Boston mayor backs non-union charters

Frustrated by the teachers’ union, worried about losing federal funds and enticed by a study showing charter school performance gains, Boston Mayor Tom Menino wants to convert 51 failing schools to charter schools.  That’s a turnaround for the Democratic mayor, Jon Keller writes in Wall Street Journal.

“I believe that the increased flexibility that charters provide can . . . help us close the achievement gap,” (Menino) declared.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan has threaten to withhold federal education funds from cities and states that refuse to reform, including allowing charter schools.

“That’s $5 billion, b-i-l-l-i-o-n, up for grabs,” moaned Mr. Menino in an interview with me. “I’ve gotta sit here sucking my thumb because I can’t get reforms?”

Boston has “pilot” schools with “limited managerial flexibility in making personnel and budget decisions,” Keller writes. The mayor wants to create in-district charter schools that would differ from pilots in one critical respect: No union contract.

“The straw that broke the camel’s back,” Mr. Menino told me, came when a principal of one of the struggling school accepted a grant from ExxonMobil to give teachers small bonuses when their students excelled. The unions “took us to arbitration,” Mr. Menino said, essentially killing the bonuses. So for good measure the mayor included a call for merit pay in his blockbuster school-reform speech. “Every time we try to do a reform they stop it.”

If the unions block his plan for district-run charter schools Menino “vows to lobby for lifting the state’s restrictive cap on the number of “pure” charter schools.”

A recent Boston Foundation study found charter students outperforming similar students in regular public schools and  pilot schools.

Menino’s children are considering Boston charter schools for two of his grandchildren next fall.

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  1. Democrats for Education Reform has been around for a couple of years so a Democrat lining up on the other side of the fence from the teacher’s union isn’t all alone. Unusual but not unique.

  2. As Menino knows, charter schools are not inherently better than traditional public schools. Their students are self-selected, due to the formal application process that depends on aggressive parental effort and, often, the ability to commit to Parent/School contracts requiring time and resources many parents can’t give. The Boston Foundation study admits up front that it is flawed, as it compares performance of charters with waiting lists — the better charters — with that of all the traditional public schools. TBF is an advocate, not an unbiased research source.

    Charters also cherry-pick the students they retain. Menino just said, in a Left Ahead blog interview, that in March and April, the charters start sending kids back who look like they won’t graduate. Look at the retention rates of the high-performing charters. MATCH, for example, has been graduating about 35% of its entering students, even after the self-selection process preceding the admission lottery. If public schools could throw out all the low-scoring, behaviorally troubled, disabled, and language-impaired kids, they’d look good, too.

    Menino has give a big boost to the charter propaganda machine, when all he really wanted to do was grab some of that federal money, and of course, get back at the teachers’ union, which called his “budget crisis bluff” and showed him to be manufacturing a crisis, again.

    There is no shortage of money for public schools. But much of the huge budget of the school system, and of City Hall in general, is wasted by Menino on a bloated hack-ocracy. Even then, there is so much excess money coming in that he has to give hundreds of millions away to developers and to the Boston Redevelopment Authority. It’s not easy to look poor, when he over-taxes the residents and brings in many millions of state, federal and private dollars.

    Anyway, there is no triumph in this silly announcement; it’s not a validation of the charter approach, just a money grab and a little union-busting. Menino and both City Councilors running against him all send their kids and grandkids to public schools, where there are experienced teachers and more teaching to learn than teaching to the test than in the test-oriented charters. The politicians can get their kids into the good publics, despite the “lottery” other parents have to endure. If all the publics were as good as the ones the pols use, Boston would be just fine.

    But then, we’d be raising the expectations of all those poor kids, those children of color, those immigrants, the special ed kids, and they’d be competing with …US! And of course, we really don’t want that, do we?

  3. In case you are interested in what the Boston charter study really said, see the clip below from an earlier post at SM. The study was funded by the Boston Foundation, which has a multi-million dollar charter promotion operation.

    . . .I don’t blame Boston Foundation President, Paul Grogan, from pumping his study. And pump he did in, of course, the Boston Globe:
    Paul Grogan, president of the Boston Foundation, which funded the research, was more direct. “There is no justification for keeping a charter cap in place that is denying urban, mostly black and brown children the opportunity for a demonstrably better result,” Grogan said.
    After all, Grogan’s non-profit Boston Foundation (with almost a billion dollars in non-profit) paid for the study and has a huge vested, shall we say, interest in removing the cap on charter schools, thus removing the top on the tax credit cookie jar for all those hungry edu-entrepreneurs seeking to do good. But it is unconscionable that the Boston Globe offer such a one-sided presentation of a schooling situation that is anything but one-sided.

    So, then, a few observations on the limitations of the study, since it is obvious that the Globe and the folks at the Boston Foundation are trying their best to paint a picture that only exists in the sunny side of the heads of the “bold reformers.” I will leave the statistical surgery for someone more competent, and I will use largely quotes from the authors, themselves.

    The study, Informing the Debate: Comparing Boston’s Charter, Pilot, and Traditional Schools is really two separate research designs under the same cover. It can be downloaded at the Boston Foundation website.

