Since "A Nation at Risk" in 1983, the U.S. has engaged in nonstop efforts to raise K–12 academic outcomes and close tragic achievement gaps. These have produced modest gains. Yet the gaps remain large, and nothing has made close to the kind of positive difference that other nations’ efforts have achieved. This is, in part, because the U.S. lacks three key ingredients: a culture that values education, including learning itself; a conviction that parents, schools, and children themselves are jointly responsible for education; and a governance arrangement that points toward unimpeded and continuous improvement in the delivery system and its performance.
Since publication of A Nation at Risk (1983), the United States has engaged in nonstop efforts to raise K–12 academic outcomes and close the tragic achievement gaps between different sectors of its young population.
There has been no dearth of reform efforts, and some have shown positive results: stronger curriculum plus strong professional development; more robust state standards; a focus on college readiness and (a very few) high-quality assessments made available to disadvantaged students; higher standards for entry into teaching; high caliber urban charter schools; and broad accountability for results.
This has not been wasted effort, for the country has seen modest gains: all student subgroups are doing better on NAEP (the National Assessment of Educational Progress —the country’s gold standard), and there has been a slight gap-closing between African American and Hispanic students and their white peers. That overall NAEP scores have been flat since 1992 masks such progress, and is likely due to changes in the demographic mix of students (e.g., more English language learners) rather than to stagnation within any elements of the pupil population.
Yet our progress to date has been modest indeed, and the gaps remain large. Stagnation in twelfth-grade scores is particularly concerning, especially in light of the real risk that the much-touted rise in graduation numbers rests at least in part on alternative, low-standard exit routes instead of real college readiness.
Of course, we shouldn’t give up on promising interventions. But nothing has made close to the kind of positive difference that other nations—some as poor as Poland and Slovenia—have achieved. Why, after thirty-five years of effort—and a near-doubling of real-dollar spending per pupil—has there been so modest a change in results? And are there grounds for expecting it to be different in the future?
Even as we persist with worthy reforms, we see profound cultural, attitudinal, and structural obstacles to large-scale improvement in the performance of U.S. education and—sadly—little reason to expect them to disappear. These issues were foreshadowed in the themes (and titles) of two aging books on our shelves: Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963) and Diane Ravitch’s The Schools We Deserve (1987). The former argued that Americans are utilitarians at heart with little use for learning per se, much less for academic excellence; the latter contended that Americans stick with the schools they have because deep down they don’t want any other kind, either for their own or for other people’s children.
To fully understand the impact of Hofstadter’s evidence of anti-intellectualism—and Ravitch’s version of widespread acceptance if not complacency—we need to add American localism in education. Often fleeing from the old world to escape authoritarian regimes, Americans never embraced a nation-wide approach to education—indeed the Constitution is silent on the topic. At one point, the country contained some 110,000 school districts; local education leaders had differing views regarding what should be taught. Once local variations were combined with a broad shift among educators toward constructivist learning, our curriculum increasingly replaced knowledge with skills and today’s assessments for the most part follow suit. They emphasize, for example, “finding the main idea” in a text while being indifferent to the text itself. In recent times, this indifference is amplified by cultural nervousness about “imposing a canon” and political angst about a “national (or even statewide) curriculum.” All this, despite ample evidence, that the performance gap is in large part a knowledge gap: one doesn’t become a good reader without ever-increasing knowledge about the world—its geography, history, and science—or without exposure to outstanding writing about the human condition.
Ravitch’s claim, too, deserves to be considered in a larger context. Annual evidence from Gallup polling makes clear that most parents feel basically satisfied with their own children’s schools, no matter the evidence of systemic mediocrity (or worse). When making choices, parents understandably want schools that are geographically convenient, safe, and welcoming, schools that offer rhetorical reassurance about caring for the whole child. Amid these understandable preferences, academic performance isn’t high priority for many. This is a complicated issue: Would providing parents with transparent and user-friendly data about their children’s school’s performance make a difference in their propensity to be satisfied with it or would it simply generate even deeper mistrust of testing and test results?
