December 16, 2004

The Politics of Charter Schools II

Marc Comtois
The National Assessment of Educational Progress has released their pilot study on the performance of charter schools. There is ammunition within the report for both proponents and opponents, and all are spinning away.

Before reading the report, the most important factor to consider is the type of students that are served by the majority of charter schools.

*Significantly different from other public schools.

According to the Executive Summary of the report
...when comparing the performance of charter and other public school students, it is important to compare students who share a common characteristic. For example, in mathematics, fourth-grade charter school students as a whole did not perform as well as their public school counterparts. However, the mathematics performance of White, Black, and Hispanic fourth-graders in charter schools was not measurably different from the performance of fourth-graders with similar racial/ethnic backgrounds in other public schools.

In reading, there was no measurable difference in performance between charter school students in the fourth grade and their public school counterparts as a whole. This was true, even though, on average, charter schools have higher proportions of students from groups that typically perform lower on NAEP than other public schools have. In reading, as in mathematics, the performance of fourth-grade students with similar racial/ethnic backgrounds in charter schools and other public schools was not measurably different.

When considering these data, it should be noted that the charter school population is rapidly changing and growing. Future NAEP assessments may reveal different patterns of performance. Further, NAEP does not collect information about students’ prior educational experience, which contributes to present performance. Nonetheless, the data in this report do provide a snapshot of charter school students’ current performance.
Again, though, we must remember the tough academic and social background of those who comprise the student body of most charter schools. Given this, Deputy Education Secretary Eugene Hickok said, "If they're doing as well as regular students in regular schools, that's not a bad sign." However, Bella Rosenberg of the American Federation of Teachers believes that simply being close to equal is not good enough for charter schools.
"In the case of black and Hispanic youngsters, it means that they are doing as poorly in charter schools - the schools that were supposed to be their salvation - as they are in other schools," said Rosenberg...[according to Rosenberg], poor students do worse in charter schools than their peers in other public schools...[and] traditional school students score better than charter school students in reading - not only in math, as the study says - when special education children are excluded, since traditional schools have a higher percentage of children with special needs.
However, there are other studies, such as the several done by Harvard University professor Caroline Hoxby, that support the claim that charter students are outperforming their public school peers. For instance, in her most recent study (PDF), released in September 2004, Hoxby sampled 99% of charter school students (most others, including the aforementioned NAEP only sample 3% of the students) and found that:
Compared to students in the nearest regular public school, charter students are 4 percent more likely to be proficient in reading and 2 percent more likely to be proficient in math, on their state's exams. Compared to students in the nearest regular public school with a similar racial composition, charter students are 5 percent more likely to be proficient in reading and 3 percent more likely to be proficient in math. As a rule, the charter schools' proficiency "advantage" is larger when the comparison school has a similar racial composition...In states where charter schools are well-established, charter school students' advantage in proficiency tends to be greater.
[Note: In Hoxby's study, there weren't enough students, nor charter schools, in Rhode Island to factor into her final state-by-state findings, though she did incorporate them into her overall findings.]

Perhaps of equal interest would be a study comparing the performance of students in public schools before and after competition from a charter school entered the "market." I believe it highly likely that many public schools in such a situation saw increased student performance attributable to a twofold dynamic comprised of the removal of the more troubled students from the population into charter schools and a desire amongst public school teachers to show they are competent. Hence, competition between public schools and charter schools could foster the overall desired outcome: better students, regardless of where they learn.

This brings me to the troubles at Hope High School, at which "8 percent of 11th graders... met the state standards for mathematics this year and 79 percent failed to reach the language arts standard; the dropout rate has risen to 52 percent." Faced with these dismal performance numbers and a history of failure, a group of community leaders, from the Rhode Island Children's Crusade, Urban League of Rhode Island, Congdon Street Baptist Church, International Institute of Rhode Island and the Federal Hill House community center came forward to ask that the school be closed and replaced with another, or several other, schools. Mary Sylvia Harrison spoke on behalf of the Providence Educational Excellence Coalition (which includes many of the aforementioned organizations) at a public hearing convened by state education commissioner Peter McWalters, who is considering a State take-over of Hope High.

Speaking before McWalters, Harrison said, "We believe that the process has taken too long already, and that creating new schools from the ground up would be a more effective strategy." Others also spoke,
"We are not politicians," said Dennis DeJesus, director of the Federal Hill House. "We are not pro-union. We are not anti-union. We are one thing: We are pro-kids, and many times they are the ones that get lost in the shuffle there...I'd be cheating them if I didn't speak out and didn't say that it is time for a change at Hope...You are what your numbers are...If you look at their proficiency in math and literacy, the school has failed. I'm not pointing fingers at anyone. The system has failed."
These leaders didn't just air complaints, they also presented a four point plan to McWalters. First, Hope should be closed and replaced with another school "in a framework that is consistent with high-performing schools." Second, Hope High students, parents and community members should be intimately involved in planning the new school, not just administrators and the teachers' union. Third, an outside consultant should be appointed to oversee the rebuilding process and to bring more parental involvement. Finally, while Hope finishes out its last year, student morale needs to be maintained to help reduce the amount of academic disillusion that can occur within the walls of a lame-duck institution. This last could be difficult given the revelation that the current pressure on the school is already having negative effects. This is exacerbated by the fact that some teachers don't seem to care. According to the above-linked story,
some teachers work heroically on a daily basis to make a difference in students' lives while others reveal in pejorative remarks that they do not care about their charges. . . a mechanism is needed to usher out teachers who are not up to the work that needs to be done.

Melcris Francisco, a Hope junior, said it is difficult for students to be motivated to learn if teachers show they are not motivated to teach... she doesn't need a "teacher who sits there and gives out papers and that's it".... But Melcris also said her grasp of math has improved in the class of a good teacher -- one of several good teachers she has this year. She said it should be easy for good teachers to keep their jobs at Hope.
Unfortunately, with Rhode Island's system of virtual public school teacher tenure, the bad teachers will either never leave, or will be shuffled off to another system. And while McWalters favors his own innovative idea, it was proposed by a joint committee composed of school administrator's and teachers' union members. The proposal put forward some attractive ideas, such as turning Hope into a "cluster of small, independent schools" with more parental and community involvement. However, this may be a case of the teachers union fighting a rearguard action to maintain control of the process.
The plan, explored in three days of testimony last week, gives teachers the prerogative to opt out of Hope if they do not feel they can sign a statement of commitment to the extra effort associated with school reform. But it does not contain a mechanism to ensure that bad teachers leave Hope.
Thus, insufficiently inspired teachers can choose to leave, but unispiring ones need not.

Is there another solution besides a reconfigured public school, as McWalters seems to favor? Of course, and while the community leaders of the PEEC didn't mention a charter school as a viable option, the students who currently attend Hope High fit the demographic of those whom charter schools most often attempt to help. Though different studies may paint different pictures of the relative success of charter schools, the fact remains that the students of Hope High have been let down by the public education system.

Granted, a new public school would not necessarily be more of the same, but it seems the community that is served by Hope would welcome a new direction. As such, a charter school is a legitimate option and shouldn't be summarily dismissed by the school district and McWalters. To be sure, the teachers, their union and assorted politicians would oppose the measure. Currently, such a school is not even an option because politicians refuse to accede to Governor Carcieri's wishes and remove the charter school cap in Rhode Island. While their political gamesmanship may extract concessions from the Governor (at taxpayer expense) and raise their stature in the eyes of a key constituency (teachers' unions), it will also delay, and perhaps limit, the educational options of those who most need them, the kids at Hope High.