By Robert Pondiscio
In seventeen short years, Moctar Fall’s journey took him from Senegal, through homeless shelters in the Bronx until, last Thursday afternoon, he strode across a stage in Manhattan’s Lincoln Center to collect his high school diploma. His next stop will be the Massachusetts Institute of Technology—on a full scholarship. Young Mr. Fall’s academic-rags-to-riches story suggests that New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s impulse to make admission to Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, and the city’s other selective high schools more racially equitable, while laudable, is anachronistic and unnecessary. Fall is one of sixteen young black and brown New Yorkers in the inaugural graduating class at Success Academy, the city’s largest network of public charter schools. And there are many just like him.
The primary rationale for widening the on-ramp to New York City’s selective-admission public high schools is to increase the number of low-income students of color who are on track to attend selective colleges and universities. But this important work is already being done by the city’s charter schools, and done in numbers that dwarf the capacity of Stuyvesant and Bronx Science, even under the rosiest scenarios proposed by the Mayor.
Uncommon Schools, which operates twenty-three charters in New York City, including three high schools in Brooklyn, will graduate about 240 students this year, all of whom have been accepted to four-year colleges, with 60 percent—that’s more than 140 low-income black and brown students—accepted at institutions in the top three tiers according to Barron’s Profiles. Uncommon graduates will attend Brown, Dartmouth, Johns Hopkins, Colgate, and Williams, among many others.
Democracy Prep Public Schools, where I have taught, made news recently when three sisters, immigrants from Cameroon, completed an Ivy League hat trick earning acceptances to Harvard, Yale, and Dartmouth. The nearly 200 young people graduating from DPPS’s three Bronx and Manhattan high schools this spring have all been accepted by colleges, including offers from all eight Ivies and such prominent “historically black” institutions as Spelman, Howard, and Morehouse. Forty percent of Democracy Prep’s graduates are headed to schools in U.S. News’s “Top 100.”
The list goes on: Nearly nine out ten of Achievement First’s 158 graduating seniors have been accepted by colleges ranked “competitive” or higher by Barron’s, including Stanford, Georgetown, and Smith. Seventy percent of the 200+ graduates of KIPP NYC College Prep High School in the Bronx are bound for competitive colleges. And these already-impressive numbers will balloon in coming years. At last week’s graduation ceremony, Eva Moskowitz, whose forty-six Success Academy charter schools enroll more than 15,000 New York City children, projected that ten years hence more than 1,600 will win diplomas every year. Even if those projections are off significantly, the number of low-income black and brown students heading to selective colleges from the city’s elite exam schools is unlikely ever to match the number already exiting charter schools with admissions offers in hand.
More importantly, the city’s rapidly maturing charter sector is already addressing the Mayor’s stated goal of improving educational equity. There is no bar to entry to the charter sector’s high-fliers, no daunting exam to study and sit for; admission is by lottery. The sixteen seniors who threw their caps in the air at the conclusion of their graduation ceremony have been at Success Academy since kindergarten when their parents, eager for precisely this kind of opportunity, signed their children up for a school that at the time existed on paper only. On Thursday, their faith was rewarded handsomely. Each of their children will attend selective colleges.
“It used to be that if you weren’t able to access the exam schools, you’d go the private route,” observes Billie Gastic, an associate dean and clinical associate professor at New York University. Charter schools, she agrees, are creating the kind of opportunities long associated with the city’s celebrated exam schools. Gastic is the daughter of a Puerto Rican mother, a Stuyvesant alum, and a critic of the Mayor’s plan. “I find it disheartening that the mayor is going after these schools just to make a point when really there are so many other ways he could help develop a portfolio of schools that are there to support student achievement.”
There is no room for complacency and never will be when it comes to ensuring that every academically inclined student who’s willing to work hard can go as far as their talents and ambition can carry them. But when the entire range of New York City schools are considered as an education ecosystem, there has almost certainly never been a better time to be a low-income kid of color with designs on an elite education.
Mayor de Blasio, who has long been indifferent at best to his city’s charter school sector, seems not to have noticed. Instead, he’s bent on pushing his plan. “The Specialized High School Admissions Test isn’t just flawed—it’s a roadblock to justice, progress and academic excellence,” he wrote at Chalkbeat. Perhaps so. But his move to scrap that test is a solution in search of a problem that New York City’s charter schools are well on their way to solving.
