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.
There should be no surprise that Betsy DeVos was confirmed as U.S. Secretary of Education this afternoon by the Senate. Nor should anyone be surprised that her confirmation required a vote by Vice President Mike Pence in his role as ceremonial leader of the federal upper house. DeVos has managed the astounding feat of gaining more votes against her confirmation than any previous appointee to the post.
Also not shocking, of course, is the visceral reaction to DeVos’ confirmation from those who supported and opposed her, especially conservative, centrist Democrat and civil rights-oriented reformers in an increasingly divided movement.
On one side, American Federation for Children, the school choice advocate DeVos previously chaired before her nomination, declared that her confirmation is “a time of opportunity and transformation”, while former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education sent out tweets thanking Senate Republicans (other than Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski) for voting for her. Meanwhile Neal McCluskey of the Cato Institute celebrated DeVos’ nomination, accusing opponents of her nomination of “being unfair to her”.
On the other side, DeVos’ immediate predecessor as education secretary, current Education Trust President John King, hoped that DeVos would “prove us wrong”, while House Education and the Workforce Committee Ranking Democrat Bobby Scott declared that she “failed to make a credible case” for getting her job. Catherine Brown, the education czar for the Center for American Progress (which has emerged as the leading school reform outfit opposed to DeVos’ confirmation — and garnered the criticism of conservative reformers for its stridency), proclaimed that DeVos’ confirmation was an example of how the Amway heiress’ fortune bought her support despite being “Unprepared, unaware, and unqualified.”
Your editor has already spent months explaining why DeVos shouldn’t be Secretary of Education. Certainly her strong support for expanding school choice is much appreciated here on these pages. But transforming American public education requires more than championing choice. A Secretary of Education, who runs the agency charged with ensuring that all children, especially those black and brown, gain high-quality education must be strident and vocal against those who want to subject the most-vulnerable to the rarely-soft bigotry of low expectations, oppose bigotry even from her counterparts within an administration, and have curiosity and grasp of the policy and practice issues within American public education. DeVos has exhibited none of this so far, and unlike King, your editor has no expectation that this state of affairs will change.
This, by the way, extends to other appointees whom DeVos is bringing to the Department of Education. Certainly some of the people coming to work for the agency — including former Thomas B. Fordham Institute staffer Michael Brickman, and Matt Frendewey (who was running American Federation for Children’s communications department) are people who have proven their commitment to helping all children succeed. But past performance isn’t enough — especially when choosing to work for an administration that has denigrated the families of immigrant children, Latino children, and those of the Muslim faith. Your editor prays for them to do right by all children — and so should you. They will need every prayer for discernment we can give.
But in any case, DeVos now holds the office. Which means that reformers must continue to do the hard work transforming American public education regardless of what she and her appointees do — and, given the Trump Administration’s professed and public bigotry against those who aren’t white, in spite of them.
This starts by remembering our mission: Building brighter futures for every child, no matter who they are or where they live. As civil rights activists of the last century understood, there will always be administrations, elected officials and interest groups who will be hostile against helping all children succeed. What matters more is that we work smartly, strategically, and stridently for children as well as the families who love and care for them.
It starts by playing the Capitol Hill political game. Over the next four years, there will be regulations that will be drafted and finessed through administrative rulemaking and red-lining; legislation that will be deliberated and debated; and meetings that will be held quietly and privately. Reformers must get into every step of these processes, and master every arcane rule that can either stop legislation from passing, or lead to its passage.
This means remembering that the most-important battles over overhauling American public education lies not in Washington, but in the statehouses and local communities throughout the nation. Now, more than ever, reformers must build stronger ties to families and communities (including immigrant households, single-parent families, grandparents, and minority households).
It also means working more-closely with Black Lives Matter activists and others working to reform the criminal justice systems that also harm so many of our children. And it even means working with immigrant rights groups and branches of the American Civil Liberties Union that are fighting stridently against efforts by the Trump Administration to deport undocumented immigrants as well as working to protect children covered by Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.