What’s clear is that teachers’ current practices contribute to parents’ dismissal of state assessments. How so? A combination of inflating grades and faith in one’s child’s classroom teacher—even when teachers report on surveys that many of their pupils are ill-prepared for grade-level work. For parents, it is psychologically preferable to believe the A-minus on a school report card than to accept “below-proficient” performance on a state test. Nor do lofty report-card grades make much real-world difference for many children: Most U.S. colleges and universities accept all who apply so long as they meet minimal course credit requirements—no further questions asked, although remediation is often the inevitable result. Much of U.S. higher education is so hungry for additional students that it now reaches into the high schools themselves through dual-enrollment and early-college offerings, partly in an effort to ensure that students reach college able to do the work.
Recent evidence for what is occurring in America’s classrooms comes from TNTP’s The Opportunity Myth: “In the four core subjects—ELA, math, science, and social studies—an average student spent almost three-quarters of their time on assignments that were not grade-appropriate”—which means doing work below students’ grade level.
There is a certain inevitability, therefore, to underachievement in American schools. It is unwittingly informed by a culture of pragmatism and local control, the economic and political constraints that limit parents’ choice of schools, the comfort of high grades (and attacks on testing), pervasive under-teaching, and the general conviction that learning should be a pleasant experience.
If pressure from the overall culture and from parents to improve our education system is so limited, where might we look for the drive for more dynamic reform?
One place might be education research that could point schools and educators to better practices. After all, early-reading results did improve, to some degree, with better implementation of phonemic awareness that followed major research findings in early literacy. In general, however, education researchers themselves generate mixed messages: Would spending more money create major education improvement? “Yes,” says Kirabo Jackson; “No,” says Eric Hanushek. Do charter schools help student achievement? “Not really,” says Stanford’s CREDO research unit, surveying the whole country; “Yes, really,” says the same organization, of some charter management organizations and of charters in urban areas. Should tests be downgraded in importance in favor of other measures such as social and emotional intelligence? “Not really,” says Dan Goldhaber; “Yes,” say Dan Koretz and Tony Wagner. The point is not that these seemingly discrepant findings cannot be deciphered by those trained in the relevant methodologies. Rather, it’s that those charged with managing our schools and shaping education policy have neither the time nor the expertise to adjudicate between the specialists—and are thus motivated to go with the political flow, the predilections of their own advisors, or their gut instincts.
A second source of reform might be the education system itself. After all, school principals, superintendents, and state education leaders all seek stronger learning outcomes. Once again, we have some important positive examples—in states such as Tennessee and Louisiana, and districts like Florida’s Duval County. Yet failure to move learning outcomes substantially is far more the rule than the exception. Each layer in education’s governance hierarchy—the principal, the district office, the teachers’ unions, state departments of education, the legislature, the governor’s office, the federal government—can block changes initiated by any other level and each creates opportunities to blame the others when some change cannot be made or properly implemented. Worse, pretty much all of those levels are dominated by adult interests that benefit from the status quo. Where major change has occurred, it’s in exceptional circumstances where political stars align over a long period (e.g., Massachusetts), where an unnatural event sweeps away old structures (New Orleans), or where a political earthquake alters the governance system itself (e.g., New York City under Michael Bloomberg)—but even these reforms eventually get recaptured by the forces of stasis and adult interests.
Faced with this mix of deeply embedded structures and forces that tend toward self-preservation, widespread satisfaction with the underperforming schools attended by one’s own children, and a reporting system that gives off multiple false positives about achievement, reformers face a daunting task. After an era that displayed some common purpose and bipartisanship, today, like so much else in the U.S., they have aligned themselves into oppositional groups.
One argues that serious progress will not be made until we address underlying economic and social inequalities. They call for more funding for district schools, most especially in the inner cities, and a confrontation with the latent racism reflected in disparate test scores.
The second group calls for fundamentally altering the structure of public education by dismantling the district structure and empowering parents to choose educational pathways for their children—whether via vouchers, tax credits, or education savings accounts.
Both views have merit, yet both mistake symptoms for cause. Both blame “the system,” albeit in very different ways. And both disregard the plain fact that many nations with heterogeneous populations do better by their children than we do in the United States—and do so neither by spending more money nor by abandoning public education.