An edited version of this piece originally appeared in the New York Daily News.
A big surprise—and mountain of confusion—is coming to everyone who cares about educating poor kids, not to mention every policy wonk in the K–12 realm. The definition of “poor” and “disadvantaged” is in flux for the first time in my decades of engagement with K–12 education, and the outcome is going to be a prolonged period of instability and inconsistency. This was noted two years ago by the ever-vigilant Matt Chingos, but the implications haven’t yet sunk in.
For as long as I can remember, the primary gauge of poverty in the education system has been how many students qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch (FRPL) via the federally-funded National School Lunch Program. Eligibility has forever been based on a formula that considers family size and income.
This began—under Harry Truman—with lunch and now often includes school-provided breakfasts so long as one’s school participates in the programs, which are administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. They’re entitlement programs, currently costing around $16 billion per annum.
Operationalizing this has always involved a lot of paperwork. Families have to fill out forms. Schools have to distribute, retrieve, and tabulate those forms. There’s some (though not a lot) of verification to ensure that people are truthful. And there’s a lot of bureaucracy entailed in obtaining the subsidies and following the program’s many rules about what can and should and shouldn’t be served. (Is ketchup a vegetable?...)
The costs and hassles are why some schools don’t participate at all. But most do, and the program has grown and grown, such that close to half of all U.S. schoolchildren have been “FRPL-eligible” in recent years.
Which has also meant that the proportion of “disadvantaged” children in our schools has continued to rise even as the Census Bureau says childhood poverty is declining—and why FRPL eligibility has serious defects as a gauge of poverty. Indeed, it seriously exaggerates poverty’s extent—and distorts its locations—among students.
Yet dozens and dozens of other programs—and thousands of policy analysts—have used FRPL eligibility as a proxy for disadvantage when it comes to K–12 students. Indeed, the phrase “poor and minority” is even more familiar in the education cosmos than “career and college ready.” “Minority” brings its own issues, of course, as racial categories proliferate, divide and combine, as more kids scarcely fit any of them, and as some minorities turn out to be far less educationally challenged than others. But “disadvantaged” has forever seemed like a clear and consistent metric thanks to the ubiquity of FRPL. And it’s been the linchpin not just of policy analyses and data reporting—think of NAEP for example—but also of the distribution of many billions of federal and state dollars because all those formulas that seek to throw resources at disadvantage have relied on FRPL eligibility as an essential ingredient. So, too, have school accountability systems at least since NCLB required that “disadvantaged” pupils be treated as a “subgroup” within schools whose academic achievement would be monitored, and for which schools and districts would be held accountable.
That’s all now in flux. The reason—talk about good intentions yielding unexpected consequences—is that a number of districts, especially urban districts, aware that many of their schools had 80 or 90 percent (or more) FRPL-eligible pupils, asked if they couldn’t please just feed all of their students without the paperwork hassle of tabulating individual eligibility.
It made total sense, and Uncle Sam consented. In 2013–14, the Agriculture Department introduced the Community Eligibility Program (CEP) whereby districts and schools with heavy concentrations of low-income students could supply free meals to everyone. Participating districts were immediately spared from having to collect eligibility forms from every family. This made life easier for districts, of course, but it also meant that more kids got fed and fewer went hungry, for there had always been problems collecting those forms. Some kids didn’t want their classmates to know they were poor. Parents lacking proper documentation of their own were wary of government forms. Sometimes there was a language barrier. Mobility, too, was a factor. So yes, CEP makes total sense. Kids need food, and if schools are supplying it, they should supply it to everyone
But—a huge but—the spread of CEP means that fewer and fewer districts and states can use FRPL eligibility as the base for defining and measuring “disadvantage.” And that poses a huge challenge, starting with ESSA accountability, which requires states—if they want to keep getting Title I dollars—to measure “disadvantage” in all their (Title I) schools using a metric that is uniform throughout the state, as well as accurate and verifiable.
