By Michael J. Petrilli
One of the greatest and longest-lasting education accomplishments of the George W. Bush Administration, in which I was honored to serve, was the creation of the Institute of Education Sciences. Thanks to the vision, courage, and persistence of IES’s first director, Grover “Russ” Whitehurst, education research is no longer the laughingstock of the social sciences. Every week we find multiple studies published on important topics, employing rigorous methodologies, and yielding findings that can inform classroom practice. This is an enormous accomplishment. (Getting educators to follow the evidence is another matter.)
Still and all, we’re not nearly as far along when it comes to publishing rigorous research that is relevant to policymakers, especially state leaders and lawmakers, who make many of the big decisions when it comes to K–12 schooling.
It may be that IES, and the scholars that it funds, are doing the best they possibly can. As Rick Hess (among others) has long argued, many questions in policy and governance simply cannot be answered by evidence. We often turn to the healthcare system for inspiration when it comes to research, looking at randomized field trials of pharmaceuticals as a model for what we'd like to do with research on instructional practice. Yet we don't see randomized controlled trials doing much to inform the Obamacare debate, or helping to understand the relative wisdom of, say, insurance mandates versus high-risk pools.
Perhaps it’s the same in education. It's far easier to figure out how to study a new math curriculum or blended learning app than it is to determine whether one particular approach to accountability is more effective than another. Partly it’s because some questions are fundamentally normative, involving trade-offs between competing priorities (like liberty versus equality). And partly it’s because some questions can’t be answered with an “n” of 50, or in a political system in which it’s impossible to randomly assign policies to states.
Consider charter school policy. A few weeks ago, I asked some very smart people who help states draft charter laws for a list of the key policy design questions that their policymakers tend to ask. When Kentucky legislators sat down to draft their new charter school law, for example, what questions did they need to answer? Here is what we came up with:
- Should states limit charter schools’ numbers, locations, or types?
- Should states place caps on the number of charter schools allowed to open, and/or the number of students allowed to be served?
- Should states limit charter schools to certain geographic areas, such as urban communities or those with a high concentration of low-performing traditional public schools?
- Should states allow for-profit companies to manage the operation of charter schools?
- Should states set any limits on charter schools’ open-enrollment policies?
- Should states mandate that charter schools serve a minimum percentage of special education students, English language learners, or other subgroups?
- Should states require charters to “backfill” when students leave mid-year?
- What policies should states adopt around charter school authorizing?
- Which entities should be allowed to authorize charters?
- Should states regulate the minimum or maximum length of a charter contract?
- Should charter authorizers be held accountable? How so?
- Should states adopt automatic closure policies for chronically low-performing charter schools?
- How should states fund charter schools?
- How much funding should charter schools receive?
- Should states provide charter facilities funding?
- Should districts losing students to charters receive a share of the associated funding for a phase-out period?
- Should states set any regulations on charter school teachers?
- Should charter teachers be required to be licensed?
- Should charter teachers be required to participate in the state pension system, prohibited from participating, or given a choice?
- Should states allow online charter schools to open?
Note what isn’t even mentioned here: the basic question about whether charter schools “work.” For lawmakers who want to write a charter school law, that question is already answered. What they want to know is how to make their state’s charter sector work as well as possible—how to write a law in such a way that many high-quality schools will result.
I wondered if there was extant research that could answer these questions, so I turned to an excellent resource, a chapter on charter schools in the Handbook of the Economics of Education by Dennis Epple, Richard Romano, and Ron Zimmer. This is a remarkable document, covering in extensive detail the design and results of dozens of charter school studies from recent years. That topic has been examined every which way from Sunday. Yet I struggled to find answers to the policy design questions that policymakers actually face. I learned plenty about whether charter schools outperform district schools, and in which conditions, and whether competitive effects from charter schools can improve the traditional public school system. There is also a wealth of information available on the demographics of charter schools and whether they are representative of their neighborhoods.