Finally, it means advancing the solutions needed to help every child succeed. From overhauling how we recruit, train, manage and compensate teachers, to expanding choice and Parent Power, to advancing stronger accountability (and ensuring that every institution and adult is providing high quality education to our children), there is much to be done, much we can do, and not one minute to waste.
Along the way, there will be divides between various camps in the reform movement. In some cases, reformers will have to agree to disagree. Other times, there will be open conflict. Some within the movement will leave it because they feel that colleagues with different ideologies are on the wrong side. This is to be expected. What must be accepted among all reformers is that there will be conflict. What needs to be done is to make those conflicts productive so that it crystallizes, clarifies, reveals, humbles, and creates so that we can build better worlds for our children.
Now that the battle over DeVos’ confirmation is over, let’s continue working for brighter futures for every child. Especially in this age, they need us to do all we can for them.
By tonight, we will know whether Betsy DeVos will be confirmed as U.S. Secretary of Education. But it has become clear that there is significant opposition to her possible tenure — and she has proven that she is undeserving of the job.
As you already know, the Amway heiress’ effort to win confirmation hit snags within the past week. First came the rather narrow 12-to-11 approval last Tuesday by the Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee after a rancorous executive session that featured Ranking Democrat Patty Murray sparring with the committee’s chairman, Lamar Alexander, over his casting a vote for the nominee on behalf of colleague Orrin Hatch (who wasn’t present at the time).
Then last Wednesday, two Republicans on the committee, Maine’s Susan Collins and Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski, announced that they would vote against DeVos’ confirmation, effectively creating a 50-50 tie in the full Senate and casting doubt about her chances of winning. As you would expect, movement conservatives such as the editors at National Review accused both of doing the bidding of the National Education Association, which, naturally, opposes DeVos’ confirmation.
While conservative reformers such as Mike Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute worked to spin the news as a sign that DeVos would gain confirmation (a funny thing given that they have been wrong about so much else when it comes to congressional votes), news that other Republicans, including Nevada’s Dean Heller, were still undecided and leaning towards voting her down cast new doubts on her chances.
Then on Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced that a vote on DeVos’ confirmation set for today was being delayed until Tuesday. The stated reason was to give Republicans a chance to spend time with donors at an out-of-the-Beltway event. Left unsaid: That other Republicans, including those in states with influential American Indian tribal populations opposed to DeVos such as Oklahoma and Alaska, are likely under pressure from those tribes to vote her down. That there are plenty of Senate Republicans, more-concerned about beating back Democrat efforts to stop the confirmations of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and U.S. Supreme Court Nominee Neil Gorsuch, willing to give opponents an easy victory by letting DeVos lose her bid is also a factor.
Meanwhile DeVos has taken more hits, many of them self-inflicted. Just as the Senate education committee voted on her confirmation last Tuesday, the Washington Post reported that several passages from DeVos’ response to questions posed by Murray were cribbed from various sources, including an Obama Administration report. For someone being put at the helm of overseeing American public education, the allegations of plagiarism against her (and, given reality, staffers who wrote the response for her) angered even more people than necessary. At the same time, DeVos’ response to Murray that she would not require linking data on charter school performance to their operators alarmed reformers who are looking to improve the quality of student learning.
The chance of DeVos being confirmed today is still rather high. After all, even with a tie vote, all the Republicans and President Donald Trump need for DeVos’ victory is for Vice President (and President of the Senate) Mike Pence to show up and cast a vote. Which, of course, he will. There’s also the fact that DeVos’ nomination is scheduled before that of Sessions, giving the latter the chance to vote for her. But the fact that Senate Republicans waited so long to vote on her confirmation is one sign that there is little unity within the caucus behind her tenure.
As your editor expected back in December, DeVos’ nomination has divided the school reform movement as bitterly as every other discussion of late.
Falling in line with their ideological fellow-travelers, conservative reformers have largely lined up behind DeVos, arguing that any opposition to her has been driven by the smearing of her record and her character as well as what Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute calls a lack of civility. Given that many conservative reformers are recipients of donations from DeVos and her family’s foundations, this is to be expected.