What those countries have that America lacks are three key elements that we see scant likelihood of finding on U.S. shores anytime soon: a culture that values education, including learning itself; a conviction that parents, schools and children themselves are jointly responsible for that education; and a governance arrangement that points toward unimpeded and continuous improvement in the delivery system and its performance.
Yet it’s still possible at least to imagine conditions that might accelerate the glacial pace of education change in the U.S. Already, urgency amongst minority families in New York and elsewhere have shaken the educational status quo, but more widespread and intensified pressure is required. The key is the middle class: As the meager achievement of its children proves ever less sufficient to secure the economic lifestyle of their parents, and as those young adults increasingly come back home because they cannot afford to buy homes of their own, the complacency we describe above may melt. Political leadership counts, too: Here the answer probably lies less at the federal level—Washington’s voice in education is suspect from the start—than in state-level leadership of the kind we once saw in Massachusetts and, more recently, in Louisiana and Tennessee. Once the economic consequences of a mediocre education face millions of households, an honest, tough conversation with the parents of the United States may become not only necessary, but possible at last.
An abbreviated version of this essay first appeared in Education Week.
I’m starting to sour on “authentic engagement” of kids in civic education, a concept I’ve long supported, and occasionally supervised and even led as a teacher. Preparing young people for active and engaged citizenship is an essential and neglected purpose of public education. How best to cultivate these qualities in school, however, is far from settled. In some circles, it takes the form of encouraging children to be directly involved in activism and advocacy, ostensibly student-led. But that’s morphing from a valuable instructional strategy into a manipulative and cynical use of children as political props in the service of causes they understand superficially, if at all.
The most recent bridge-too-far moment was the viral video of student “activists,” some of them quite young, from the youth climate change group Sunrise Movement going toe-to-toe with Senator Dianne Feinstein over the Green New Deal. The main response to that confrontation largely painted the California senator as the heavy in a testy exchange in which she offers an ad hoc civics lesson about how meaningful legislation is drafted and passed, something the kids arguably should have learned before showing up at a senator’s office with cell phone cameras recording the student activist theater piece.
“Some scientists have said that we have twelve years to turn this around,” one child says on the video. “Well, it’s not going to get turned around in ten years,” Feinstein calmly responds, explaining that the Green New Deal has no chance of passage in the Republican-held Senate and telling the kids, “You can take that back to whoever sent you here.” She tries to discuss her own version of the legislation, but the kids aren’t impressed or seemingly even listening. They are there to pronounce and perform, not to engage. “I’ve been doing this for thirty years. I know what I’m doing,” Feinstein tells the kids bluntly, but not unreasonably. “You come in here and you say, ‘It has to be my way or the highway.’ I don’t respond to that.”
The awkward exchange had the odd effect of making Feinstein temporarily a hero of the right. “It’s the most wildly transgressive thing you’ve ever seen. Children are our future! They must be coddled and exalted, their ideas about politics and the environment received as though they are the unpublished thoughts of Bertrand Russell,” wrote Caitlin Flanagan in The Atlantic. “Seeing their rudeness treated in the measured and unyielding way that adults use to speak to misbehaving children is weirdly thrilling. She never lifted her voice, but compared with the way politicians usually respond to children, she came across like W.C. Fields.”
For me, it was not “weirdly thrilling” but deeply embarrassing, even upsetting, that adults allowed kids, the oldest of whom was sixteen (the rest appeared to be much younger) to be so badly overmatched and unprepared. But what Flanagan nailed was the decidedly inauthentic role we have assigned to children in our public discourse. In refusing to play along, Feinstein revealed the hollow core of fashionable ideas about civic education and “action civics.” Bizarrely, it was Feinstein who was called to account for her condescension and dismissal in the aftermath. Her only sin was taking the students seriously. She responded as a reasonable adult to an act of “authentic” youth activism with the sophistication level of a pouty lip and a teardrop, a guilt-trip demand for a pony from grownups.
This sort of thing is fast becoming the norm. Last year, when a fawning media put the Parkland kids somewhere on the spectrum between gun control saviors and public policy savants, David Hogg, then emerging as the most visible and voluble member of the youthful group, opened a window into the childlike view of advocacy that Feinstein neglected to genuflect before, explaining to an interviewer that he was forced to become an activist because adults “don’t know how to use a f***ing democracy” and pronouncing himself “the [National Rifle Association’s] worst nightmare.”