All of those studies are helpful when we debate the fundamental question of whether we should embrace charter schools, and whether they are having a positive impact on students—both their own and those who remain in district-operated schools. But very few of these studies actually provide helpful information about how to increase the odds of spurring a large, high-quality charter school sector, at least without a great deal of translation and interpretation.
Why is that? My sense is that the policy design questions are exceptionally hard to answer with studies that are rigorous enough methodologically to make it into a chapter like this one. On the other hand, they are the exactly the kinds of questions that think tanks like Fordham, the Center on Reinventing Public Education, and many others have been struggling to answer as best we can. See, for example, our report from 2015, Pre-K and Charter Schools: Where State Policies Create Barriers to Collaboration. It provides concrete advice to lawmakers around two important policy areas, yet no one would mistake it for IES-style, gold-standard research or evaluation.
Many policy questions simply cannot be answered with hard evidence, at least entirely, regardless of rigor and methodology, because they’re the kinds of questions that have to be answered by common sense, ideology, and plain old experience. Groups like the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools and the Center for Education Reform have developed views over the years on what makes a strong charter law. These views are informed by evidence where possible, but they are also based on other considerations, beliefs, and direct experience.
On Thursday morning, the Fordham Institute and the Knowledge Alliance are bringing together policy wonks and academics to discuss whether and how we can build better bridges across the research-to-policy divide. We will talk about whether that divide is inevitable and perhaps unbridgeable, which would mean we must accept that much policymaking will never be evidence-based. I truly hope that’s not our conclusion. Join us if you can, or watch the recording when you’re able, and see for yourself. But be warned that your own conclusion, while surely informed by evidence, may not be scientific.
Success Academy puts its "School Blueprints" online: How many will follow the lead of our highest achieving charter network?
Eva Moskowitz is on a nice little roll. On Friday, the State Supreme Court handed her network of Success Academy charter schools a victory—and $720,000—ruling that New York City overstepped its authority trying to impose its pre-K contract on Success. On Monday, she was in Washington, D.C., to accept the Broad Prize, which goes each year to a charter school operator who demonstrates “outstanding academic outcomes among low-income students and students of color.” Success, with forty-one schools educating 14,000 mostly low-income New York City children, was nominated for the same award last year. The validation from her charter school peers is fortuitous timing for Moskowitz and Success Academy, which today unveils its “Ed Institute,” an online collection of free curriculum, tools, and training resources that are “the foundation of Success Academy’s school design.”
Attention must be paid. Moskowitz remains a deeply polarizing figure in education. But as the Broad honor suggests, whether enthusiastically or begrudgingly, one has to respect what she has brought to the families she serves. Success Academy students continue doing to state tests what Aaron Judge does to baseballs at Yankee Stadium, hitting them high, far, and with authority. The poorest performing Success Academy pushed 90% of students to or above grade level on last year’s state math tests. The network’s ELA results are not at first glance as spectacular (the lowest scoring Success campus had 75% of its students at or above grade level last year in reading), but given the complex nature of language proficiency, which is profoundly impacted by factors outside a school’s control, it is arguably an even greater accomplishment to get low-income kids to levels unmatched even by most affluent suburban schools. Success has a model, and so far at least, they have replicated it without a single obvious outlier. No other charter network of a similar size anywhere in the country can make the same claim.
The centerpiece of Success Academy’s online offering is its K–4 English language arts curriculum. There’s guidance for teachers on how to structure lessons in guided reading, “shared text,” and reading aloud to children, along with lists of recommended books. Even a casual glance shows the depth and richness of what Success Academy kids learn and read. It’s not a Core Knowledge curriculum, but it’s safe to say that E.D. Hirsch, Jr., would feel right at home at any of Success Academy’s elementary schools. Second graders do project based learning units on bridges, the Wampanoag, and the Pilgrims; fourth graders read Greek myths and study the American Revolution. For years, New York City’s “balanced literacy” pedagogy encouraged teachers to base their literacy lessons on books and writing assignments that reflected the lives of students. Success Academy’s version of balanced literacy mostly directs students’ attention out the window, not in the mirror. While many schools chase higher test scores by narrowing the curriculum to reading, math, and not much else, Success does not skimp on art, music, dance, sports, and chess. Kids get science every day.