    The first part of the study is an observational study, and it examines MCAS test score differences among charters, pilot schools (a sort of hybrid with some charter and some traditional characteristics) and Boston Public Schools (BPS). As indicated by the researchers, themselves, the findings of the observational design are easy to fault because of the selection bias background characteristics that are unaccounted for in the study. Besides attracting parents, for instance, who are more eager to seek out opportunities for better academic results for their children, we know that the charter schools in this study have fewer special education students, fewer English language learners, and fewer poor students. No wonder, then, that these charters outperform the BPS schools and the Pilots.
    Charter Schools also serve a smaller proportion of special education students, free- and reduced-price lunch students, and English learners than do the traditional BPS schools. In addition, high school Charter students tend to come in with substantially better math and ELA performance on the MCAS than those in traditional BPS schools (.412 standard deviations higher in math and .412 standard deviations higher in ELA) (p.15).
    The authors of the study further concede that
    students who go to Pilot and Charter Schools are different in important ways from those that do not. We need to take account of these differences before judging the relative effectiveness of these different school models” (p. 18).
    In an earlier section the authors entitled “Caveats,” they go further:
    Each design is described in detail on page 8. This study is limited by the constraints of our two research designs. The observational study includes all schools but does not control for unobserved differences in background characteristics. The lottery study controls for all differences in students’ background, including unobserved differences, but does not include all schools.

    A second caveat relates to the observed control variables used in our study. These include indicators for participation in special education and limited English pro?ciency. These broad categories may disguise large differences in student groups. Special education students range from those needing intensive all day services to students needing a little extra time in a resource room. English learners may know no English at all or have some pro?ciency. It is possible that Pilot and Charter Schools serve different proportions of these subgroups. Unfortunately, our state data set does not provide ?nely detailed breakdowns for these two variables in a manner consistent or comprehensive enough to be useful for this study (p. 6).
    The second research design is what the authors call a lottery study. Students who applied for and were selected into pilot and charter schools were compared to students who applied and were not selected to attend. Their individual test scores were tracked over time to compare the effect of charter schools, pilot schools, and BPS schools. Quite ingenious in design, but extremely limited in the sampling—as noted in the Caveats above. What results is a skewed picture based on a handful of the most popular charters compared with pilots with a much more limited lottery selection compared to the BPS who accept any student who walks in the door (remember public schools?).

    . . . it’s important to keep in mind that while the lottery study uses a stronger research design than the observational study, both the Charter and Pilot lottery results come only from schools and years in which the demand for seats exceeds the number of seats. Our Charter lottery results also omit schools and years for which lottery records are missing or incomplete. These considerations have the largest impact on the sample of Charter middle schools in the lottery study, where the estimated test score effects are largest.

    On balance, our lottery-based ?ndings provide strong evidence that the charter model has generated substantial test score gains in high-demand Charter Schools with complete records. On the other hand, these results should not be interpreted as showing that Boston Charters always produce test score gains. In Charter Schools with lower demand and incomplete lottery records, we have to rely on non-experimental results (p. 39).
    And the non-experimental results, remember, are the ones from the observational study that the authors told us that we have to take with a big grain of salt. What does this mean? It means that this study, the one that the “bold reformers” are crowing about did not include test data for students from the lower tier of charter chain gangs, where, of course, the scores are most likely to be equally bad or worse than they are in the poorest public schools that the edu-preneurs don’t give a damn about. If they did, they would be putting their money where their mealy mouths are.

    And what about this lottery business—didn’t this “scientifically-based” study show the charter schools superior in test results than the pilot schools? Well, just like charter schools, not all lotteries are equal. The lotteries for the pilot schools were conducted after all the guaranteed seats were filled, which means that most of the students attending the pilot schools are there not because of a lottery draw but because they live within a guaranteed proximity of the school. Here comes the self-selection bias again, yes, because ALL of the charter school students are there because their parents cared enough to fill out the app to get them into the lottery. Apples to oranges!

    And how many charter school kids are we talking about in this earth-shaking study? Well, in the middle schools, where the significant math gains earned a big chart placement in the Boston Globe, the total number of students was 953 students from four (4) charter schools. A pretty meager sample to use in order to build an argument that charters have kicked butt over the pilots and BPS.

    But remember, it doesn’t take much when the media hammer the intended distortion until it becomes an all-pervasive meme that is passed from newspaper to TV and back again. After all, it was just one study, and one that could not even cover its own statistical contortions, by another Harvard rock star, Paul Peterson, that launched the urban voucher movement.

  4. Har! Kind of worried, hey?

    Despite the best efforts of the proponents of the district schools parents, where they have a choice, are turning to charters, turning a deaf ear to all the entreaties and excuses of the district apologists.

    And then there’s the distinctly far-left outfits that seem to have departed from the one, true faith. What are you going to do with them?

  5. As my friend the superintendent moans, “If charter schools are thought to be better because they can operate under fewer state restrictions, then why not drop the state restrictions on the rest of our public schools?”

  6. As someone who’s kids actually go to the BPS schools I’ll add a couple of comments – my son will start at a pilot middle school in the fall – the chances of my pal the mayah converting these 51 schools to charters is right up there with the US World Cup chances in 2010. Like with the other public employee unions he’s talking tough before his inevitable capitulation. The previous posters BS about the application process and ‘contracts’ are just the usual excuses for failure. The application process is identical to the process for all the other schools and the contracts involve signing your name to a preprinted document. All the schools have sibling preference and almost all have walk zone guidelines. Since pilots, charters and full inclusion models exist thoughout the city it’s not clear why walk zone preference has any bearing on performance. The groups that stopped the redistricting in ’06 were the BTU and the school committee as the public and City Council have never been able to vote on it.

  7. Ragnarok says:

    Not exactly on point, but nevertheless:

    “For example, the most recent Trends in International Math and Science Study (TIMSS) found that only 6% of U.S. eighth grade students perform at the advanced level in mathematics, whereas 40 – 45% of eighth graders in top-performing countries reach this level”

    From Kitchen Table Math.