The Great Migration of the early 20th century colonized some northern cities by descendants of enslaved Africans in search of better living conditions than those they had endured in the former slave states of the south. Some were successful in this endeavor, for a time.
Over the past couple of generations conditions for many African-Americans living in northern cities—from Buffalo to Cleveland—have worsened. The realization that the promise of equality that was the “pull” of the migration (Jim Crow constituting the “push”), the realization that that promise was false, has focused attention on the failure of public education in those cities, the rise of mass incarceration, and the maintenance, if not strengthening, of segregation.
While contemplating the hypocrisy of responsible officials in, say, New York City, with their increasingly tiresome expressions of astonishment that their neighborhoods and schools have been segregated into inequality we should not forget the persistence of similar conditions in some of the core states of the Confederacy.
Old times are truly not forgotten in Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina. In those states an average of just 15 percent of Black adults are allowed to attain enough education for a Bachelor’s degree or better, compared to an average of 26 percent for White residents of those states. South Carolina is the champion in this matter, supporting 31 percent of its White adults in gaining that amount of education, but only the regional average of 15 percent for its Black residents. At the other end of the educational attainment scale, the region leaves an average of 22 percent of its Black adults without any education qualifications whatsoever, but only 14 percent of its White adults are without high school diplomas. The national averages for these measures are 30 percent for college graduates, 14 percent for those without high school diplomas.
In other words, these states educate White residents to U.S. national averages, leaving their Black residents in an educational condition not found elsewhere among the developed countries of the world.
Just like old times.
As a consequence, or, perhaps, just another part of the same effort at maintaining the status quo pro ante, the average Black family income in these states is just over $34,000, that of White families nearly $64,000. Here the champion is Louisiana, with a $35,000 spread, the $68,000 White family income more than double that of Black families in the state. Hence the contrast, for example, between the Ninth Ward of New Orleans and that city’s Garden District. The average poverty rate of White individuals in these states, 13 percent, is actually lower than the national average (16 percent), and, of course, less than half that of the 32 percent for Black “citizens”. The poverty rate of South Carolina’s Black residents is three times that of their White neighbors.
Income is largely determined by education, at least among people who work for a living, rather than inheriting, say, real estate fortunes. Given the racial disparities in educational attainment in these states, the racial disparities in income follow directly. But how do these racial disparities in educational attainment come about?
A good way to accomplish this is to limit reading ability. If a person is unable to read at, say, the level expected of middle school students in eighth grade, they are unlikely to learn much in their remaining school years, unlikely to earn a meaningful high school diploma (of which more below), unlikely to go to and graduate from college or to earn an income above the poverty level (see above).
Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina do well at this task. The usual measure used for such comparisons is the National Assessment of Educational Progress’ eighth-grade results. These bi-annual tests are reported out by the U.S. Department of Education as Below Basic (or functionally illiterate), Basic (reads with difficulty), Proficient (meets grade level expectations) and Advanced (hurrah!). The NAEP reports include outcomes by race and whether or not a student’s family income makes them eligible for the National Lunch Program.
The dividing line between “eligible” and “ineligible” is a family income of about $44,000. In Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina, about two-thirds of Black students and one-third of White students have family incomes low enough to make them eligible for the National Lunch Program. That is something to keep in mind as we look at reading achievement scores in these states.
First, the overall percentage of Black students in these states who read well enough in eighth grade to be assessed by NAEP as “Proficient or Above” is 11 percent. That is, nearly 90 percent either read eighth grade material with difficulty or not really at all. Thirty-four percent of White students in Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina are assessed as “Proficient or Above” when they are tested on eighth grade reading. As a matter of interest, the national percentage for all students in public schools is 33 percent. The schools in these states manage to teach only one-third the percentage of their Black students to read at the national average for all students or as they do for their White students. The champion here is Mississippi, which teaches necessary reading skills to four times the percentage of White students as Black students.
We can look a little more deeply into this. Among the two-thirds of Black students in these states whose family incomes are below the National Lunch Program cut-off, on average just nine percent are taught to read fluently, as compared to 25 percent of the one-third of White students from families with those low incomes. Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina have a tight range of these scores for White students from relatively impoverished families: 24 percent to 26 percent. Despite that, Mississippi is the clear winner, with an 18 percent point spread between the seven percent of its Black students and 25 percent of its White students scoring at the Proficient or Above levels.