Given Success Academy’s stellar test results, its literacy curriculum will surely draw immediate and intense attention. That said, what Moskowitz and Co. have put online is not a plug and play curriculum. Books and reading materials are not included. There’s no explicit alignment to Common Core standards, a decision Moskowitz made personally. The Ed Institute site does not offer a “comprehensive” curriculum. Users are encouraged to adopt a strong early elementary phonics program, but none is provided. Although it’s not mentioned on the site, Success has, since its inception ten years ago, relied on the Success For All program for K–1 phonics and fluency lessons. The site debuting this is a work in progress. Middle school and high school modules are promised in the near future.
School leaders looking for lessons in Success Academy’s offering will want to attend not just to the literacy curriculum, but the online “school blueprints.” Some elements of the Moskowitz Way will travel more easily than others. Any school can—and probably should—put all non-academic functions on the plate of an “ops” (operations) team, freeing teachers and school leaders to focus exclusively on student outcomes. On the other hand, the Success playbook places prodigious demands on parents to be deeply engaged in their children’s education. Too many schools view parents as barriers to progress, or as ciphers, not partners. But as a school of choice, Success is simply in a better position to demand and receive a high level of parental involvement.
Success has often been criticized for being secretive and less than eager to share the secrets of its success. It’s a bit of a bum rap. I’ve personally attended multi-day professional development sessions given free of charge by Success and attended by educators from all over the country. Success classrooms are similarly open and accessible to visitors. Teachers and students rarely even look up when strangers enter their classrooms. It’s a constant occurrence.
The promise of charter schools is not merely that they drive school choice, spur competition, or serve as an alternative to “failing” traditional public schools. They’re supposed to use their operational freedom to serve as “laboratories of innovation” for American education at large. When our highest-achieving charter school network offers to let all comers look behind the curtain, we would be wise to sneak a peek.
Editor’s note: A shorter version of this piece ran in the New York Daily News.
Editor’s note: On Tuesday, Caprice Young will be inducted into the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools’ Charter School Hall of Fame, which recognizes the movement’s pioneers and leaders whose contributions have made a sizeable, lasting, or innovative impact. Caprice Young has been a charter innovator for over two decades. The former founder and CEO of the California Charter School Association, as well as former board president of the Los Angeles Unified School Board, Caprice now leads the Magnolia Public Schools—a group of charter schools ranked among California’s very best. This is her interview, conducted by Fordham’s Jamie Davies O’Leary.
Jamie Davies O’Leary: You oversee the Magnolia Public Schools, a group of California charter schools that are STEAM-focused (science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics). What is happening at Magnolia that you’re most proud of?
Caprice Young: Magnolia’s schools were started by a group of world-class graduate students in science programs at USC, CalTech, and UC Irvine dedicated to the vision of developing and graduating students who are scientific thinkers and civically responsible. Our academic program is rigorous, hands-on, and student driven. Over the last two years, we have added arts to our STEM-based curriculum because cultivating creativity and imagination is critical to invention and discovery. For instance, our students in grades K–2 do an art lesson centered on the design and engineering of puppetry. Our teachers invented Next Generation Science Standards–aligned lessons in collaboration with the Wallace Performing Arts Center and their artists.
In middle and high school grades, we’ve secured the first ever school partnership with the Mount Wilson Observatory—the center where all of the major astrophysical discoveries of the last century were made, where Hubble discovered that the universe is expanding! Our students have direct access to two solar telescopes there. Graduate students and Carnegie astronomers teach our secondary students about the scale of space and spectroscopy with the actual equipment scientists use! They even get to sleep over, staying up most of the night looking at the stars through The Hooker telescope, then sleeping in the same dormitories slept in by famous scientists. This exposure is important, but just as exciting is the simple act of driving one hour from the city to the top of Mount Wilson. On our first trip, we realized when we got off the bus that most of our kids had never touched snow.