Although the distribution of federal education aid, such as Title I, generally relies on Census Bureau tabulations of “families living in poverty,” many states have long used FRPL eligibility as the measure of disadvantage for purposes of distributing their own funds according to formulae that give additional dollars to schools and districts with lots of needy pupils.
But with FRPL no longer able to support a “uniform” statewide system, at least in states where CEP is used by some districts, what are they to use? How will they concentrate dollars on schools full of poor kids? How will they report achievement for the subgroup called “disadvantaged?” And how will all those national data systems that rely on subsidized-lunch eligibility as a proxy for student poverty report how poor kids are faring?
Options are available, but none is problem-free. And what’s to happen when states choose different ones? At a State Board of Education meeting in Maryland the other week—ours being a state where three of twenty-four districts are using CEP district-wide and eight more use it for some of their schools—staff recommended replacing FRPL (which for some reason is known as FARMS [Free and Reduced Meals] in Maryland) with “direct certification,” whereby families receiving benefits from a series of federal welfare-type programs are matched against lists of children attending a particular school to get a nose count of “disadvantaged” students. The virtue of this approach is that it’s all done in “the back office” and families don’t have to certify anything new or fill out any forms. The problems are many, however, beginning with massive shifts for many districts and schools in the proportion of students deemed “disadvantaged.” There are bound to be inaccuracies as multiple bureaucracies seek to match lists that were devised for different purposes and tallied at different times. And the whole scheme will fluctuate whenever rules change for the various welfare programs that undergird it—programs overseen by different Congressional committees and administered by agencies that have nothing to do with either education or agriculture. Worse still, at least for purposes of federal formulas and data systems, other states are opting for different alternatives, such as asking all student families to report their incomes, or using eligibility forms for the families of students who don’t “match” via direct certification.
This mishmash is going to disrupt more data series, more trend lines, more analyses, and more formulae than you can count—certainly more than I can count. It will be erratic, unstable, uneven, and vulnerable to all sorts of glitches, changes, and reporting problems. And it’s going to disrupt any number of other programs and benefits that have been linked one way or another to FRPL eligibility, such as the connections that already exist among school meals, food stamps, and Medicaid.
I’m certainly not defending FRPL, which has long had its own full measure of challenges and malfunctions, as well as many reports of fraud, waste, and abuse. And there’d be no point in defending it, considering how CEP has already invalidated it in many places as a measure of disadvantage and a proxy for poverty. I’ve never understood why Census data haven’t been used routinely in K–12 education, as they are in so many other sectors and program domains. All I can say is watch out for the chaos ahead.
To anyone who has attended or sent their children to a Catholic school, or worked in one, the findings of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s study Self-Discipline and Catholic Schools: Evidence from Two National Cohorts are no surprise. Catholic schools are dedicated to educating the whole child—mind, body and spirit—with a focus on the development of intellect, personhood, and relationships. Those foci are evident in the study’s major findings: Catholic school students exhibit more self-control and self-discipline and are less likely to act out or be disruptive than students in other private or public schools.
Why do Catholic school students attain more self-discipline than their peers at other schools? There are several reasons:
- The transmission of the Catholic understandings of freedom, happiness, and moral objectivity are taught to children at a young age. Happiness, Catholics believe, is the fruit of living with the personal freedom that is the foundation for the pursuit of virtue-guided morality. Catholics believe that teaching morality in accordance with Gospel values enables all members in a Catholic school community to show self-discipline and respect for oneself, for others, and for all of creation. Judeo-Christian virtues such as kindness, humility, and diligence are not only explicitly taught in Catholic schools, but they shape the foundation and backdrop for everything that happens in those schools. The mission of Catholic schools is to foster scholarly achievement and responsible behavior, concepts that are complimentary, not mutually exclusive.
- Catholic schools partner with parents who are the primary educators of their children. The school collaborates with parents and guardians in promoting the values that are begun at home and fostered and celebrated in the schools. Catholic schools strive to create connections among students, the family, the school, and the church so that all share in belonging to a caring faith community. This partnership enables students to see and emulate healthy relationships that promote inclusion and encourage students to be responsible, responsive, compassionate, and empathetic to the beliefs, feelings, and needs of others.