Centrist Democrats and civil rights-oriented reformers, on the other hand, have raised concerns about DeVos’ competence and willingness to aggressive advance strong accountability. They have found themselves allied with opponents of school choice such as Massachusetts U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren in opposing DeVos’ confirmation. The latest announcement came last Thursday when former Secretary of Education John King announced in his new role as president of the Education Trust that he and the organization actively oppose DeVos’ confirmation.
Meanwhile those outside of school reform have debated over DeVos — and their arguments have painted either side in a good light.
Allies of DeVos have argued that she would be a breathe of fresh air because she is an “outsider”. Yet in doing so, they fail to admit that her long (and largely beneficial) advocacy for advancing the expansion of public charter schools and other forms of choice, along with her role as a leading force in transforming public education in her home state of Michigan, makes her as much of an insider as AFT President Rhonda (Randi) Weingarten. More-importantly, despite DeVos’ poor performance last month before the Senate education panel, they continue to dismiss legitimate criticisms of DeVos’ competence as being mere politicking.
On the other side, traditionalist arguments that DeVos will destroy American public education is absolutely silly. They are still stuck in the outdated notion that public education is about traditional districts and other bureaucracies, and refuse to embrace the concept of providing all children — especially those black and brown — with high-quality opportunities to learn regardless of the type of provider. They lambast DeVos for not sending her kids to traditional public schools while conveniently ignoring the fact that Former President Barack Obama himself didn’t do so either.
At the end of the day, the grandstanding of many DeVos’ allies and critics don’t matter. What does matter is if there are legitimate reasons to not confirm DeVos. From where your editor sits, there are more than plenty.
As I have noted back in November and December, DeVos would be taking charge of a federal agency that is charged with protecting the civil rights of children black and brown at a time in which the administration’s key leaders (including Trump and his consigliere, Steve Bannon), have demonstrated records of denigrating them and their families. No matter her assurances to the contrary, there is almost no way DeVos can enforce those civil rights responsibilities as written under the Every Student Succeeds Act, especially since it is likely that Trump will work to gut the agency’s Office for Civil Rights.
DeVos’ unwillingness to condemn the bigotry of Trump and his underlings (especially the failure immediately after his election last November to demand his apology for rank demagoguery against immigrant and minority children) means that she will be unreliable in overseeing the federal government’s role in protecting the educational civil rights of black and brown children. To expect DeVos to show courage for our most-vulnerable once she’s in office when she hasn’t done so thus far is pure folly.
Her opposition to last year’s effort in Michigan to bring stronger accountability to the Wolverine State’s charter school sector (as well as bring high-quality schools to areas of Detroit outside of the center city deprived of those options) is problematic to say the least. At best, the episode shows that she is far less concerned about addressing legitimate issues facing children in Detroit than with ideological opposition to any accountability. Some of her allies will note that she supported requiring private schools in Louisiana taking in children in the state’s voucher program to take state tests, and that is admirable. But what an influential player does in her own home state matters more. On this front, she was more-willing to allow problems within Michigan’s charter school sector to remain in place.
Most importantly of all, DeVos has shown almost no knowledge or even basic curiosity about either the underlying causes of the woes within American public education or about what role the federal government can play in advancing systemic reform. Certainly your editor doesn’t expect an incoming Secretary of Education to know absolutely everything about the ins and outs of policymaking or practice. But that person should demonstrate basic knowledge about current teacher quality reform efforts; exhibit interest in how states are working to overhaul the recruitment and training of school leaders; understand the debate over overuse of harsh traditional school discipline; and understand why presidents since Ronald Reagan have embraced the concept of the federal government as a key lever in advancing systemic reform.
DeVos exhibited none of this during her confirmation hearing last month. What she did demonstrate, however, was her arrogance, her flippancy, and her lack of basic knowledge about education policy. The fact that she had to be lectured by senators on such matters as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act is unacceptable for someone who is looking to oversee the most-important federal education in American public education. Put simply: DeVos doesn’t deserve the job, a point reformers who have opposed her confirmation have been making for some time.
If DeVos does get confirmed today, hopefully she will do better than what the record so far has demonstrated. If not, then it is an opportunity for conservative reformers and congressional Republicans to demand Trump to nominate a more-qualified candidate.