JDO: Magnolia graduates 97 percent of its students, and 65 percent of your college-going students are the first in their families to do so. To what do you credit Magnolia’s success?
CY: Our “secret sauce” comes in several different flavors. One of the most important ingredients is that our students and families get to know each other well. From the beginning, Magnolia has conducted annual home visits to at least 25 percent of our students’ homes. It’s not just about ensuring that parents and guardians know how their children are doing, but also about teachers understanding the context of each student’s life outside of school.
We also truly celebrate science. What I mean is that our science fairs rival what Texas high schools experience around football games. We celebrate our robotics team and our Genius Olympiads. We make science as packed full of adrenaline and school spirit as sports teams.
JDO: Last year the LAUSD attempted to non-renew three of your charters, but the county board overruled them. Can you talk about that, and tell us what the deciding factor was?
CY: The main reason the county approved our charters and overrode the LAUSD school board was that LAUSD was just wrong. The three schools they tried to close are three of the highest performers in Los Angeles. Two of them have held the top spot for charter schools in U.S. News & World Report in Los Angeles; one just won an award in the Washington Post. LAUSD’s attempt to non-renew us ran counter to law stating that the number-one factor that should drive renewal decisions is academic achievement. During the past few years, the Los Angeles school district has engaged in overwhelming, intentionally harassing audits, which go well beyond any reasonable accountability and have cost the taxpayers millions of dollars. Fortunately, the State Auditor thoroughly reviewed and cleared Magnolia of accusations independent of LAUSD’s process. We are thankful that the county board approved us, rather than jeopardizing the education of so many of our students. It underscores the importance of an independent appeal process.
JDO: Why is this sort of thing happening—folks opposing not just low-performing charters but even the good ones, like LAUSD did to you? Or like the failed ballot initiative in Massachusetts to lift the cap. What can be done?
CY: In Massachusetts, there simply wasn’t a strong enough movement to back it. It was unfortunate and made me very sad, but it wasn’t a surprise to me. People don’t support charter public schools until they become personally connected to one—as a founder, staff member, student, board member, parent, grandparent, vendor, or other partner. The opponents of charters have long-term cash to put behind their falsehoods, and people have trusted those messengers for generations; they don’t check the facts unless they experience them personally. This is why I really oppose all forms of charter school caps. Strong schools take time to build, but once the momentum gets going it is unstoppable because it becomes so personal. That is the strategy that has worked in Los Angeles: grow fast, help each other be academically successful and operationally sound, build an ecosystem, and become a real community that is integral to families.
JDO: What else can we do moving forward to win the war of ideas and shift public opinion on charter schools?
CY: We need to put money into it. A lot of money. The folks opposing us have the advantage of being able to use taxpayer dollars to spread misinformation. We need to make sure that families from all walks of life know that charters are great options for their kids, and we need to make it easy to enroll. We also need to put money into teacher recruitment. Teachers who want to do professionally creative things, who’ve been limited by the stifling nature of large bureaucracy in some school districts, can find a good fit in charter schools. We need to better market ourselves through community outreach directly to families and teachers, and in doing that we’ll have a broader impact on public perception as well.
JDO: What is the biggest myth we need to address through a coordinated campaign?
CY: The whole notion that charters are “privatizing” education is nuts. What does that even mean? Opponents like to say that big corporations are taking over traditional public schools—but this is just not the case. Almost every single school is run by a non-profit, community-based organization. In California, we have a genuine partnership between historically disenfranchised communities, philanthropists, and civic leaders who want economic progress and civic engagement. It is a very positive trend for public education as a whole.
Now, the very few irresponsible large for-profit players do need to be held more responsible—through direct competition. But just because a group is contracting with a for-profit entity for all or part of the program doesn’t mean that the school is bad. The determining factor should be whether the students needs are being met.
