Wall Street and Charter Schools

Diane Ravitch has an illuminating, if somewhat overwrought piece up today on Bridging Differences that has an assertion and a question.

The assertion is that the charter school movement is dependent on, tied up with, and owes much of its success to the involvement of hedge-fund managers in New York City.   The question is what will happen when the money leaves?

Ravitch’s piece is implicitly hostile to the modern charter school movement, and sometimes explicitly critical:

Now the charter industry has become a means of privatizing public education. They tout the virtues of competition, not collaboration. The sector has many for-profit corporations, eagerly trolling for new business opportunities and larger enrollments. Some charters skim the top students in the poorest neighborhoods; some accept very small proportions of students who have disabilities or don’t speak English; some quietly push out those with low scores or behavior problems (the Indianapolis public schools recently complained about this practice by local charters).

Still, even putting side this sort of criticism (and one should always be careful with criticisms that rely too much on the word “some”), the question of finance for the charter school movement is an interesting one.  I wasn’t really aware of the close ties to Wall Street Finance that exist in the charter movement (and I’m still skeptical; Ravitch may be overstating the case).

And Ravitch is right to ask, will the cash go on forever?

It probably won’t if the goal is to create a better system of schools; charter schools don’t quite seem to be meeting that goal (for whatever reason).  Ravitch seems to think this is the case:

Wall Street understands success and failure. When companies fail, investors bail out. As studies continue to show that charters on average don’t get better test scores than public schools, will Wall Street continue to be bullish about charters? Will they support only the ones that skim and exclude? When will they cut their losses?

But the money might continue, though, if the goal is the destruction of certain aspects of public education, or the working of systemic sorts of changes.  The question is whether the charter schools are supposed to be the end (as Ravitch thinks) or the means to some other end.

In other words, in trying to guess at the behavior of hedge fund managers, it really matters what it is those hedge fund managers are trying to do in the first place.

N.B. - I know, I know.  I said the c-word.  I’ll say it again: “CHARTER SCHOOLS!”  Please be civil to each other in the comments.

The secrets of high-performing charter schools

High-performing charter management organizations spend more per student at the school level, using some of that money to fund a more teachers per student, writes James Peyser of New Schools Venture Fund in Education Next. The high flyers also invest more in recruiting and developing talented teachers and “building instructional support systems that are grounded in the use of performance data.”

. . . the most successful organizations strive to create enthusiasm for learning and an expectation of college success for all, with a commitment to hard work and persistence in the face of initial failures or setbacks. They have adopted standards-based curricula, with an intensive focus on literacy and numeracy as the first foundation for academic achievement, which typically manifests itself in extra time for reading and math each day and a relatively heavy reliance on direct instruction and differentiated grouping, especially in the early grades. And they are increasingly focused on developing and deploying comprehensive student assessment and coaching systems to ensure more effective and consistent classroom practice, not just from year to year but during the course of each school year.

The five highest-performing CMOs in NewSchools’ portfolio operate 85 schools with more than 28,000 students. Their low-income students have proficiency rates that are more than 25 percentage points higher than those in their local districts.

On average, NewSchools’ CMOs score 9 points higher on reading and math proficiency than district schools, 12 points higher when low-income students are compared and 14 points higher comparing schools open five years or more.

Critics often suggest that superior performance in the charter sector is a result of high levels of attrition, caused by implicit or explicit efforts on the part of school staff to “counsel out” the students who are hardest to educate. Excluding students who move away, our data show average attrition rates of about 12 percent, compared to many schools in high-poverty urban neighborhoods that have annual attrition rates of close to one-third. Interestingly, the highest performers in our portfolio have below-average attrition rates of approximately 9 percent, while the lowest performers have above-average attrition rates of close to 20 percent.

NewSchools CMO students are more likely to graduate from high school than other low-income, minority students and much more likely to enroll in college, Peyser writes.

A future for all

Despite fears of tracking, high-quality career tech programs are overcoming the voc-ed stigma, writes Dana Goldstein in The Nation.  At Aviation High, a five-year career and/or college prep school in Queens, junior Noel Adames taught her about welding.

A member of ROTC, Noel spends his mornings preparing to become an FAA-certified aircraft mechanic, learning the forty-three skills—from welding to air-conditioner maintenance to electrical wiring—required to service planes and helicopters. He spends his afternoons in traditional academic courses, including one college-level class, and will graduate from Aviation’s five-year program with a New York State Regents diploma. His ambition is to attend the Air Force Academy.

“If you understand how the inside of the plane works, it’s a whole other level of being a pilot,” he says. But if that doesn’t work out, Noel’s FAA certification will qualify him for a union job that pays about $55,000 per year with benefits, and could help him finance a college education.

While the Obama administration is pushing science and math education, it’s not funding hands-on programs to prepare students for STEM careers, Goldstein writes.

On Dewey to Delpit, which I’ve just added to the blogroll, Max Bean writes about the unrealistic expectations at no-excuses, college-for-all charter schools. Here’s part three.

