Secretary Duncan: Keep Charters Out of the Muck, Please

July 09, 2009

by Gordon MacInnes

Secretary Arne Duncan used his speech before the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools to spotlight the “bottom 5%” of America’s public schools. Numbering about 5,000, Duncan urged the charter school community to consider taking on some of these schools and turn them around. He was clear that not every charter school operator is up to this challenge, naming a few multiple-site groups like KIPP and Green Dot as possible candidates.

Wrong audience. Bad idea.

If my analysis of New Jersey’s worst-performing schools is any guide, then Secretary Duncan’s plea should be ignored. Expecting charter schools to suddenly operate as turn-around specialists in the nation’s toughest schools is akin to asking the school nurse to perform a liver transplant.

To define the “bottom 5%,” I used the mean scale scores from the 2008 state assessment of 3rd grade language arts. The mean scale score provides a precise number for each of 781 NJ schools in which the 3rd grade test was given. I selected the 39 schools with lowest scale scores for review. Not surprisingly, most of them were near the bottom on the same test in 2004. The 3rd grade literacy test is the threshold test, since kids who do not read at grade level by then have only a 14% chance of ever reading at level. An elementary school that does not teach its students to read and write well is not meeting its primary responsibility.

Here are the findings that prompt my conclusion that little in the experience of charter school innovators prepares them for operating a public school, even if in the same neighborhood.

1.  The 5% schools are expected to educate kids who are different from those enrolled in charter schools. By definition, charter students have parents that sought a better education for their children. There is no way to quantify this trait, but it is a powerful advantage for charters.

2.  The 5% schools must accept every child, even if they speak no English or have been classified “disabled.” Charter schools in NJ’s five big cities (Elizabeth, the fourth largest, has no charter schools) have a 8.1% special education rate compared to a state average of 16% and a city average of 17.0%. Just as importantly, charter schools are likely to have only mildly disabled students as evidenced by the fact that only five of 34 urban charter schools provide separate special education classes. Just about every 5% school does. The charter schools like KIPP, North Star, and Robert Treat Academy that have the financial, organizational, leadership, and educational talent to be considered for turn-around roles, have classification rates of 8.9%, 7.0%, and 3.2% respectively.

3.  NJ charter schools have been largely immune from the wave of Latinization that has swept over their district colleagues. Latinos are now the largest minority, but not in charter schools where 71% of their students are African-American. Only eight of thirty four urban charters report any English Learners (and none more than 7.8%), while the 5% schools show English Learners making up as much as 37% of school enrollment. The average for the district schools is 6.6% versus a charter average of .5 of 1%.

4.  The high-performing charter schools—the ones that Secretary Duncan would favor to take over struggling district schools—enjoy a stable student population. The 5% schools do not. When student mobility rates are averaged over three years, the charter schools with the highest test results and the longest waiting lists, have practically no student turnover. The mobility rates for Robert Treat (2.5%), North Star (9.3%), TEAM (3.6%), Gray (9.3%), and the Learning Community (3.3%) are noticeably below the state average of 11.5. However, the mobility rate in Newark’s eight 5% schools averages 25.8%, in Paterson’s four 26.5%, and 20.8% in Trenton’s five.

5.  There is no clean slate. Secretary Duncan acknowledged that charter schools are start-ups, not turn-arounds. The difference is profound. There are no tenured teachers and, usually, no union in a charter school. There is no downtown headquarters to issue endless memos and demand reports. Even with these advantages, most charter schools do not perform better than district schools serving like populations.
The one shared characteristic of district and charter school students is their poverty. In fact, charter school students in the five largest NJ cities are slightly more likely to be eligible for free or reduced lunch (73.8% to 66.8%) than district students.

Secretary Duncan’s appeal ignores the central role that is frequently played by the district central office in the performance of individual schools. Of the 39 5% NJ schools, 31 are in Camden (10), Newark (8), Trenton (5), Paterson and Jersey City (4 each). Four are charter schools. Equally poverty-stricken districts like Elizabeth and Union City, not only have no charter schools, but their students regularly perform close to the state average on literacy assessments. These successful districts rely, not on searching out the hero principals Secretary Duncan invokes, but by working closely with teachers and principals to improve classroom pedagogy. And, they emphasize the connection between high-quality preschool and the primary grades with an intensive focus on early literacy.

The persistence and spirit of enterprise required to open and operate a high-performing charter school are to be admired and replicated as often as possible. Secretary Duncan is right to hail the achievements of effective charter schools. However, the experience of attracting students from families seeking better educational opportunities, whose children are free of serious impairments, and who command the English language is entirely different from turning around a failing school in the poorest neighborhoods in the nation. Secretary Duncan did not under-estimate the difficulty of the objective, only the experience and capacity of charter schools to meet the test.

Gordon MacInnes served as Assistant Commissioner in the NJ Department of Education from 2002 to 2007, directing efforts to improve performance in hign needs urban districts utilizing the remedies ordered in the landmark Abbott v. Burke case. He now lectures at Princeton University and does research and writing for the Century Foundation in New York.

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