JDO: Let’s talk a little bit more about that—the discussion about “profit” in education. You’ve overseen some impressive turnarounds of schools that were failing financially, so your perspective on school quality—not just academically but financially speaking—is unique.
CY: What is important is that you’re running good schools—not whether someone is “making money.” Traditional public schools have an enormous number of people “making money.” What matters most is the quality of education being provided.
When I led a turnaround at the Inner City Education Foundation, their portfolio of schools was academically successful, but financially struggling. They were in real financial duress even though the schools had near 100 percent graduation rates (including from college). It had made some risky management decisions, a bad facilities decision, and some people maintained some faulty assumptions about how much philanthropy could be attracted. One of the reasons we survived is that most of the vendors—bus drivers, food service providers, etc.—were local neighborhood entrepreneurs who had their kids in the schools. So the buses kept coming, and food kept being delivered, even though the payments were months and months late. It was a complete community effort to keep them running.
There was an amazing coalition between grassroots education, parents, and philanthropists. That’s a really important coalition to have, and it doesn’t exist in some states—yet—but we can build it.
JDO: Do we need to be closing more schools? How do we make sure that schools are successful academically as well as financially?
CY: I believe that when one school fails, we should resist the urge to seek a sector-wide systemic fix. That is like prescribing penicillin to everyone when one person catches a cold. Some failure is normal. Businesses fail; some non-profits do. We need to try to save academically successful schools because creating a strong academic program takes years, while operational turnarounds take months. If that is not possible, we need to scoop up the kids and make sure we help them enroll in good schools. We need to make sure good teachers get good jobs where their professional potential can be supported. I’m on the board of a school now that we’re closing—it was an experiment that just didn’t work. We hired Parent Revolution to work with our team to help find those placements for students and made sure other charters could recruit our teachers early. That’s just the responsible thing to do.
I do think, though, that if we try to make rules so that nothing ever goes wrong, we’re going to look a lot like the traditional public school system. Every form, every line on every form, is tied to some previous transgression. Punishing the bad actors makes more sense.
JDO: You’ve done a lot of work in both the tech sector and with virtual learning. What do you think needs to happen with virtual schools in order for them to work better for kids?
CY: What we found as we ran independent study programs was that we absolutely had to have students fully trained and fully engaged within a week of signing up for the program. Sometimes that meant sending someone out to the students’ homes, or having them all come together in a centralized place to train together. Once we did this, students tended to be very successful. Online learning, just like in-person learning, requires a sense of community. Successful online programs are ones that prioritize and are able to build that sense of community. However, fully online programs really are not for everyone, and the law requires online charters to accept everyone regardless of whether the program matches their life situation or learning style. That’s a problem.
JDO: That’s an interesting on-the-ground perspective in terms of what the virtual schools themselves could be doing. Is there anything we can do from a policy standpoint?
CY: Online programs need to be absolutely upfront with families about the skills and support students need to complete the programs successfully. Detractors call this “counseling out,” but it is really just honesty. In most cases, you can’t leave an academically challenged thirteen-year-old home alone all day to complete a program that requires reading on a sixth-grade level. Independent study, online programs, and flex schools can have brilliant student outcomes, but only in partnership with families.
As for rulemaking, it is fair to require a student to show actual engagement prior to the schools counting them as enrolled. You wouldn’t give facilities-based school funding for students who don’t show up. Also, what we found successful in Chicago (where we ran online programs collaboratively with the school district and Cook County jail) was that leadership matters a lot. The head of the online learning program was selected from local staff that led the program on-site. Kids did credit recovery on-site, and only once they reached a certain milestone were they allowed to do their work off-site, virtually (except the ones in jail). The leader knew the students personally, knew who was doing the work, who was engaged, and who was likely to be successful in the learning environment. We found that the leaders couldn’t be just anyone; they needed to have a genuine commitment to the program and be willing to take personal responsibility for its success.
