Get sick, get well
Hang around a ink well
Ring bell, hard to tell
If anything is goin' to sell
-- Bob Dylan

Friday, September 7, 2012

Charter school mythology -- Part II, The myth of charter superiority

By Mike Klonsky

This is the second part of a two-part series of posts on Charter school mythology.

The transformation of charter schools from in-district experiments in the early 1990s, to competitive, highly-privatized alternative networks a decade later, has had a major impact on the way we think about public education as well as on how learning outcomes are reported. Networks of charter operators, cyber-schoolers, and  their allied web of charter school associations and authorizers, as well as conservative think tanks, have produced their own "studies" and have engaged in a media/advertising blitz aimed at demonstrating the superiority of charters over traditional public schools. Charters and their associations are allowed to use millions in public dollars to make such unsubstantiated claims while traditional public schools are not allowed to advertise.

Heavily financed pro-charter propaganda films like Waiting for Superman, are also passed off as research. Jeffrey Henig, a professor at Columbia University's Teachers College argues that WFS "oversells charter schools."
"The film notes that only 1 in 5 charter schools are highly successful. But “it implies there’s some philosophy that unifies charters and we just need to replicate that,”
 A recent study by the pro-charter Progressive Policy Institute even earned an NEPC Bunkum Award for citing exponential growth organizations, such as Starbucks and Apple, as well as the rapid growth of molds, viruses and cancers, in order to advocate similar growth models for charter schools.

The political pressures put on charter schools and their operators to compete with outperform nearby schools have pushed charters operators to make astounding claims, such as 100% success rates. These pressures have also driven widespread cheating. The latest scandal involved the charter operators of  the Crescendo Charter chain in southern California. The cheating scandal caused one former Crescendo teacher to reflect:
"Here I had been going around bragging about how awesome our school is, and now I wonder: Are we cheaters?"
After some charter schools in New York showed higher test score results than their neighborhood counterparts, Mayor Bloomberg exclaimed,  “I think they demonstrate again and again and again that that model gives superior results.” 
“What we’re seeing, and what we’ve seen all along,” James Merriman, chief executive officer of the New York City Charter School Center, told the New York Times, “is that the longer school day and longer school year that characterizes charter schools, as well as simply a focus on instruction and the sense of having a schoolwide culture that everyone buys into, results in these kinds of achievement scores.”
But a preponderance of currently available research belies the myth of charter school superiority. Regardless of the metric being used, charter schools continue to have more or less the same variance in measurable learning outcomes as the regular public schools they aim at replacing. And in cases where charters did outscore or outpace their public school competition, it appears to have less to do with them being charters as much as it did with their smaller size, selective enrollment/attrition policies (fewer students with special needs or English Language Learners), or greater political cache and access to outside funding. These same factors however, could also account for higher measurable outcomes in public sector schools, especially in wealthy suburban schools and public selective enrollment schools.

If the difference in outcomes have more to do with who schools enroll rather than any particular "model" of schooling, the whole argument for superiority becomes invalid. Rather than being a force for public school improvement, the differential in outcomes can be seen as contributing to, rather than helping to close,  the widening so-called "achievement gap" and the growing social inequity that comes from having and reproducing  a two-tier public school system.

In fact, the very notion of charter school superiority implies a two-tier system. It implies that charters are all one thing, or at least that they have more in common with each other than they do with other public sector schools. But the original concept of charters would seem to work against that notion. Charters were first imagined as individual public centers of innovation. It was their uniqueness -- not their sameness -- that made them such. It was only with the rise of the private and for-profit  charter-management networks and their competition for the public dollar that charters began being considered as a group with common interests opposed to and competing with their public school counterparts.

The emergence of heavily financed charter networks in the 1990s also drove a certain type of academic research, based entirely or mainly on test score comparisons aimed at proving charter superiority. But so far, the effort has failed. In fact a preponderance of the research, even when carried out by pro-charter research organizations and think tanks, has shown charters, taken as a whole, to be no better, and in many cases worse than the public-sector schools they were being compared with.