- The Catholic school is a community of faith that encourages reverence, respect, and concern for others in a spirit of hospitality that welcomes all, regardless of their religious traditions. Catholic schools create a supportive and challenging climate that affirms the dignity of all persons as children of the same God. Catholic schools teach students how to live in relationship with one another and to be kind and accepting of others rather than exclude them. Catholic schools live community values by promoting collaboration and teamwork among students in classroom activities that develop habits of listening, valuing other opinions, and personal responsibility. Self-discipline, rather than the harsh caricatures of Catholic school discipline of yesteryears, is the goal and hallmark of Catholic school culture.
What can other schools learn from this “Catholic School Effect”? Catholic educators, following the example of Jesus Christ, care deeply about their students and their intellectual, human, and spiritual development. Teachers are role models who share their faith, time, and talents while creating educational environments that are warm, trust-filled, and encouraging. Though Catholic school teachers may publicly and explicitly reference faith as motivation, all teachers can and should attempt to create a “values-based” environment that helps students develop social and relationship skills that can mirror much of the Catholic school ethos. But if parents do want a faith-based environment for their children, why shouldn’t they be supported in exercising that choice?
As the Fordham study says, “Catholic schools in particular are doing something meaningful in the realm of self-discipline... To the extent that school choice programs can widen access to great schools—Catholic or otherwise—that boost academic performance and self-discipline, they deserve our eternal support.” Test scores on NAEP, SAT, and other national assessments prove that academically Catholic school students consistently outperform their public school counterparts, and now we welcome this study’ additional validation of the mission of Catholic schools: To form students in faith, to help them grow in knowledge, and to teach the students to show their love of God through service to others.
We should not underestimate the power of religion to positively influence a child’s behavior—and shouldn’t restrict families’ support of choice in schooling on the basis of religion. The National Catholic Educational Association, as well other Catholic and religious organizations, support the full and fair parental range of school options for everyone. While we will continue to be supportive of parental/school choice for all, we are pleased to share the good-news conclusions of the Fordham study about the priceless treasure that is Catholic education—academic excellence, faith formation, and service to the common good of society.
The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the author and not necessarily the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.
On this week’s podcast, Karla Phillips, a policy director at the Foundation for Excellence in Education, joins Mike Petrilli and David Griffith to discuss what it would mean for elementary schools to implement personalized learning. On the Research Minute, Amber Northern examines the effects of career and technical education on students’ future wages.
Amber’s Research Minute
Daniel Kreisman and Kevin Stange, “Vocational and Career Tech Education in American High Schools: The Value of Depth Over Breadth,” Education Finance and Policy (June 2018).
A recent federally funded evaluation examines the impacts of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program. Overall, its authors estimate that participating in the program for two years reduced students’ achievement by about 10 percentile points in math and about 3.8 percentile points in English language arts, though the latter estimate isn’t statistically significant. However, the program did positively impact parents’ and students’ perceptions of school safety.
In general, these results are highly consistent with the results of a similar evaluation published last year, which found that program participation reduced math and reading achievement by 7.3 and 4.9 percentile points, respectively, after one year. And because these estimates are based on the results of a program-wide lottery, there’s not much to quibble with methodologically.
Conceivably, the latest negative achievement estimates could still reflect the “transition costs” associated with switching to a new school. But the consistency between the first- and second-year estimates doesn’t bode well for this hypothesis. The more likely explanation is that the performance of D.C.’s public schools—including both its district schools and its many charters—has improved to the point where at least some private schools are struggling to compete. (After all, D.C. boasts one of the country’s largest and highest-performing charter sectors, and its district system is famously reform-minded—recent scandals notwithstanding.)
Regrettably, some observers have tried to downplay the most recent results by arguing that concerns about safety should trump concerns about academic performance. But as Fordham has long argued, it’s not at all clear that parents or taxpayers should be forced to choose. D.C. charter schools are routinely closed for low academic performance, for example, yet few would argue that students’ safety has suffered as a result.
Unlike D.C.’s charters—and unlike voucher programs in Indiana and Louisiana—D.C.’s voucher program is not subject to any form of test-based accountability. So participating schools can continue to enroll new voucher recipients (and pocket the accompanying public funds) regardless of their academic performance.