Finally, it’s important that online learning not be seen necessarily as always a full-school solution. Online learning shouldn’t be an either/or. It can be a good tool for all types of schools to use, for all kinds of kids who may need a more diverse learning environment—students like my own daughters, who thrived in online courses but also attended full-time traditional programs simultaneously.
JDO: You helped unite a variety of charter groups in California when you founded the California Charter Schools Association, which grew to become the nation’s most powerful state charter association. What lessons can you share from that experience, specifically in uniting different groups?
CY: This happened in 2003, and no one back then would have called the California charter movement a “movement” at all. There were plenty of folks feeling frustrated because charters, on the whole, weren’t focused on quality from an academic perspective, and in general were somewhat opposed to an increasingly powerful standards movement. This left them open to criticism about whether charters should exist at all.
Charter leaders of some of the stronger schools got together and realized they needed to stand for academic quality in addition to choice. Around this time, they were looking for someone to unite charters around the mission of quality, so that was when I “left” the LAUSD board to create the state organization. One thing I realized, though, was that you couldn’t have quality until charters had the necessary infrastructure and ecosystem. At the time, charters had no access to cash-flow financing and a host of other support systems normally taken for granted. Successful schools couldn’t even add grade levels and were stalling out in their growth. One other unexpected finding: They had enormous trouble getting access to insurance.
JDO: What about facilities?
CY: Believe it or not, facilities weren’t the number one problem at the time. It was insurance. We met with three hundred charter leaders around the state to learn more about what could be done, and then built goals and objectives for the California charter schools movement by first providing insurance, cash-flow financing, and other resources to schools willing to focus on academic quality (measured in many different ways). We focused first on what they needed most immediately to function operationally so the leaders could shift their focus to quality. And the collective action on operational resources created a funding stream to support advocacy and growth.
JDO: What stands out most about the wide array of charter founders you’ve worked with?
CY: The reason I love charter people so much is that, when you really think about it, they accomplish something amazing. Imagine finding somebody who passionately loves kids and community—that’s a plus in the first place. Then imagine that person can articulate a strong academic learning strategy—an even bigger plus. Now consider that that person is organized enough to write it down into a coherent document called a charter, which is really a business plan with an educational component; and then is articulate and charismatic enough to get the right people to sign it. And they are crazy enough to stand in front of a hostile public body and argue that their theory of education should be approved. And then this person has to convince enough families to entrust their children’s education to them—the most precious relationship of all. And then they have the implementation capacity to pull all that off. You’re talking about really powerful people! Those are the people I want to hang out with.
JDO: Whom do you admire most in the charter movement?
CY: I’m a massive fan of Yvonne Chan, Johnathan Williams, Don Shalvey, Sue Bragato, and Joe Lucente. They were the ones who really established the culture of the California charter schools movement—a culture of community collaboration. That is the DNA that we were able to build from. Joe is a genius around operations. Yvonne encouraged leaders and practitioners to really support one another. Now their teachers have become school leaders and founders expanding the movement.
JDO: What other models do you see doing innovative work that we should all be following?
CY: I love da Vinci Public Schools—Matt Wunder’s schools in close partnership with Wiseburn school district. He does two kinds of schools: high schools that are tech related, where the kids are engaged in projected based learning and discovery, and that have deeply embedded partnerships with local industry; and also schools that are K–8 flex programs, in which students attend school two days a week, work from home two days a week, and one day is an enrichment day. We really have the opportunity to learn from and build on the flex model. Kids want school to be a place where they do things, where they learn by getting involved, and where what they’re learning really matters to their daily lives. If I could wave a magic wand, every school would not just be creating kids who can get jobs—I want to build schools so that every kid also can create jobs.
JDO: What’s your biggest accomplishment, and what do you see in your future?
CY: May I take some credit for getting out of the way of my kids—who are now twenty-one, seventeen, and fifteen years old? They were sort of my guinea pigs in the education system. Figuring out what works uniquely for each of them was a big challenge. Starting the California Charter Schools Association, which grew out of my work as a school board member and an understanding of what we collectively faced, has been an accomplishment in which I take pride. Even bigger than that is that my successor, Jed Wallace, has made it twenty times more successful. I’m proud that I created enough of a foundation and gave him something strong to build on.