During the first part of Dropout Nation‘s study of the value of high school diplomas, we looked at graduation rates and eighth grade reading proficiency for Chicago, New York and Philadelphia. We will now look at five more districts: Cleveland, Detroit and Milwaukee, in the north, and Charlotte, North Carolina, and Duval County (Jacksonville), Florida, in the south. As none of these had statistically significant Asian enrollments, we will consider only Black, Latino and White students.
Black student graduation rates are reported by these districts to the U.S. Department of Education as 64 percent in Cleveland, 77 percent in Detroit and 55 percent in Milwaukee; 87 percent in Charlotte and 71 percent in Duval County. Latino students are reported as graduating at a rate of 61 percent in Cleveland, 81 percent in Detroit and 59 percent in Milwaukee; 80 percent in Charlotte and 74 percent in Duval County, while White students are reported as graduating at a rate of 82 percent in Cleveland, 62 percent in Detroit and 68 percent in Milwaukee; 94 percent in Charlotte and 81 percent in Duval County.
The difference between White graduation rates, on the one hand, and Black and Latino rates, on the other, is rather small, as these things go nationally, varying from about 20 points for Cleveland to about 10 points for the others, except for Detroit, where the difference is inverted—higher Black and Latino than White graduation rates. Charlotte’s graduation rate for Black students is higher than that for White students in the other districts. Detroit’s graduation rate for White students is lower than that for Black students in all the other districts except Milwaukee. All of these districts graduate most of their Black, Latino and White students. Charlotte’s success in this matter is quite notable.
We can now assess the degree to which those districts are successful in actually educating those students, providing them with the skills and knowledge necessary for college and career preparation. Here, again, the National Assessment of Educational Progress’ assessment of eighth-grade reading proficiency will be the yardstick.
At eighth grade, 19 percent of Cleveland’s White students read at or above grade level (“Proficient” and “Advanced”), as compared to 12 percent of the district’s Latino students and just 8 percent of the district’s Black students. Too few of Detroit’s White students to measure tested at or above grade level, but 16 percent of the district’s Latino students and a quite astonishing 5 percent of the district’s Black students did so. Charlotte’s results were 25 percent for Latino, 18 percent for Black, and 59 percent for White students scoring “Proficient” or above on eighth grade reading. In Duval County, the district’s schools also taught just 18 percent of Black students to read proficiently by eighth grade, as compared to 30 percent of their Latino students and 41 percent of their White students. Milwaukee did not report data for the most recent year. In 2013 the district reported 7 percent of Black students, 19 percent of Latino students, and 29 percent of White students reading proficiently at eighth grade.
Only Charlotte taught most of any group to read proficiently by eighth grade, 59 percent of its White students. This was three times the level of the district’s Black students. Yet Charlotte’s results (and those of Duval County) compare well with those of Cleveland, Detroit and Milwaukee, which had results so bad for their Black students that chance effects may have accounted for any success in the districts’ reading efforts for them.
Now, with this information in hand, we can arrive at some kind of judgment of how well-educated are students receiving diplomas from these cities.
Comparing NAEP Eighth grade Reading Proficiency for the Charlotte groups, we found the following: NAEP Eighth grade Reading percent at or above grade level: 18 percent for Black students; 25 percent for Latino students; 59 percent for White students. And these for high school graduation rates: 87 percent for Black students; 80 percent for Latino students; 94 percent for White students. Dividing the high school graduation rates by the NAEP reading percentages, we find these ratios: 4.8 for Black students; 3.2 for Latino students; 1.6 for White students.
Close to twice the percentage of White students, more than three times the percentage of Latino students and nearly five times the percentage of Black students graduate from the Charlotte schools as are reading at grade level in eighth grade.
For Cleveland, we found the following for NAEP Eighth grade Reading percentages at or above grade level: eight percent for Black students; 12 percent for Latino peers; 19 percent for White students. The high school graduation rates? Sixty-four percent for Black students; 61 percent for Latino peers; and 82 percent for White students. Dividing these high school graduation rates by the NAEP reading percentages, we find these ratios: 8.0 for Black students; 5.1 for Latino students; and 4.3 for White students.