“When your old-ass parent is like, ‘I don’t know how to send an iMessage,’ and you’re just like, ‘Give me the f***ing phone and let me handle it.’ Sadly, that’s what we have to do with our government; our parents don’t know how to use a f***ing democracy, so we have to,” he continued. Hogg’s tirade made me wince, not merely for its arrogance and vulgarity, but especially for its stunning naivete, as if our most challenging and contentious problems are something other than the clash of competing interests and values. Tens of thousands of gun deaths, all preventable were it not for adult bumbling and incompetence.
It is not condescending or dismissive to challenge kids’ youthful idealism; it is condescending not to educate them in how things actually get done and why they happen as they do. We can pretend that parading children before cameras and confronting lawmakers builds student “agency,” but agency is the ability to make things happen in the world, not just garner retweets, ink, and airtime, or indulgent pats on the head. Feinstein tried to explain as much to the young Green New Deal supporters, noting, “There’s no way to pay for it, so nothing will happen.”
It’s hard to define when involving children in advocacy and activism crosses the line and loses its claim to educational value, but you know it when you see it. A video posted on Twitter last month showed striking Oakland, California, teachers chanting, “Students, students, what do you see?” Small children respond, “I see my teachers standing up for me.” No less out of bounds is the use of children as political props in the charter school sector, where kids routinely miss school to attend high-profile rallies and protests. A few years ago, I chaperoned one such charter school trip to Albany, New York, at one point accompanying a small group of elementary school kids and their parents to “lobby” a mercifully indulgent state senator—an awkward and unproductive meeting that made the Feinstein affair sound like Question Time in the British Parliament. Neither the kids nor the parents had the slightest inkling of why they were there other than to pose for a photo op. It would be dishonest to claim any caloric content whatsoever for the children.
None of this is meant to suggest that there’s never a role for school-age children to participate in public affairs and politics, and to do so authentically and effectively.
Last month, for example, President Donald Trump signed into law the Civil Rights Cold Case Records Act, a bill originally drafted by New Jersey civics students to require that decades-old government records from unsolved civil rights cases be declassified and released to the public. The onus is on educators to be clear on the difference between civic engagement and civics theater, and to draw a line between the two.
There are multiple angles to consider: Is it student-driven, or are kids being manipulated? Is it partisan? Is there room for different viewpoints? Are the students—even when self-motivated—informed and well prepared? Like any other activity, there ought to be a clear and compelling “why” that guides our thinking and planning. Our first responsibility is teaching, not activism. If the “why” is driven by political or activist impulses, not educational ones, we’re losing our way.
Writing in The New Yorker, Bill McKibben, an environmental activist and author, “imagines that Senator Dianne Feinstein would like a do-over of her colloquy” with the Sunrise Movement students. I hope not. It’s the adults who brought the children to her office, whether parents, teachers, or activists, who ought to wish for one—and in the future think twice before using children as puppets and props.
There was, however, one good, authentic civics education moment at the tail end of the uncut video of the scene in Feinstein’s office. As the kids leave, the older girl in the video, the one who was most adamant that only the “pricey and ambitious” Green New Deal is sufficient to address climate change, asks Feinstein for an internship in her office. “You got one,” she replies and steers the girl to an aide to make it happen right on the spot. At least one student will now have the opportunity to learn from Senator Feinstein, who was the only real civics teacher in the room.
New Mexico’s legislative session ends next week, but the local education lobby’s effort to dismantle the state’s education reform edifice is just getting underway. Nationally, the forces of resistance and repeal have been having a field day since the midterms, but nowhere are the stakes arguably higher than in the Land of Enchantment. This is because on virtually all fronts, New Mexico has quietly cultivated a sterling reputation as a reform beacon par excellence.
From charters and accountability to testing and teacher evaluations, New Mexico has done it all, pushing the envelope in an urgent mission to exit the nation’s cellar. But the forward momentum the state has seen is now under siege. Unions and their allies are eager to deliver a “Roundhouse” kick (pun intended) to thwart and rewind progress by amending the state’s top-rated ESSA plan and waging a full-on legislative frontal assault.