Among the one-third of Black students from more prosperous families, 22 percent are brought to the level expected of eighth graders, compared to 41 percent of the two-thirds of White students from prosperous families. Here, it is South Carolina that is the definite winner in the inequality competition with a 23 percent point spread, based on a remarkable 46 percent record with its White students from comparatively prosperous families. Perhaps these racial differences among students from families with similar incomes have something to do with differing qualities of education on offer. Just a thought.
The final step in the public schools toward educational attainment typical of that in developed countries is high school graduation. For the nation as a whole, the graduation rate for Black students is 75 percent, that for White students 88 percent.
Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina report that an average of 78 percent of their Black students graduate, as do 86 percent of their White students. This is remarkable, considering that only 11 percent of their Black students and 34 percent of their White students could read at grade level in middle school and just 15 percent of the former and 26 percent of the latter turn out to be well enough prepared to continue on to a college degree.
The regional outlier in these matters is Georgia. That state, with a similar history of slavery, Civil War devastation, Jim Crow and “massive resistance” to school integration, exhibits socio-economic and education indicators remarkably close to national averages. Educational attainment for Black adults (23 percent B.A. or above) is slightly higher than the national average of 20 percent. Median income for Black families is about the same as the national average for Black families and the poverty rate is lower.
Sixteen percent of Georgia’s Black students in eighth grade are brought to grade level in reading, compared to the national average of 15 percent for Black students, and the percentage of Black students eligible for the National Lunch Program reading at grade level (12 percent) is identical to the national average for eligible Black students. The percentage of African-American students who are ineligible for the National Lunch Program, those from middle class families is 31 percent. That is quite a bit higher than the national average for this group of 26 percent.
It is probably not great praise to observe that Georgia does not do worse than most states in attempting to overcome the heritage of slavery and Jim Crow, but Georgia’s record is certainly notable in contrast to the disgrace of its neighbors. It shows what can be done and the challenges that remain.
So long as reformers in Maryland and other states fail to galvanize and work with poor and minority communities, the movement will struggle to keep the gains made on behalf of our children. Don’t believe it? Consider the experiences your editor has had over the past few years on this front.
Two years ago, your editor ended up meeting with state legislators in Dropout Nation‘s home state of Maryland as part of an unsuccessful effort to convince them to oppose a charter school law that essentially weakened efforts to provide poor and minority children with high-quality schools. Your editor uses the word “ended up” because I wasn’t invited by any of the Old Line State’s reform players.
Originally, I was coming to Annapolis to grab lunch with former Black Alliance for Educational Options President Kenneth Campbell, who was brought to town from his home in Louisiana by Center for Education Reform to lobby those very legislators. But because of the scheduling conflicts and other usual delays that happen when you are meeting with legislators, your editor ended up at the statehouse with Campbell and Kara Kerwin, CER’s president at the time.
Certainly the meetings were interesting for what they were. But what struck me that day was the shallowness of the bench for the reform side — especially considering that the National Education Association’s Old Line State affiliate can call up several hundred teachers to press the flesh with legislators at a moment’s notice. If your editor was contacted to help, I could have called at least 10 other people (all Black) who could have reached out to other state legislators. Those folks, in turn, could have brought their children and others along to explain why passing the bill would harm poor and minority children, especially those in the state’s public charter schools.
But it didn’t have to be just me. Within Prince George’s County alone, there are more than a few influential players who could have helped out. Here are three of the top of my head: Byron Garrett, the former chief executive officer of National PTA and onetime charter school leader. Deborah Veney, the communications czar of NewSchools Venture Fund who still has a home in the area. Even George Parker, the former head of the American Federation of Teachers’ District of Columbia affiliate, who has become a stalwart proponent of advancing school choice. All three, along with others, could have helped out if White reformers bothered to pick up the phone.
This experience came to mind today as I read former Thomas B. Fordham Institute President-turned-Maryland State Board of Education Vice President Chester (Checker) Finn’s lament about House Bill 978 and Senate Bill 871, two bills that would effectively condemn the futures of poor and minority children in the state by restricting the state department of education from holding failure mills and warehouses of mediocrity from any form of accountability. This includes banning state education officials from using an A-to-F grading system for measuring school and district performance as well as take over failure mills. Essentially, legislators want the state to abandon its constitutional (and federally-required) responsibility to oversee its public education system.