“Ideally, every student not suffering from severe biological handicaps should receive the kind of rigorous academic training that would provide an avenue to college; but, even in ideal circumstances, not all students should actually attend college,” Bean writes. “Moreover, the rigid, uniform format in which college prep is currently being implemented in many inner-city schools is absurd and counterproductive.”

Discuss.

Turning and turning

Turning around low-performing schools isn’t easy, conclude two new Center for American Progress reports.

In A Snapshot of SIG: A Look at Four States’ Approaches to School Turnaround, Jessica Quillin outlines how California, Tennessee, Illinois, and North Carolina have spent federal School Improvement Grants to improve their most underperforming schools.

Melissa Lazarin focuses on charter turnaround efforts in Los Angeles and Philadelphia in Charting New Territory: Tapping Charter Schools to Turn Around The Nation’s Dropout Factories. Only 5 percent of SIG schools, including 11 high schools, have chosen to restart as charter schools. But Green Dot’s takeover of Locke High in Los Angeles and Mastery Charter‘s takeover of Shoemaker Middle School in Philadelphia show the potential.

While charter high school students don’t post higher test scores than comparable students at district schools, they’re 7 to 15 percentage points more likely to graduate and earn a high school diploma, according to a recent RAND report.

What computers do best, what teachers do best

“There are things that the computer does best and things that teachers do best,” says John Danner, co-founder of Rocketship Education, in a conversation with Liz Willen on the Hechinger Report. Rocketship uses a “hybrid” model:  Students spend part of the day in small classes taught by well-paid teachers and the rest working at their own pace in a computer lab supervised by an aide. The San Jose elementary schools, which primarily serve low-income, immigrant students, are among the top-scoring high-poverty schools in the state. They even do well compared to schools with middle-class students.

There are things that the computer does best and things that teachers do best. We think that computers do basic skills best. Traditionally, people have maligned computers in the education space for ‘drill and kill,’ but computers help kids practice things and help kids who don’t understand what they are practicing figure it out and go back to the original lesson. Computers can adapt on the fly to an individual child’s mistakes or successes, and that would be impossible for a teacher in a class of 25-30 kids.

What are some of the things that teachers do best?

We think it is social and emotional learning, and helping kids to think critically, along with project-based learning and integrating skills. Very few teachers became teachers to teach basic skills. They became teachers because they like to work with kids and help them learn values—and take what they know and apply it to problems, and help kids understand and cement concepts. There is a big difference between that and what you will see in low-income schools, where teachers have to spend all their time on basic skills. We can do both.

Rocketship hopes to open 20 charter schools in Silicon Valley by 2017 through partnerships with up to 11 school districts. Danner’s ultimate goal is to expand the Rocketship model to 50 U.S. cities, he tells Willen.

Bad schools stay bad — and open

Are bad schools immortal? For all the talk of turnarounds, most bad schools stay bad — and stay open, concludes a Fordham study by David Stuit of Basis Policy Research.

Stuit tracked more than 2,000 low-performing charter and district schools across ten states from 2003-04 through 2008-09: 72 percent of low-performing charter schools and 80 percent of low-performing district schools showed little improvement and remained in operation. Only one percent met his definition of a “turnaround,” moving reading and math achievement from its state’s bottom decile to above the state average.

Charter schools started near low-performing schools are more likely to raise students’ reading and math achievement significantly, Stuit found.

Across ten states (Arizona, California, Florida, Michigan, Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Wisconsin), I located all incidents (between 2002-03 and 2006-07) of a charter school opening in close proximity to a district school that had reading and math proficiency rates in the bottom 10 percent of its state at the time the charter appeared in its neighborhood. To qualify as a fair match-up, the charter and district schools had to be the nearest neighboring public schools of the same type (elementary or middle) and be located less than three miles apart as the crow flies. The schools also had to be demographically similar, with no more than a 10 percentage point difference in their subsidized lunch and minority enrollments.

Nineteen percent of the charter schools tested above the state average in 2008-09, compared with 5 percent of district schools.

The sample size is small and selection bias can’t be ruled out, Stuit writes.  Furthermore, there aren’t nearly enough charters available to students in the lowest performing schools.

Study: Best charters don’t get most dollars

California’s best charter schools don’t get the most philanthropic dollars, concludes a study by Cato’s Andrew Coulson.

American Indian Public Charters‘ students score more than four standard deviations above the norm on the challenging California Standards Test, based on Coulson’s measure of effect size, yet the schools rank 21st in donor funding.

Oakland Charter Academies rank second in performance and 27th in funding, Wilder’s Foundation is third in achievement and 39th in funding and Rocketship Education is fourth in achievment and 10th in funding. All outperform Whitney High and Lowell High, district-run schools that select students based on high test scores, according to Coulson’s effect-size analysis.