I love educating kids and supporting creative educators, and I am having a great time leading Magnolia. I just want to reach more kids and nurture this blossoming movement. Charter schools leaders are putting the public back in public education of all kinds. I want more kids to get the kind of education that enables them to develop self-confidence, to love learning, and to create industries and social inventions we haven’t imagined yet.
On this week's podcast, special guests Dr. Howard Fuller, titan of the charter movement, and Nina Rees, President and Chief Executive Officer of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, join Mike Petrilli and Alyssa Schwenk to discuss overregulation in the charter schools sector. During the Research Minute, Susan Aud Pendergrass, Vice President of Research and Evaluation at NAPCS, joins Amber Northern and Mike to talk about Fordham’s recent study, Three Signs That a Proposed Charter School Is at Risk of Failing.
Amber’s Research Minute
Anna Nicotera and David Stuit, “Three Signs That a Proposed Charter School Is at Risk of Failing,” Thomas B. Fordham Institute (April 2017).
A new paper examines how schools failing to make “adequate yearly progress” under No Child Left Behind affected student attendance and behavior. Overall, it finds that the “accountability pressure” associated with No Child Left Behind encourages students to show up at school and to do so on time, but also leads to increases in misbehavior. Specifically, the authors estimate that being labelled as failing causes schools to post a 30?40 percent decline in reported absences, a 20–30 percent decline in reported tardies, and a 15–20 percent increase in reported suspensions in the following school year. As the authors note, it’s impossible to know to what extent these findings reflect changes in student behavior as opposed to changes in how that behavior is reported or addressed. But in their view, “the correct interpretation is probably some combination of both.”
Interestingly, while schools found ways to reduce absences and tardies for all performance subgroups, there were telling differences when it came to behavior, where the authors note “a u-shaped pattern—with only students at the bottom and the top of the test score distribution exhibiting notable increases in misbehavior.” Specifically, students in the lowest quartile of student performance exhibited larger increases than those in the middle two quartiles in seven of the ten metrics of misbehavior, including in-school and out-of-school suspensions, fights, drug possession, violent offenses, sexual offenses, and disruptive behaviors. Similarly, students in the highest achievement quartile exhibited increases in six of the ten misbehavior metrics, including out-of-school suspensions, drug possession, sexual offenses, weapons offenses, and “falsification-related offenses.”
In other words, the results suggest that “the largest negative effects may occur for the students who are least able to meet the requirements that administrators place on them” (or most capable of surpassing those requirements). As the authors note, this suggests that “if students themselves have limited capacity to respond in positive ways to increased pressure to do better on tests...they may respond by acting out” as may students whose capacity is underutilized.
In short, the study suggests that the highest and lowest performing students in failing schools were more likely to misbehave. A plausible explanation for this pattern is that high and low performing students received less attention due to NCLB’s unfortunate reliance on proficiency rates, which give educators a strong incentive to focus on the “bubble kids.” So one of the most obvious implications of the study is that we should stop using these measures.
The harder question is whether the study’s results should be interpreted narrowly or broadly—that is, to what extent should they be seen as applying to the specific accountability regime associated with NCLB (as implemented in North Carolina) as opposed to test-based accountability in general. It is certainly plausible that that an overemphasis on testing can have negative implications for some students’ behavior. But must it be so?
SOURCE: John Holbein and Helen Ladd, “Accountability pressure: Regression discontinuity estimates of how No Child Left Behind influenced student behavior,” Economics of Education Review (June 2017).
A recent report from the Manhattan Institute seeks to demonstrate that “cream-skimming”—sorting students to favor smarter, harder-working pupils—is not the reason charter schools outperform traditional public schools on standardized tests. Author Marcus A. Winters points out that critics who use this argument ignore the fact that not all traditional public schools are open enrollment.