Even though Finn, along with his former colleagues at Fordham were responsible for pushing the Every Students Succeed Act that all but eliminated the federal government’s role in leading systemic reform (and keeping states such as Maryland from rolling back accountability), I won’t say I told you so — this time. In fact, I sympathize with Finn and agree that Old Line State legislators are harming the futures of children. Yet the success of traditionalists in getting both bills passed is another example of how reformers in Maryland (as well as those in other states) have done a shoddy job of reaching out to the Black and Latino communities best-positioned to blunt opposition to systemic reform.
Not once did Finn or his former Fordham colleague, Andy Smarick (who is president of the state board) bother to call Black and Latino reformers I know to assist them in opposing these efforts. Nor did I get an e-mail at any point asking for just a little help. Chances are that neither Finn and Smarick, nor their allies, approached any of the regional branches of Black fraternities and sororities such as Delta Sigma Theta to which many of Maryland’s Black politicians belong and must pay heed), or to Black churches such as First Baptist Church of Glenarden, First Baptist Church of Highland Park, and Jamal Bryant’s Empowerment Temple A.M.E. What about Black Lives Matter activist Deray McKesson (who works in Baltimore and ran for mayor last year)? Or even broadcaster Roland Martin, who is based across the way in Virginia and has a reach into Black communities that rivals nearly every reformer? Nope. Not them, either.
Again, given that Black and Latino players were never asked for help, it is no shock that Finn, Smarick and their allies now find themselves facing bitter defeat. It isn’t just on accountability. Driven by traditionalists as well as by their goal of keeping popular Republican Gov. Larry Hogan from gaining any future legislative victories, the Democratic-controlled legislature is working to stifle the new voucher program Hogan successfully brought to life last year and have killed an effort to expand the number of charter schools serving the state.
Certainly this is not a new issue. Dropout Nation has spent the past few years advising reformers to build stronger ties to poor and minority communities. But the admonitions issued from these pages now loom ever larger as reformers in Maryland and elsewhere find themselves in a political environment in which neither Republicans nor Democrats are willing to do more than necessary to help all children succeed. More importantly, thanks to abolishing of the No Child Left Behind Act and its powerful Adequate Yearly Progress provisions, as well as the move this month by Congressional Republicans to eviscerate ESSA’s administrative rules, reformers need stronger ground games at the state level in order to oppose NEA and AFT affiliate as well as traditional districts who have the bodies and relationships to roll back past reforms.
Traditionalists would have a harder time if reformers can rally the millions of Black and Latino families, along with immigrant households, single-parent households, and families led by grandparents who are concerned about building brighter futures for their children. But the movement has long failed to embrace the advice of reformers such as Green Dot founder Steve Barr and Connecticut Parents Union President Gwen Samuel on building stronger ties: Listen to the concerns of those communities; work with them on the issues outside of education that concern; include them at the decision-making and planning table; don’t simply ask for support when it is time to roll out the yellow t-shirts for protest marches.
The fact that many of the leading reform groups have no Black or Latino reformers in leadership also makes efforts by the movement to win support especially suspect. After all, for these communities, White people are the outsiders who always come bearing proverbial gifts that must be viewed with absolute suspicion. The movement cannot expect to win over the people they proclaim to be serving if people who look like them aren’t there in the first place.
What is happening in Maryland is terrible for our children. But reformers have had three decades to build up the political resources needed to oppose rollbacks of systemic reform. The most-important resource of all is people, especially those Black and Brown who represent the very children we are working to help.
There has been a persistent theme in the media, explicitly, and in scholarly studies, implicitly, that economic class is much more important as a basis for analysis than race. This is, of course, a Marxist position, one clung to by the Communist Party of the United States to its dying day.
But the basis of American society, as even some Communists admitted, is division by race. This was embodied in the original wording of the Constitution, with its three-fifths rule for counting enslaved Africans and their descendants. It dominated debates in the Senate until the imposition of the “gag” rule, barring discussion of slavery; led to the Civil War, and as Jim Crow, determined social structures and social relations in much of the country until the 1960s.
Despite Brown v. Board of Education and the Voting Rights Act and similar legislation, de jure Jim Crow did not vanish; it was transformed into “Jim Crow by another name,” primarily through the operation of schools and prisons. The stronghold of what Michelle Alexander branded as “The New Jim Crow” is the “black belt” of counties in the former Confederacy, running from Norfolk Virginia to, say, Waco, Texas, with satellites in various urban centers, especially in the line from Louisville, Kentucky to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, but also including Cleveland, Detroit, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington DC and New York.