Coulson also looked at the number of black and Hispanic students passing AP exams, excluding foreign languages:  “The correlations between charter networks’ AP performance and their grant funding are negative, though negligible in magnitude.”

Aspire Public Schools is the number one recipient of charter-school philanthropy in the state. It’s been around for a long time: Founder Don Shalvey, a former district superintendent, started the first charter school in the state. But Aspire ranks only 23rd among the state’s charters in student performance.

Philanthropists are replicating the charter schools with well-connected leaders, not necessarily those with the highest achievement, the study concludes.

Catholic schools struggle to survive

For every charter school that opens in Harlem, two Catholic schools have closed, write Patrick J. McCloskey and Sol Stern in City Journal. That means fewer good schools for inner-city students.

St. Aloysius School, a pre-K through eighth-grade school in central Harlem, was built for working-class Catholic immigrants but now serves low- and moderate-income black children, few of whom are Catholic.

A reading class at St. Aloysius taught by Lauren Carfora, part of the school's back-to-basics curriculum

St. Aloysius students outperform Harlem’s public school students by a large margin.

The school expects to spend $9,000 per student next year, “less than half of what Gotham’s traditional public schools spend and lower, too, than the $13,000 or so that charter schools get in taxpayer funds.”

But St. Aloysius has trouble filling its seats, though the school expects to take in students from Catholic schools that are closing. Tuition tops out at $2,600 per student and needy families pay less, but neighborhood charters are free. The school is leaving the archdiocese to make it easier to raise donations to keep the doors open.

Why do St. Aloysius students do so well?

Recognizing that inner-city children need extra time on task, the school offers after-school tutoring for the early grades, and it extends the school day for students in grades six through eight until 5 pm. Middle school students must attend a four-week summer session followed by a two-week summer camp.

. . . Another reason for St. Aloysius’s success, school officials say, is that it educates boys and girls separately beginning in the sixth grade, with the boys’ classes held in a few rooms at another Catholic school a few blocks away. This requires hiring three or four extra teachers and thus adds to costs, but the educators believe that it helps maintain discipline and a focus on academics during the risky preteen years and the transition to high school.

St. Aloysius “exemplifies the old-fashioned notion that school is a place where children learn about our civilization’s shared knowledge and values and where teachers remain the undisputed authorities in the classroom, imparting that knowledge and those values through a coherent grade-by-grade curriculum,” they write.

In a third-grade reading class, teacher Lauren Carfora spends 45 minutes on decoding skills and phonetic exercises and another 45 minutes discussing “a literary text to build comprehension and content knowledge.”

She guided the students through the narrative structure of the assigned story, the relationship of the characters, and the author’s use of literary technique, simultaneously expanding the students’ vocabulary and background knowledge.

Here’s the kicker: “Barely a moment of distraction occurred during those 90 minutes of teacher-centered instruction. The classroom calm allowed Carfora to cover a great amount of substantive material efficiently.”

KIPP mobility matches nearby schools

KIPP middle schools take as many transfer students as nearby district schools, according to a Mathematica working paper (pdf). Furthermore, attrition rates for black males are lower than in neighboring schools, Mathematica found.

“KIPP’s success is not simply a mirage that is based on the results of a select number of high achievers who persist through 8th grade,” the researchers write.

A 2010 study by Mathematica found large achievement gains at KIPP schools, even when the scores of students who had left the schools were included, Inside School Research notes.

A Western Michigan study found high attrition for KIPP’s black males, charging that 40 percent of black male students leave between sixth and eighth grade.  The study compared two or three KIPP schools to entire school districts.

Mathematica compared individual KIPP schools to neighboring district schools. “Our data is showing that KIPP loses black males overall at a lower rate than the local district schools,” said Christina Clark Tuttle, a senior researcher.

Urban black male students often change schools, whether they attend a district or charter school, but are less likely to leave the district.

KIPP students are more likely to be black or Hispanic and have lower incomes than students in the surrounding school districts, Mathematica confirmed.

Similar schools, similar results

Most California schools perform about as well as expected over a three-year period when student characteristics are factored in, concludes a new similar schools measure developed by the California Charter Schools Association.  From California Watch:

Using a complex regression analysis, the measure takes a number of characteristics of the school’s student population into account. These include the socioeconomic background of the student body, the average education level of their parents, the number of students with disabilities, the percentage of English language learners, and the racial and ethnic makeup of the students.

Researchers say the measure is more accurate than the state’s “similar schools” ranking, which don’t include small schools and fluctuates from year to year.

Seventy-eight percent of schools performed within 5 percent of their predicted level on state tests, according to the CCSA’s analysis. Nearly 10 were just below and 10 percent just above the prediction.  That left only 2 percent of schools far below their level, and 1.6 percent far above.

California charter schools are four times more likely to be among the top 5 percent of schools that exceed their predicted test scores – and twice as likely to be among the bottom 5 percent across the state, said Samantha Olivieri,  CCSA’s accountability manager.