Consider some of the backward-looking proposals that have been discussed:
1. A charter school moratorium
Despite long waiting lists at some of Albuquerque’s top performing charter schools and a potential $22.5 million loss of federal funding, the new Democratic trifecta in New Mexico seems eager to flex their progressive muscles regardless of the consequences to children. To the dismay of parents—nearly 70 percent of who oppose a moratorium—the bill would prohibit any new charters from opening until 2022.
2. Elimination of A–F
Pop quiz—put the state’s proposed school accountability categories in order from strongest to weakest: (1) Comprehensive Support School; (2) Traditional Support School; (3) More Rigorous Intervention School; (4) New Mexico Spotlight School; (5) Targeted Support School. The irony is not lost that the state’s new “spotlight” designations are in fact a veil that would obfuscate school performance by employing confusingly unclear descriptors.
When I was in Indiana, we inherited an equally enigmatic word salad system. Try sorting these correctly: Academic Watch; Academic Progress; Commendable Progress; Academic Probation; Exemplary Progress. At the public hearing we held prior to switching to an A–F system, a local superintendent testified that the jargon-filled approach was preferable precisely because it was more difficult for parents and other key stakeholders to understand!
3. Backsliding on testing
The stroke of a pen in January signaled the death knell for PARCC in New Mexico. Now the state must waste valuable time and energy on the difficult work of finding another assessment when the options are limited, and with no guarantee that a new test will be of equal or higher quality. Rather than improving upon what they’ve worked so hard to put in place—and what educators have grown accustomed to—New Mexico missed an opportunity by abruptly electing to start from scratch.
4. A retreat on teacher quality
On the same day PARCC was dumped, the state also moved to decouple student performance from teacher evaluations. While others have turned their backs on teacher quality, New Mexico stood head and shoulders above the rest with a rigorous system that won national acclaim. In fact, the state’s evaluation system is widely considered the “toughest in the nation.” Here again was a chance to tweak and build rather than tear down and destroy.
5. A less aggressive posture on school turnaround
Under the proposed amendments, New Mexico would take school closure provisions off of the table as a potential intervention, and replace them with “critical resources” and “intensive support.” No state has yet figured out how to successfully transform low-performing schools at scale, but New Mexico has seen some progress. There’s a question of whether the sense of urgency can be sustained if the state takes a more reticent stance.
Reasonable people can disagree about how much authority a state should have when it comes to its most distressed schools, but there’s a moral and legal obligation to ensure students aren’t left to languish indefinitely. States must continue to learn from one another on this front, and New Mexico could have a lot to offer if it is able to stay the course.
* * *
The dogfight in New Mexico demonstrates that even if the era of big new ideas is over, there are still significant policy battles happening, and reformers need to win them. Rather than offering a way forward, the stand-patters in New Mexico and elsewhere are hellbent on reversing and rolling back everything. Theirs is a cynical approach that deserves to be met with an optimistically forceful response.
Local reform advocates have been courageously fighting back and pulling out all the stops in defense of the cornerstone education systems installed over the last eight years. There’s some indication that the wider electorate doesn’t uniformly share the enthusiasm of adult interest groups for undoing all of the prior reforms. With a little luck and tenacity, the loyal opposition to reform might just overplay their hand.
For reformers across the country, New Mexico has been a sturdy and dependable shield. As an example, for as much criticism as we received in Indiana for our teacher evaluation efforts, I could always answer the charges of us being too ambitious by pointing to the even tougher standards in New Mexico.
This is why it’s so important we do whatever we can to help hold the line there. As a movement, we owe a debt of gratitude to Hanna Skandera, Christopher Ruszkowski, and many others who took it in the teeth in the fight for their students. Let’s not squander their legacy and hard work.
Efforts to define what it means to be college and career ready have advanced research about the types and the complexity of materials that students should be reading. A new study in Reading Research Quarterly by Laura Northrop and Sean Kelly adds to this understanding by examining the differences in instructional practices and reading assignments for middle school students based on the ability level of the classroom. What they find will challenge those who are staunch critics of tracking.