Among the northern urban centers, New York City, because of its size and cultural and political significance, is of particular importance. New York City has an African American population of 2,089,000, a larger number than any other city in the country, more than in many states. How well do the New York public schools perform their task of educating all children, including Black children?
The National Assessment of Educational Progress is the standard by which education is measured in the United States. Among NAEP’s many assessments, that for reading is particularly crucial as an indicator, particularly reading at grade 8, when the schools have had sufficient time to overcome many issues arising from home and community.
Results for grade 8 reading for New York City show that 46 percent of White students are Proficient and above (compared to 42 percent nationally) as are 15 percent of Black students (compared to 15 percent nationally). Forty-four percent of Black students in the city’s public schools and 15 percent of White students were at the Below Basic (difficulty reading) level in 2015.
New York City’s public schools educate three times the percentage of their White students as their Black students to read at grade level in the crucial grade 8 year. And they leave nearly half of Black middle school students unable to read easily, therefore unlikely to graduate from high school “college and career ready,” unlikely to qualify for or to obtain middle class jobs and incomes.
The failure of the New York City public schools to educate Black students is particularly troubling for male Black students, only 9 percent of whom are at Proficient or above in grade 8 reading in 2015. Which means, of course, that 91 percent are not.
Student educational attainment in New York is also sharply divided by income. Thirty-six percent of White students from families living in or near poverty, and therefore eligible for the National Lunch Program, in the New York public schools reach the Proficient and above levels in grade 8 reading. Other White students, from more prosperous families, read at grade level 57 percent of the time by eighth grade. Among Black students, 13 percent of those eligible for the National Lunch Program read at or above the Proficient level, while 18 percent of those from more prosperous families do so. A White student from a comparatively prosperous family in New York is more than four times as likely to be brought to grade level in grade 8 reading than a Black student from a low-income family.
Notice, however, the different sizes of the gaps between students from relatively poor and relatively prosperous families among Black and White students. It is 21 percentage points among White students, five among Black students. Or, White students from more prosperous families are 58 percent more likely to read at grade level than White students from less well-off families, while with Black students it is 38 percent. NAEP’s records for New York City assessments of this type go back only to 2003, but if we analyze those, we find that the family income differences for White students are pretty steady, over time, but for Black students they are narrowing, from 13 percentage points in 2007 to 5 percentage points in 2015. The reading ability of New York City’s Black middle class students is declining, according to NAEP, while that of Black students from lower income families is remaining relatively flat.
How can this be interpreted? New York is one of the nation’s most segregated cities, as are its schools. While since the (Lyndon) Johnson administration formal housing segregation has been illegal, in New York City even middle class Black professionals are ghettoized. Therefore, their children go to the same schools as do the children of the poorest, single parent, families. In theory, this should not matter. In theory, all schools would provide educations of equal—high—quality to all students. Now, there’s this bridge in Brooklyn I want you to look at . . .
If we are done with that, it is obvious that all but 15 percent of Black children (and 9 percent of male Black children) in New York City are being provided with inferior educational opportunities because they are Black. And of those, comparatively successful students, many are the children of school teachers and other highly educated parents, in effect, home schooled: the home environment making up for the deficiencies of the school (rather than the idealized opposite).
The racism of the New York City public school system is more or less overt, as witness the unspeakable racial imbalance of the system’s selective high schools, which year after year admit so few Black students that those could be accounted for by the number of children of Black United Nations diplomats. The outcome of all this is that the 65 percent of Black students entering grade 9 in New York City who were given diplomas four years later include about 40 percent who could not read at grade level when they were in grade 8 and probably could not read eighth grade material when they were given diplomas. More than one-third of the system’s Black students do not graduate from high school, two-thirds or more of those who do are far from “college and career ready.”
If a system fails in its professed purpose—say, educating children—more often than chance would indicate, and continues to do so over time, it is probable that it is, in fact, achieving its actual purpose, in this case, perpetuating racism.
Your editor had little hope that U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos would demonstrate competence — as she didn’t do during January’s hearing before a U.S. Senate panel — after last month’s confirmation by the full body. Nor did I think she would be able to stand up successfully and strongly on behalf of our most-vulnerable children against those in the current administration who mean to do harm against them.
Based on events of the last two weeks, both my suspicions and those of other reformers have been confirmed. Which is why the movement (and those within it who are still committed to building brighter futures for all our children) will have to work zealously on the behalf of our youth.