The most often cited of  this pile of studies was performed by Stanford's Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) in 2009. The CREDO Study compared public charter schools and traditional public schools in 15 states and the District of Columbia. The Stanford researchers tried to match up real charter school students with fictional groups of statistically similar students in the same area (“virtual twins”), and compared charter school students’ test score gains) to those of their “twins.”

The study found, among other things, that only 17% of the charters or one in six of the charters studied, had students who did better on the whole than their public school twins, and that 37% actually did worse. In the remaining 46 % there was no statistical difference.

Of course there are big problems in making such comparisons and in drawing big conclusions from these kind of statistical studies. For one thing, they don't tell us anything about what is going on in the schools that  may have led to better or worse outcomes. Secondly, the differences in measured reading and math scores may not have been very great or even statistically significant.

CREDO's finding were essentially replicated in a  study by the pro-charter Mathematica Policy Research, of Princeton, N.J.. The federally commissioned studyRequires Adobe Acrobat Reader, involving 2,330 students who applied to 36 charter middle schools in 15 states, represents the first large-scale randomized trial of the effectiveness of charter schools across several states and rural, suburban, and urban locales. The charter schools in the sample conducted random lotteries for admissions, so that only chance determined who attended. The study, also concludes that the lottery winners did no better, on average, than the lottery losers on non-academic outcomes such as behavior and attendance.

As for networks of charters, run by charter management organizations or CMOs, current studies once again find little or no measurable difference in how students do, between them and other public schools. A recent Single Study Review by the What Works Clearinghouse, of the Report “Charter-School Management Organizations: Diverse Strategies and Diverse Student Impacts, confirms many earlier findings.
The study found that, on average, CMOs did not have a statistically significant impact on middle school student performance on state assessments in math, reading, science, or social studies. Similarly, there was not a statistically significant impact of CMOs on graduation rates and rates of post-secondary enrollment for high school students.
In Chicago, the Sun-Times reports that  charter school franchises produced wildly uneven results — even among different campuses of the same chain — on state achievement test data.
Only one of nine Chicago multi-site charter operators — Noble Street — beat the districtwide average of all Chicago public schools for the percent of students passing state tests last spring on every campus it oversees. The overall passing rate at two city charter franchises — Aspira and North Lawndale — was below the city average at every campus those two groups operate. Four other chains — Betty Shabazz, Perspectives, North Lawndale and Chicago International — saw the majority of their campuses with over-all pass rates that were below the citywide average. In fact, one Shabazz high school campus — DuSable — had a passing rate that put it among the bottom 30 high schools in the entire state. One of its elementary campuses placed among the bottom 40.
Following this first-time release of Chicago charter network scores, David Berliner, education professor at Arizona State University, told the Chicago Sun-Times the results should signal to parents that not all charters are equally replicated, like a McDonalds or Holiday Inn.’

One of the major problems facing charter schools is the instability caused by the rapid turnover of faculty and staff. The  L.A. Times reports that about half of all  teachers in charter middle and high schools left their jobs each year over a six-year period studied by UC Berkeley researchers, who released their findings in July, 2011. Why such an incredibly high rate of attrition? According to the study:
  • They hire heavily from Teach For America, a cadre of recent college graduates who commit to teach for two years.
  • Some young teachers find the intense, demanding charter experience more than they bargained for, suggested Berkeley education professor Bruce Fuller, a study co-author.
  • Leaving for better pay and benefits at traditional school districts.
  • Lack of promised input into school decisions, an unceasing workload and few job protections.
  • "Teachers feel so beleaguered because everything is presented to us as a problem we have to solve. But we can't fix all those problems, like when a kid misses 60 days in a semester."
One of the tactics used by charter operators to artificially drive up test scores has been exclusionary enrollment and push-out tactics. This will be the topic of  Part 3 in this series.

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