This state of affairs leaves policymakers—in this case, the United States Congress—with three options:
- Shut the program down and force participating families to send their kids to what they believe are more dangerous schools.
- Leave the program untouched and accept that its mostly low-income and historically disadvantaged participants will be even less academically prepared than if they had attended a traditional public school or charter.
- Add an accountability component to the program so that families can choose from a lightly curated list of private schools that (on average) provide both a safer environment and better academic preparation than the public schools students would otherwise have attended.
Because the study in question does not yield “value-added” estimates for individual schools, it’s difficult to say how many private schools would need to be culled for the third option to become a reality. But assuming that school performance is normally distributed, the number is probably modest. And in some ways, the question misses the point of the exercise: Kids need to be safe. Kids need to learn something.
Any program that fails to deliver on both counts needs improvement.
SOURCE: Mark Dynarski et al., “Evaluation of the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program: Impacts Two Years After Students Applied,” U. S. Department of Education (May 2018).
Every two years, educational researchers eagerly await scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), eager to dive into the results and hypothesize reasons for changes—or lack thereof—in the data. But what NAEP actually reveals about education across the fifty states is more complex than simple score comparisons. In a recent report from the Brookings Institution, Matthew Chingos follows NAEP cohorts from fourth to eighth grade, finding that students in some states make gains at both levels, while others lose early gains by eighth grade or, conversely, catch up despite a slow start.
NAEP analyses typically compare students in the same grade across years. Instead, Chingos tracks cohort four-year growth from 2003 to 2017 (for example, comparing 2013 fourth grade scores to 2017 eighth grade scores). Rather than using raw NAEP scores, the report uses demographically adjusted scores calculated by Chingos and his colleagues at the Urban Institute. These adjustments use restricted-use student-level data to account for demographic differences across states, controlling for race, English language learner status, free or reduced-price lunch eligibility, birth month and year, frequency with which a language other than English is spoken in the home, and Individualized Education Plan status. NAEP tests different students in each administration, but tracking birth cohorts controls for statewide policy or economic changes that might affect 2011 fourth graders (the same cohort as 2015 eighth graders) differently than, say, 2017 fourth graders.
In math, Chingos finds a roughly positive correlation between cohort four-year growth and higher eighth grade scores, but many states deviate from that pattern. For example, Delaware and South Dakota had nearly the same eighth grade average score, but over ten points of difference in average growth; while Delaware’s students tested much better in fourth grade, South Dakota almost caught up within four years. Chingos posits that some states are teaching math skills earlier, thereby scoring higher on the fourth grade assessment, but that this does not mean students are actually learning more by high school, demonstrated by less improvement in later scores. He supports this by comparing a decade’s progress: All fifty states show an increase in fourth grade scores between 2003 and 2013, but only thirty show gains in the same cohorts’ eighth grade scores from 2007 to 2017. An average 7.6-point increase in fourth grade scores falls to an average of 0.3 points by eighth grade; in twenty states, the fourth grade gains were gone within four years.
Reading results show even more examples of states with similar average eighth grade scores but very different average four-year growth. However, while ten-year average gains in reading at the fourth grade level are lower than in math, at 3.3 points, less of that gain is lost by eighth grade, where the average gain is 2.6 points. Florida and Nevada had particularly notable persistence in their score gains, with Nevada fourth grade scores improving by 11.6 points from 2003 to 2013, and their eighth grade scores improving by 9.7 points from 2007 to 2017 (reflecting the same cohorts of students). In California, quick gains make up for an early deficit: Its fourth grade average score is nearly ten points behind that of North Carolina, but its eighth grade average is slightly higher.
Chingos’ cohort-tracking method addresses but cannot entirely overcome the primary limitation of NAEP—that every administration tests different individuals. And the demographic adjustment can only account for six factors on which NAEP collects student-level data.
The exploratory analysis highlights the importance of middle school, raising the question of what fourth grade improvement means if benefits appear lost within a few years. Middle school determines whether students will enter high school on track, and states should consider how to mitigate the risk of fade-out when crafting reforms.
SOURCE: Matthew M. Chingos, “What can NAEP tell us about how much US children are learning?” Brookings Institution, May 2018.