The report compares the English and math test scores of ninety-eight selective non-charter middle schools whose students have to pass entrance exams to be admitted, with those of seventy-three charter middle schools whose students are admitted by lottery and are often underprivileged minorities. All of the schools are located in New York City.
Winters reasons that if admitting students with better academic credentials does indeed result in higher test scores, traditional selective middle schools would fare significantly better than lottery-based charter schools. That is not, however, the case.
The report finds that the charter school students did better in math (38.3 percent proficient) than their peers at selective middle schools (34.7 percent proficient); but worse in English language arts (24.6 percent at charters compared to 32.2 percent at selective middle schools). Yet, when Winters adjusted for student demographics, the difference in ELA proficiency shrunk to a gap that wasn’t statistically significant, and the math gap widened to 11 percentage points, with a 15 percent proficiency rate at the lottery-based charter schools, compared to a 4 percent rate at the selective middle schools.
It is worth mentioning that this analysis cannot account for unobserved differences, such as parental engagement, and is therefore only descriptive and does not prove the extent to which charter schools are responsible for their students’ success. However, Winters points out that there is research showing that students who attend New York City charter schools perform better than they would have had they attended their default traditional public school.
So although this report is not wholly conclusive regarding why students attending charter schools score comparably or better than traditional public school students on standardized tests in New York City, it does cast a shadow of doubt on the claim that “cream-skimming” is the key to charters’ success.
SOURCE: Marcus A. Winters, “New York Charter Schools Outperform Traditional Selective Public Schools,” Manhattan Institute (March 2017).
A recent study in the Social Science Research journal investigated teacher bias and its profound effects on student achievement. Many scholars have tackled this topic in various ways, but this study looks at subject-specific teacher bias, which manifests itself in terms of teacher perceptions and beliefs of student ability in math and English. It asks the question: How do math and English teacher perceptions of their students’ academic abilities vary by student race and ethnicity? Additionally, the study looks at teacher underestimations of student ability and its impact on students’ own expectations and achievement. Is there a significant causal-effect relationship between teachers’ low expectation of students and students’ own expectations and achievement? If so, do they vary by race or ethnicity of student?
The study uses data from the Education Longitudinal Study of 2002 (ELS: 2002), a “nationally representative, longitudinal study of 10th graders in 2002 and 12th graders in 2004.” Selecting approximately twenty-six students from each high school, the study used a combined sample size of 12,500 students. To determine how teacher perceptions affected student outcomes, researchers used a propensity score matching method: For each student in the treatment group, there was a student in the control sample whose “propensity score”—a rating that encapsulates each students’ relevant characteristics—was closest. Then compare outcomes between these two groups.
Among the many conclusions, authors found that math teachers have less positive perceptions of the academic abilities of Latino and black students, compared to white students, even after accounting for all other variables such as family’s socioeconomic status, gender, age, standardized math and reading scores, parental involvement, and teacher demographics. Math teacher underestimations led to 0.20-point GPA drop. Similarly, English teachers are more likely to perceive that their classes are too difficult for black, Latino, and Asian students, than for white students. In fact, Latino, black, and Asian students have 66, 87, and 53 percent higher odds, respectively, of having English teachers report that the class is too difficult for them. As for the impact of teacher race (Asian, black, or Latino, using white as reference), the only statistically significant measure suggests that Asian-American math teachers, compared to white math teachers, are more likely to report that a class is too difficult for a student.
Being underestimated by English teachers in these analyses lowers student expected years of schooling by almost a third of a year less of schooling. Worse, underestimations of both math and English teachers lowered the tenth-grade GPAs for all students, with the effect being smaller for black students than white, Latino, or Asian students. In other words, teacher bias is detrimental to all students.
The study suggests that effective policies and teacher training programs ought to be put in place to quell conscious or unconscious teacher bias.
SOURCE: Hua-Yu Sebastian Cherng, “If they think I can: Teacher bias and youth of color expectations and achievement,” Social Science Research (April 2017).