More than four times the percentage of White students, five times the percentage of Latino students and eight times the percentage of Black students graduate from the Cleveland schools as are reading at grade level in eighth grade.
For Detroit, we found the following for the two groups for which we have NAEP Eighth grade Reading percentages at or above grade level: Five percent for Black students and 16 percent for Latino peers. The high school graduation rates: Seventy-seven percent for Black students and 81 percent for Latino peers. Dividing the high school graduation rates by the NAEP reading percentages, we get these ratios: For Black students, it’s 15.4, and for Latino peers, 5.1.
More than five times the percentage of Latino students and more than fifteen times the percentage of Black students graduate from the Detroit schools as are reading at grade level in eighth grade.
For Duval County , we found the following for NAEP Eighth grade Reading percentages at or above grade level: Eighteen percent for Black students; 30 percent for Latino peers; and 41 percent for White students. And this for high school graduation rates: Seventy-one percent for Black students; 74 percent for Latino students; and 81 percent for White students. Dividing these high school graduation rates by the NAEP reading percentages, we find these ratios: For Black students, 3.9; Latino students, 2.5; and 1.99 for White peers.
Twice the percentage of White students, two and a half times the percentage of Latino students and four times the percentage of Black students graduate from the Duval County schools as are reading at grade level in eighth grade.
Finally for Milwaukee, we found the following for NAEP Eighth grade Reading percentages at or above grade level: Seven percent for Black students; 19 percent for Latino peers; and 29 percent for White students. This for high school graduation rates: Fifty-five percent for Black students; 59 percent for Latino peers; and 68 percent for White students. Dividing these high school graduation rates by the NAEP reading percentages, we find these ratios: Black students, 7.9; Latino students, 3.1; and 2.3 for White students.
More than twice the percentage of White students, three times the percentage of Latino students and eight times the percentage of Black students graduate from the Milwaukee schools as are reading at grade level in eighth grade.
On average, then, these districts graduate about two and a half times the percentage of White students than are reading at grade level in middle school, while they graduate nearly four times that of Latino students and eight times that of Black students. Unless remarkable gains are made in reading proficiency in the schools of these cities between grades 8 and 12, there is only a one in eight chance that their Black high school graduates read at grade level, one in four that their Latino graduates do so and less than fifty-fifty that their White diploma recipients can read proficiently. (And given national data, it is unlikely that there are enough gains, if any, between grades 8 and 12 to make a difference.) Of course, those students who are not given diplomas will face bleak futures indeed.
Given the NAEP data on reading proficiency, there is a reasonable assumption that most graduates from the Charlotte, Cleveland, Detroit, Duval County and Milwaukee, like those from the Chicago, New York and Philadelphia systems, and, in particular, their Black and Latino students, initially enroll in community colleges. According to the most recent National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) report, just 29 percent of White, 30 percent of Latino and 20 percent of Black students graduated within 150 percent of normal time in two-year postsecondary institutions. Or, in other words, 80 percent of Black, and 70 percent of Latino and White students who attempted an Associates degree were not prepared to succeed.
In Charlotte, Cleveland, Detroit, Duval County and Milwaukee, as in Chicago, New York and Philadelphia, the vast majority of Black and Latino are either not graduating or are being handed diplomas that mean little. Those diplomas falsely represent preparation for adult life, for further education and training. They are false promises.
The federal government has recently taken a firm line with private vocational schools that give out worthless diplomas. It might be appropriate for the U.S. Department of Education to do something similar with districts that give diplomas to their students whom they have qualified for little beyond remedial education.
If the signs reflecting stagnant student achievement in the US were only coming from the Program for International Assessment, I might not be as worried as I am. You know the argument: Since our standards are not generally aligned with those of PISA and our teachers thus don’t teach to them, PISA results may not be an accurate measure of teaching and learning in these United States.