They used nationally representative Early Childhood Longitudinal Study (ECLS-K) data, which followed students from kindergarten to eighth grade, focusing on academic year 2006–07, when students were in the eighth grade. The sample had 6,700 students, with 690 in below-grade level classes; 4,750 in grade-level classes; and 1,260 in above grade-level classes, according to teacher self-reports. They looked at a variety of English language arts (ELA) practices and assigned readings in eighth grade ELA classrooms. They used linear regression models, which accounted for the clustering of students within schools and included lots of covariates at the student, teacher, class, and school level. Students’ prior achievement was also controlled using fifth grade reading scores and an eighth grade teacher rating of academic ability.
They found that teachers of below-grade level classes report allocating more class time to skills and strategy instruction (39 percent of class time) than did teachers of grade-level classes (28 percent) and above-grade level classes (24 percent). Likewise, teachers of lower tracks also reported allocating less time to literature instruction than did teachers in the other two levels, more frequently using workbooks and worksheets, and assigning less homework. Teachers in high tracks more frequently assigned group activities and projects. And students in lower tracks spent more time watching videos and reading aloud compared to students in grade-level classes.
Regarding assigned texts, there were similarities in text assignment across all three levels. Specifically, eight of the twenty frequently assigned titles were the same for all students, no matter the class level (for example, they all read The Outsiders, The Diary of a Young Girl, and Call of the Wild). Still, though there’s substantial overlap in the Lexile levels across different tracks with these shared texts, there was nonetheless a difference in the average Lexile levels: for the below-grade level classes, it was 813 compared to 843 for the grade-level classes and 892 for the above grade-level classes.
Putting aside the texts they had in common, students in low tracks tended to read a little more popular fiction, whereas students in high tracks read more classics. When controlling for a variety of student characteristics, though, they found that the adjustments in text complexity go above and beyond what one might expect based on student achievement alone. Specifically, high-track students encountered texts about one-third of a standard deviation higher in complexity than regular-track students.
In the end, it’s hard to know what to make of all this. That’s especially true since the average rate of growth on the ECLS-K assessment between the end of fifth grade and the end of eighth grade for students across all three tracks was the same—eighteen points. Analysts say they can’t be sure whether those eighteen points were “qualitatively the same” across tracks. Still, they are not shy in describing the merits of tracking, which stand in sharp contrast to the prevailing narrative. In their words: “[T]hese basic results suggest that overall track effects on learning were not strongly negative and that tracking likely benefited students in some ways. For instance, teachers might have adjusted instruction to meet the individual needs of students in ways both revealed and not revealed in the data.” They get even more bullish later: “The fact that students across all three track levels gained the same amount of points on the ECLS-K assessment between the end of fifth grade and the end of eight grade suggests that teachers were matching instructional practices appropriately overall.”
Kudos! That’s a useful reminder that educators have the power to use ability grouping effectively—not to confine lower-achieving students to a dead-end track but to build them a temporary detour so they can soon catch up to the other drivers.
SOURCE: Laura Northrop and Sean Kelly, “Who Gets to Read What? Tracking, Instructional Practices, and Text Complexity for Middle School Struggling Readers,” Reading Research Quarterly (December 2018).
Since charter school legislation was introduced in New York State in 1998, the sector has grown at a steady clip. One in ten of New York City’s public school students now attend one of 236 charter schools, which enroll 123,000 students—more than the entire public school districts of cities like Boston, Denver, or Washington, D.C. Many of these schools—Success Academy, for example—have received plaudits for their ability to improve the academic outcomes of low-income and traditionally underserved youth. But despite this, 57,000 students languish on their waiting lists—and instead of ramping up the supply of spots for qualified applicants, charter expansion in the Big Apple has ground to a halt.
The reason? A citywide charter school cap was finally reached this week. The cap—a statutory limit on the number of charter schools allowed to be opened—was set by legislators in Albany and currently stands at 460 statewide, with a smaller, separate cap set for New York City. Both state authorizers, the New York State Board of Regents and the SUNY Board of Trustees, can issue charters after a long and complex application process provided the total number does not exceed the state—or city—cap. In 2015, NYC’s cap was raised to allow fifty new charter spots (without raising the statewide cap), but they have all since filled. An additional twenty-two spots were then opened (largely from schools that had closed). Earlier this week, that cap too was finally reached in NYC when thirteen charter applications were approved for only seven remaining spots. (The others must wait until a change in legislation, if it ever comes).