The DeVos regime demonstrated a stunning lack of basic public relations savvy earlier this week when the Department of Education issued a press release on the current administration’s new executive order on Historically Black Colleges and Universities that served as a tool for its messaging on expanding school choice.
The agency could have simply stated that the executive order, meaningless as it is (because no additional money would be provided to those institutions), is an important move to make on Black History Month because it affirms the important role universities such as Howard and Wilberforce have played in helping generations of Black people access higher education and oppose the racialism that is America’s Original Sin. Instead, in a politically tone-deaf manner DeVos and her staff used it opportunistically to tout the administration’s other priorities, declaring that HBCUs “are real pioneers when it comes to school choice” and “living proof that when more options are provided to students, they are afforded greater access and greater quality”.
The outrage over the remarks, both from traditionalists and many civil rights-oriented reformers, as well as Black people in general, could have been easily anticipated. After all, HBCUs didn’t come to existence because of the desire for higher-quality options, but because southern universities (especially public universities funded by the tax dollars of African Americans) wouldn’t allow young Black adults to sit in their classrooms. More-importantly, while a case can be made for the role of HBCUs as a form of choice in higher education, Black History Month is just not the time to do that. All DeVos did was make it even more-difficult for Black reformers and others to support the expansion of high-quality school options our children need and deserve.
All of this could have been avoided if one of DeVos’ appointees made a call to any number of Black school reformers, especially those who aren’t tied to the American Enterprise Institute or the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. A call to DeVos’ predecessor, John King (now at the Education Trust) or even yours truly would have sufficed. Or better yet, talk to any of the Black people working in the Department of Education’s headquarters on Maryland Avenue. This didn’t happen, because of incompetence in handling public relations (a key tool for the agency’s task of overseeing federal education policy), along with a lack of concern for the families and communities of Black children.
The good news, or so it seems, is that DeVos didn’t repeat that error in this morning’s USA Today op-ed touting the meager efforts done so far by the current administration.
Meanwhile DeVos’ inability to stand strongly on behalf of the most-vulnerable became clear last week when unsuccessfully fought now-embattled Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the rest of the current administration over its move to repeal the Obama Administration’s executive order requiring traditional districts and other public school operators to allow transgendered children to use bathrooms of the sex with which they identify.
The directive, which was issued last year after North Carolina interfered in the decisions of cities and districts by banning any accommodation of transgendered youth, was helpful in protecting those children from bullying, but engendered the ire of those ideological conservatives who both oppose gay rights as well as felt that the Obama Administration shouldn’t have enforced the federal government’s obligation to protect the civil rights of school-age children.
As Politico‘s Caitlin Emma reported, DeVos pushed for a “more-cautious” approach on rolling back the guidance, asking for a comment period that would allow gay rights activists and others to at least offer feedback before the administration made its long-stated goal a reality. One source told Emma that DeVos mindful of the criticism she received during the confirmation for her family’s support of gay conversion therapies and opposition to gay marriage, didn’t want to roll back the rules at all.
But she could not beat back Sessions, long an opponent of enforcing the federal government’s civil rights role, who wanted to roll back the rules before the U.S. Supreme Court heard the appeal in G.G. v. Gloucester County, which involves a district’s decision to not accommodate a 17-year-old’s use of the men’s restroom at a local high school. At the end of the day, the current administration once again proved itself unwilling to do the right thing by vulnerable children.
The inability of DeVos to fight strongly on behalf of our children in this role should surprise no one. As Dropout Nation noted back in November, DeVos refused to condemn then-President-Elect Donald Trump for his campaign of race-baiting and bigotry. Instead of condemning him for speaking ill of the families of Muslim, Black, and undocumented immigrant children, she expressed her willingness to work with the administration. Any effort she may mount on behalf of vulnerable youth was bound to be weak.
The fact that the current administration is hostile to the communities and families to which these children belong also makes it difficult for even the few good people who may be within it to stand up on their behalf. After all, one of the first actions this administration took was to essentially bar Muslim refugees from seven countries (including children fleeing war-torn Syria as well as five-year-olds seeking surgery and medical help) from entering the United States. The move, since struck down by a federal appellate court panel, is part of the long-term ideological goal by President Trump’s chief advisers, Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller, to rid the nation of immigrants and socioeconomic minorities who aren’t Caucasian. [The executive order enacting the Muslim ban also barred refugee children from Central American nations from entering the country.] American public education will be as much a front as immigration in their racialist efforts.