The problem is that PISA trends have begun to mirror – at least broadly – what we have seen in the last decade in our own National Assessment of Educational Progress. From 2009-2015, we saw absolute stagnation in the NAEP. One can see this generally in both national and state trends. Shockingly, even in the vast majority of states that were deemed as “doing things right” by the federal government and given additional funds under the Race to the Top program, there were no gains. This is contrast to the gains we made from 1999 to 2009, especially during the full implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act.
While one wants to be very careful about asserting cause or correlation, there are similar patterns in the PISA results. The 15-year-olds in the US who were assessed in science and math on the PISA improved from 2006 to 2009 by 13 points. Had our students made similar gains in subsequent years, we would have passed PISA averages and the results of many nations that have been ahead of us in the past.
Yet, from 2009-2015, US students fell back on PISA, by a depressing 18 points in math and 6 points in science. Thus, over the decade, we lost half our earlier gain in science and the entire gain and another 5 points in math. This backward motion is no way to catch up against our competitors. It certainly is no way to excel.
There are – to be sure – some data in PISA that show a decade-long improvement in the achievement of our lowest-performing students. This could be a sign that the No Child Left Behind Act’s emphasis on addressing achievement gaps continued to provide great benefits beyond the years of full implementation. But we don’t see a positive impact at any percentile level or in the overall achievement data. So, this little piece of progress is positive but of too little comfort to overcome the significant losses we experienced in the past six years.
The big question arises: what caused this recent stagnation in both NAEP and PISA?
We must be modest in trying to answer that question. There are no scientific studies that are definitive. We do not know causality with certainty. But we can suggest hypotheses, based on earlier research and reason that merit consideration.
We know that, as indicated in abundant research, that accountability drives improvement in student achievement. Accountability in the states and the nation reached its high point in the late 1990s and the first decade of the 21st century. And student achievement gains in that period far exceeded those of both prior and subsequent years.
But starting in 2009, the Obama Administration began weakening the accountability measures contained in No Child. Instead of addressing aspects of the law that could have been fixed with simple tweaks (or with a full reauthorization), the administration’s leadership at the U.S. Department of Education granted waivers that allowed states to water down accountability requirements in numerous important ways. Tragically, the waivers that brought about the weakening proved to be a true pig in a poke. Accountability was significantly lost, and the “reforms” for which it was waived either have never materialized beyond the paper they were written on or have gradually dissipated.
It’s particularly sad that the only “good news” that’s cited in the midst of these awful recent trends is the improvement in graduation rates. Yet, grad rates are the consummate lagging indicator. All the graduates who walked the stage since 2009 and by 2015 were 7th graders or older in 2009. There’s little evidence that policy in recent years improved the graduation of these students – and even worse, there is some evidence that states are once again gaming graduation rates. Instead of unjustified high fives, we ought to worry that our reduced accountability since 2009 will actually retard further improvements in graduation rates as today’s students approach high school.
I regret being pessimistic. But the truth is I see things getting worse in future years.
Awful recent policy decisions, such as the so-called Every Student Succeeds Act, will weaken accountability and slow progress even more. Unbelievably, the newest ideas flowing from this past election cycle may portend a less coherent and more harmful policy going forward. All this has yet to be “baked in the cake.” So, is it possible that we’ll see greater deterioration in future NAEP and PISA results? I believe we will.
There has been plenty of discussion about U.S. Secretary of Education Nominee Betsy DeVos in the weeks since your editor wrote a series of commentaries about why reformers shouldn’t support her, much less anyone in the incoming Trump Administration. The resulting discussion and sparring among reformers over DeVos exemplifies the splits that have been developing within the movement for some time. Just as importantly, the discussions around DeVos’ efforts to oppose the closing of failing charter schools is another reminder of why the movement must rally around strong accountability for all schools serving our children.
The latest example of the split came yesterday when Leadership Council for Civil and Human Rights, a prominent champion for the kind of strong accountability measures promulgated by the now-abolished No Child Left Behind Act, issued a letter calling out DeVos for her support for anti-gay rights measures and her opposition to holding charters in Detroit and the rest of Michigan accountable for poor performance.[Leadership Council also wrongly chastised DeVos for supporting vouchers. It should rethink its position on that aspect of choice.]