A well-timed brief from the Manhattan Institute argues strongly that this cap be lifted, leaning heavily on the state’s own data to make its case. Charter school enrollment in the city is predominantly black and Latino (91 percent) and low-income (80 percent), yet still, these students performed better on New York State tests in math and English language arts than their traditional public school peers across the rest of the state. In 2018, the percentage of NYC charter students who scored “proficient” or better in English exceeded the average of all other public schools in the state by 12.8 points, and by 15.8 points in math. For black students alone, the positive difference was 34.1 points in math and 26.4 points in English. For Latino students, that difference was 26.8 points in math and 20.7 points in English. Similar trends abound for those who scored level 4 (“exceedingly proficient”) particularly in math, with charter students 13.8 percentage points more likely to earn this score than traditional district students across the state. Black students were four times more likely to earn a level 4 score in math; in fact, 40 percent of all black students across the state who earned a level 4 score did so in an NYC charter school.
Despite this success, criticism of the charter sector remains and the cap has persisted. The author, Ray Domanico, refutes many of these charges, including that the sector’s success comes at the expense of traditional district schools. Since 2006, performance gaps in English between the city’s district schools and the rest of the state shrunk from 11 to 2 percentage points, and from 9 to 1 point in math—all while charter enrollment was expanding like wildfire. Another claim, that charters starve district schools of their students, is countered with data showing that the growth in charter school student enrollment since 2006 (107,000 students) does not match the drop in traditional district enrollment (3,300 students); and in fact, the decline in Catholic school enrollment (40,000 students) has been far greater.
Domanico also rebuts the idea that charters “cream-skim” their students, and cites research claiming there were no significant changes in traditional district demographics after the entry of charters to the city. Finally, the brief highlights data demonstrating that charters receive less public funding per pupil than traditional public schools in the city. Furthermore, since 2007, the city’s education budget has grown by $10 billion with charters accounting for only $2 billion of that increase. In all, the city’s budget for traditional district schools has grown—independently—by 52 percent to $7.5 billion since 2007, suggesting charter growth has not had a profoundly negative effect on the district’s finances.
The brief lacks an in-depth comparison of the available research comparing district and charter performance in NYC—besides its use of state data—and it’s certain that both sectors relate to each other in many more complex ways than are expanded upon in this report. Nevertheless, it makes a timely case for revisiting the charter school cap dilemma in New York. Advocates for its removal claim the cap is wholly unnecessary—both the state’s authorizers already have in place a rigorous application process and most applications are rejected—and they believe that the cap’s persistence is largely a matter of politics: Democrats, who control the state and city legislatures, have grown more vocal in their opposition to charter schools and education reform more generally. Nor are these unchartered waters. Albany has increased the state’s charter school cap twice before, in 2007 and 2010.
But perhaps more importantly, the rest of the state currently sits on ninety-nine open charter school spots, which the city cannot access due to its own arbitrary cap—and which the state cannot yet fill—despite state authorizers having already vetted a surplus of qualified applicants in the city. Lifting the charter school cap in New York may be a quagmire in today’s hyper-politicized climate, but at least removing the distinction between state and city when it comes to opening qualified schools is a good place to start.
SOURCE: Ray Domanico, “Lift the Cap: Why New York City Needs More Charter Schools,” Manhattan Institute (February 2019).
On this week’s podcast, Susan Schaeffler, founder and CEO of KIPP DC, joins Mike Petrilli and David Griffith to discuss the Capital Teaching Residency and other efforts to build an effective and sustainable teacher corps. On the Research Minute, Amber Northern examines whether targeted text messages to parents can improve literacy in pre-kindergarteners.
Amber’s Research Minute
Sonia Q. Cabell et al., “Impact of a Parent Text Messaging Program on Pre-Kindergarteners’ Literacy Development,” AERA Open (February 2019).