The current administration isn’t standing alone in this. As seen in November, there is a significant number of Americans, most of them White (and sadly, many of them calling themselves Christian), who are perfectly happy to support those measures. As much driven by the desire to support policies that harm their fellow human beings as well as by their nativist fears of America becoming increasingly more diverse and less-White, they welcome the current administration’s efforts.
Also in the current administration’s amen corner: Many of those who call themselves conservative school reformers. While those so-called reformers may attempt to distance themselves from the worst of its more-noxious ideas, they are perfectly willing to support any effort by the administration to roll back the federal role in education policy (so long as it continues to support the expansion of school choice). This includes the Obama Administration’s efforts to stop districts and charters from overusing out-of-school suspensions and other forms of harsh traditional school discipline that damage the futures of black and other minority children.
For the reformers who remain focused on building brighter futures for children, the fight will only get harder as the current administration remains in office. They cannot expect DeVos or her appointees, regardless of any personal relationships, to be supportive in any way that will actually be helpful. So the movement must focus on advancing systemic reform in spite of DeVos’ presence or that of the administration.
This starts with the regulatory process, which includes administrative rule-making and the various comment periods during which regulations and other policies are red-lined (or rewritten and amended). The current administration will work hard to shut out civil rights-oriented and centrist Democrat reformers. But those reformers can easily use laws requiring public input to expose any efforts to weaken xisting systemic reforms as well as beat back any efforts to dismantle important data systems such as the Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection. Concerns about the future of the latter is one reason why a coalition of groups, including Leadership Council for Civil and Human Rights, Teach for America and the Education Trust, issued a letter this week demanding that the data system remains comprehensive and intact.
None of what has been done so far by DeVos or this administration has been shocking or surprising. Nor should reformers be stunned. It will only get worse. Which means reformers must get to work.
There have been, and no doubt, are now taking place, many studies of how the results obtained by the nation’s public charter schools differ from those of other public schools with similar student populations. Depending on the study you cite, either charter schools do better than traditional districts in improving student or do no better. But one thing is known: None of these studies compare charter school students with those in traditional public schools who did not attempt the lottery.
The most-recent of these studies, from Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes, found in its Urban Charter Schools Report in 2015 that “urban charter schools on average achieve significantly greater student success in math and reading, which amounts to 40 additional days of learning growth in math and 28 days of additional growth in reading.” This isn’t to say charters are doing well everywhere, which CREDO points out throughout its study; these are averages, after all. In fifteen of the 41 regions in math and 18 of the 41 regions in reading there was no difference or the charters did less well then traditional public schools.
A crucial issue that I have not seen explored is that of the possible causal factors in student learning that differentiate charters from traditional public schools. That is, there seems to be an implicit assumption that the differentiating causal factor is the sheer fact of chartering.
There is something to this. One of the motivations for charters, in the first place, was that the administrations of at least some districts were so incompetent (to be polite), that they interfered with the operations of their schools. There is also the common American ideology that competition is beneficial, that if a school independent of the district administration did well, then others would imitate its innovations and all boats would be floated with the rising tide.
However, the situation today is increasingly one in which there are charter school operators, or as I call them, systems of charter schools, so that the comparison is not so much that between independent schools with adventurous teachers and teacher leaders and schools chained to district administrations, but between systems of charter schools, on the one hand, and traditional school systems on the other. This changes what it means for a school to be a charter, as opposed to a traditional public school. Instead of meaning that decisions will be school-based in the one and system-based, in the other, it means that either is possible for each, or, as likely as not, decisions will be system-based in both.
In our search for those independent variables that might be causal for differences in student outcomes between charter schools and traditional public schools, we might look at one aspect of the situation in New York City. Among the various systems of charter schools operating in New York, the KIPP group, with six schools in the city, has a good reputation and good results. KIPP has a strong system-wide culture of support and in-service professional development for its teachers and school leaders. In New York City, on average, 45 percent of the students in KIPP schools were judged Proficient on the state’s grades 3-8 English Language Arts tests in 2016, as compared to 24 percent of the students in the four geographical school districts in which they were located.
So far, so good.
Let’s do some poking about in the weeds to see if we can find out what it is about the KIPP charter schools to which we can attribute these results. First, student factors: In New York City, about one-third of Black and Latino school age children live in poverty. That figure rises to 50 percent for Hispanic families in which a woman is the householder and there is no husband present. Thirty-eight percent of Latino residents of the city speak English “less than well” (as do seven percent of Black residents). Eighteen percent of Black adults and 34 percent of Latino adults have not graduated from high school.
The KIPP schools have racial and ethnic enrollments nearly identical with those of the local traditional public schools, as well as nearly identical percentages of students with disabilities. They have a higher percentage of English language learners, an identical percentage of students eligible for free lunches (a measure of poverty) and more than twice the percentage of the slightly less impoverished group eligible for reduced price lunches. Their class sizes are slightly, but not significantly, larger than those in the local traditional schools.
However, there are important differences to be found in the data about teachers. Eighteen of the KIPP teachers have been teaching three years or less, as compared to 14 percent of the teachers in the local traditional schools. Among teachers with five years or less of experience, the turn-over rate in the KIPP schools was 43 percent and overall it was 42 percent, while in the local traditional schools annual teacher turnover rates were 24 percent and 19 percent respectively. In other words, every two years each KIPP school had an almost entirely new, younger, teaching staff, as compared to between every four and five years for the local traditional schools.
The situation in regard to qualifications is even more dramatic. Thirty-seven percent of the KIPP teachers have no valid teaching credential, 37 percent are teaching outside their certification areas, 38 percent of classes are not taught by highly qualified teachers and 37 percent are taught by teachers without appropriate certification. Just 13 percent have pursued graduate degrees. The comparisons with the teachers in the local traditional schools are stark: just two percent of those have no valid teaching credential, 17 percent are teaching outside their certification areas, 15 percent of classes are not taught by highly qualified teachers and 16 percent are taught by teachers without appropriate certification. Forty have pursued their own studies to the M.A. level and beyond. In sum, the local traditional schools are staffed with teachers who are better educated and better credentialed than those in New York City’s KIPP charter schools.
Why then do the KIPP schools have better results than the local traditional schools?
One theory would be that education and credentialing do not make better teachers and staff stability does not matter for the quality of the education students receive. There is enough data to suggest this – and teacher quality is the most-critical factor in how schools educate children. But it only one factor..
The second theory is that charter schools can sort out children they don’t want to serve through application processes that don’t apply to traditional public schools. The problem with that argument is that charters such as those run by KIPP also must go through a lottery process with various safeguards which ensure that the socioeconomic profiles of the students are nearly identical to that of districts. These lotteries exist because there are far fewer charter schools than there are traditional public schools.
The third theory, one that interests me, is that the determination of parents and legal guardians to get their children into charters is a filter that differentiates kids in charters from those in traditional public schools. There are, no doubt, many Black and Hispanic New York residents who have not graduated from high school, who do not speak English well, who are living in poverty, who will file a KIPP charter school application for their children. It is equally likely that there are those, and others more fortunate, who will not.
Few doubt that the concentrated parental attention on education that many middle class children receive is a factor in their educational success. In places where, as in New York, many traditional public schools fail to educate their students to their potential. For parents looking for a way out, they notice the success of charter systems like KIPP and apply to their lotteries. We might then guess that this has become a feed-back loop: increasing numbers of students with highly motivating parents yield ever better educational outcomes and attracting ever more students with highly motivating parents.
Of course, the motivated parent argument is an old one and we must be careful in considering it. It is often an excuse for traditional public schools to not properly educate children, especially those Black and Latino, with the fewest personal resources. At the same time, we must keep in mind that in the case of charter schools, the potential of those schools to provide more children with high-quality education can be limited by the lack of support for those with the fewest resources: Thee youth who don’t have parents or permanent legal guardians or whose parents and guardians are struggling too mightily with other issues (including deportation) to go through the charter school application process.
Benevolent social systems are limited in their impact when they cannot adequately help the child with the fewest personal resources. [They are also limited when there aren’t enough of them in the first place — and there aren’t enough high-quality public education systems of any kind.] Choice certainly has value. But so does ensuring that even the neediest children can gain the knowledge they need and deserve so they can survive once they leave schools.
What we have right now are collections of public education systems that fail to achieve the goal of providing all children equal opportunities for a high-quality education, a goal essential to the wellbeing of an increasingly sorely-tried American Republic. These issues aren’t an indictment of charter schools. But their existence, including their success, does highlight our failure to address this persistent inequity.