Naturally, Leadership Council was able to get the American Federation of Teachers, National Education Association, and their vassals to sign on to the letter. But Leadership Council also got support from Stand for Children and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, two of the other key players among civil rights players in advancing systemic reform. That three key players within the civil rights wing of the movement have explicitly declared opposition to DeVos — and joined hands with traditionalists to boot — won’t make conservative and even some centrist Democrat reformers very happy. As it is, your editor’s commentaries, along with a piece cowritten by Democrats for Education Reform President Shavar Jeffries, comments from Catherine Brown of Center for American Progress, and the pronouncement last month by Teach For America has rankled them.
Conservative reformers have come out of the woodwork to back her. This included Jason Crye of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, who complained that arguments that DeVos’ place in the Trump Administration tarred school choice with bigotry were “simplistic and unfair”; and Philip Stutts, a public relations man who works for outfits such as the DeVos-funded American Federation for Children, who took to Fox News to tout her school reform bona fides. [Among other conservatives, DeVos has already won the endorsement of National Review.]
Former CNN anchor-turned-reformer Campbell Brown, who wrote a valentine to in her news outlet (which is funded by DeVos’ family foundation). After reformers and traditionalists criticized the column, Brown later announced that she wouldn’t write again about DeVos and stay out of coverage of the incoming federal official. Harvard Professor Paul Peterson, the former editor-in-chief of Education Next, wrote approvingly of DeVos in the Wall Street Journal.
Meanwhile Daniel Quisenberry, who runs the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, the lobbying group which DeVos helped cofound, took to the pages of Education Next to defend her and her record on advancing systemic reform in Michigan. Declaring that “DeVos has put kids before adults, parents before institutions, and students’ success before politics”, Quisenberry proclaimed that she would do the same as head of federal education policymaking. Expect even more public support from conservative reformers in the coming days, especially as some (most-notably the American Enterprise Institute) are reminded that the DeVos family is among their most-important donors.
But even more questions from civil rights-oriented and centrist Democrat reformers about DeVos will likely come today after they read Kate Zernike’s New York Times report detailing how the Amway heiress worked zealously this year to oppose efforts by a cadre of reformers (including Gov. Rick Snyder and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan) to overhaul oversight of Motown’s traditional district and charter schools. The plan, which would have created an oversight board, called the Detroit Education Commission, which would have developed an A-F grading of performance for all Detroit schools, shut down failing charters, and pushed for high-quality options to be opened in sparsely-served parts of the city, was scuttled by Republicans who control the Wolverine State’s legislature after DeVos and her family reminded them who finances their campaigns. [The A-to-F grading eventually made it into final legislation that included other reforms for charters statewide.]
Some conservative reformers have already criticized Zernike’s report. Thomas B. Fordham Institute President Michael Petrilli argues that Zernike failed to mention that DeVos opposed the creation of the school oversight board because of fears that it would end up being captured by the AFT’s local there. [Zernike responds by noting that the local lacked the influence needed to make that fear a reality, though, of course, politics can always change.] Others argue that DEC was worrisome because the board would be appointed by the mayor instead of elected. This is a strange concern given that many charter school authorizers are neither elected nor even politically appointed. A few even note (reasonably) that Duggan, who supported the legislation, also signed a measure restricting charters from acquiring city-owned property, thus making him unreliable on advancing school choice. You can also expect MAPSA and Jeanne Allen’s Center for Education Reform, both of which have strongly defended Michigan’s charter school sector from criticism, to offer more strongly-worded polemics.
As you can imagine, Zernike’s report is another reminder of a point that folks such as Robin Lake of Center for Reinventing Public Education have been making for some time: That strong accountability is key to expanding school choice throughout the nation.
Certainly over the past three decades, charter schools (along with vouchers and other choice programs) have proven that its schools help kids succeed academically and economically in their adulthoods. As Stanford University’s Center for Research on Educational Outcomes determined in its study of charters in 41 cities, the average child gained more than 28 additional days of learning in reading than peers attending traditional district schools. Other data has shown that charters and other form of choice improve the chances that poor and minority kids will graduate from higher education and attain lifelong success.
But as seen in Michigan, not every charter school does the job. As CREDO notes, the average child in a Michigan charter gained 36 additional days of learning in reading over a traditional district peer. More than likely, that is because of the high-quality operators within the sector; as CREDO reported in a special study on the state, 65 percent of charters in the Wolverine State perform either at the same level or worse than traditional districts, making the sector among the lowest-performing in the nation. That 14 percent of Michigan’s charters are both low-performing and do little to improve student achievement is especially troubling.
DeVos’ allies argue that Michigan has closed more charter schools than the national average. What they fail to note is that few charters close because of academic failure. Just one of the 11 charters shut down in 2015-2016 were closed because of academic failure, according to data from the Wolverine State’s Department of Education. The rest were shut down because of financial problems, low enrollment, lost its contract, or were never opened in the first place. [Meanwhile the state is looking to shut down some of the 100 district-run failure mills in coming years.]
Charters in Detroit perform better on average than counterparts in the rest of the state. On average, children in Detroit’s charter schools gain 50.4 days of additional learning in reading over their peers in the failing traditional district, according to CREDO in its urban charter schools study. But as in the rest of Michigan, the performance is driven by the high-quality schools. Fifty-three percent of charters in Detroit either keep pace or do significantly worse in reading than district schools. Just as importantly, because children in Detroit are struggling academically compared to peers in the rest of the Wolverine State, the need to replace failing charters with higher-quality options becomes ever more necessary.
Meanwhile, as CRPE has noted, Detroit also has a charter distribution problem. Most of the high-quality charters in Motown are located in the city’s downtown core, far away from the neighborhoods where the poorest children and families reside. Because Michigan doesn’t require charters in Detroit or elsewhere to provide transportation — and authorizers don’t make that a condition of approval (something that the mayor of another Midwestern hub, Indianapolis, has done for the past two decades) — poor kids are often kept from the highest quality options. What this means is that the mission of the school reform movement to help all children succeed isn’t being fulfilled for those in the most need.
The key problem lies with charter authorizers — including traditional districts — who have been far too willing to allow shoddy charters to remain in operation long after it is clear that they should be shut down. Traditional districts such as Detroit Public Schools are allowed to be charter authorizers even though they lack the manpower (and, given their awful performance, even the credibility) to do a good job of it. But as Education Trust-Midwest noted in its review of charter authorizers in the Wolverine State, even the independent oversight groups do poorly in keeping tabs on charter school performance. One key reason why: They derive revenue from charters, especially through the provision of services to schools that effectively lead to conflict of interests; it’s hard for an authorizer to provide proper oversight to schools if they also collect money from them for providing services.
Some of these issues could have been dealt with through the creation of the oversight board. In fact, the DEC could have actually made it easier to increase the number of charters serving Detroit children by assuring taxpayers and others that high-quality operators would come in to serve children still bereft of choice. But DeVos and her allies among hardcore school choice activists were far less concerned about addressing legitimate issues facing children in Detroit than with ideological opposition to any accountability (as well as the possibility that some charters would be shut down, reducing revenue for authorizers and operators alike). By successfully opposing the creation of the DEC, many of the problems remain in place.
Certainly there are reasonable concerns about putting in accountability measures for charters that can end up being regulatory strangulation of choice by traditionalists opposed to them. That failure clusters such as Detroit’s district continue to operate partly justifies some of the skepticism about holding failing charter counterparts accountable.
But as your editor noted two years ago, support for choice cannot continue without assuring taxpayers that the programs will be operated effectively and that they will do a better job than traditional districts of improving student achievement. Otherwise all we are doing is creating a second system of public education that fails children as badly as the traditional system already in place. The fact that failing districts continue to operate doesn’t justify keeping equally laggard charters open for business.
It is bad enough that DeVos is undercutting support for expanding choice by incoming President and administration that engages in race-baiting, religious bigotry, and anti-immigrant sentiment. Even worse is that DeVos has continually remained quiet and not disavowed Trump’s bigotry. But the report on her opposition to reasonable accountability for charters adds another strike against her possible tenure overseeing federal education policy. DeVos doesn’t merit much of a defense.