he’s defending a corrupt tax incentives program doesn’t mean he’s not doing good elsewhere. He helped push through a new law that allowed nonprofit charter operators to run neighborhood schools, but also forced them serve every student who walks through the door.
Technically, that's true -- the problem is that not every student from the neighborhood -- who were all promised a seat -- is allowed to walk through the door of their local renaissance school.

Again, from the Auditor's report:
In the 201617 enrollment lottery, 461 students were accepted to renaissance schools. Of these students, 247 (54 percent) resided in the neighborhood of their renaissance school. In the 201718 enrollment lottery, 838 students were accepted to renaissance schools. Of these students, 387 (46 percent) resided in the neighborhood of their renaissance school. Overall, less than half of students accepted to renaissance schools (49 percent) through the enrollment lottery process for the 201617 and 2017–18 school years were from the renaissance school’s neighborhood. 
All neighborhood students who submitted applications by the deadline for the 201617 lottery were accepted in their neighborhood renaissance school; however, 47 students who applied by the deadline for the 2017–18 lottery had to be placed on their neighborhood renaissance school’s wait list. As of October 2017, there were 195 students on the wait list for their neighborhood renaissance school.[emphasis mine]
 The Auditor also explains why this matters:
The current policy could result in a higher concentration of students with actively involved parents or guardians being enrolled in renaissance schools. Their involvement is generally regarded as a key indicator of a student’s academic success, therefore differences in academic outcomes between district and renaissance students may not be a fair comparison.
This is a reality some of us have been trying to explain to outlets like the Star-Ledger for years. But for whatever reason, it appears the paper would rather use the weaseliest of words than admit they've been wrong all along. From last week's editorial:
This addressed a common knock on charters: that they self-select their students, by keeping out the poorest kids or those with special needs.
Those typical criticisms don’t apply in Camden. The so-called “renaissance schools” under charter management take the same, or more of the poorest and special ed kids as the district schools. 
See how they've moved the goalposts? Before, every kid in the neighborhood got a seat; now, the kids are the same...

Except, as the Auditor points, out, it's likely they aren't. The very act of enrolling your child in a renaissance school is likely a marker that you are a more "actively involved parent." We know, thanks to a great deal of high-quality research (see the lit review here) that parents rely on their social networks to help them make decisions in school "choice" systems, and that different parents have different networks. It's not at all a stretch to think the students in renaissance schools differ from other students on characteristics that can't be shown in the data. 

In other words: the renaissance schools may very well be creaming. Why is the State Auditor capable of getting this simple point, but the Star-Ledger editorial board isn't?

I'll talk more about these "unobserved" student differences and why they matter in my next post. For now, we need to understand this:

When the people of Camden were told that every child in a renaissance school's catchment would be enrolled, they were lied to. I'm using the passive voice deliberately here because who exactly did the lying -- and who simply transmitted this very big lie -- is open to debate.

But I would think that journalists -- whose primary function is to deliver the truth to their readers -- would, of all people, not want to perpetuate falsehoods when confronted with the facts. How sad that New Jersey's largest newspaper has such low standards, and such little regard for their readers.

We'll talk about the latest "study" on Camden schools' effectiveness next.

 Star-Ledger Editorial Board

ADDING: Over the years, the Star-Ledger opinion section has been remarkably inept when it comes to writing about education:

  • They blamed teacher seniority when an award-winning teacher in Camden was fired -- except she never was.
  • They tried to show the failure of Camden's schools by pointing to the low proficiency rate at Camden Street School -- expect that school was in Newark, and hosted programs for that district's most cognitively impaired students.
  • They said a group of Newark teachers told "lies" about a contract negotiation -- except what those teachers actually said was, in fact, accurate.
  • They gave an anti-tenure superintendent space to tell stories about her staff -- except her own board said they weren't true (she was later terminated by that same board).
  • They misrepresented the views of union leaders -- even when those leaders were quite clear in their answers to direct questions.
  • They engaged in some particularly nasty language when describing the grassroots opposition to school leadership in Newark -- including making the accusation that local activists "don't seem to give a damn about the children."
  • They made fun of a union official's weight. Yes, they did.

Let me be clear about something: over the years, the Star-Ledger has had some excellent reporters on the education beat, including Jessica Calefati, Peggy McGlone, and Adam Clark. And, of course, the great Bob Braun worked there for years.

But the opinion section has been, and remains, a mess. If you're a public school teacher and you pay to read this dreck, you should really ask yourself: "Why?"


No comments: