November 2, 2009
Is there anything that gets people’s dander up faster these days than comparisons of charter schools and traditional public schools? On Thursday, reporter Meredith Kolodner filed a story in the Daily News on the relative performance of charter schools and what the NYC Department of Education calls “district” schools. A fall, 2009 presentation emanating from the Department’s Office of Charter Schools, and posted on its website, reported on the charter school landscape in New York City, including the growth and location of charter schools, the composition of students attending them, the DOE’s accountability framework for evaluating charter schools, and some evidence on how charter schools were faring on the School Progress Reports, the crown jewel in the DOE’s accountability system. (Regular readers may know that I’ve been critical of key features of the Progress Reports for elementary and middle schools.)
Kolodner drew attention to the fact that although elementary and middle school charter students had higher rates of proficiency on the state math and English Language Arts assessments this year, charter schools on average had a lower score on the progress component of the School Progress Reports. And since the progress component makes up 60% of the overall score, charter schools also had lower overall scores on the Progress Reports than did district schools. She quoted Patrick Sullivan, an appointed member of the Panel for Educational Policy that the DOE describes as its governance body, on the meaning of this pattern. “Either the progress reports are invalid,” Sullivan said, “or charter schools are lagging.”
The Daily News article and a subsequent posting by Sullivan on the NYC Public School Parents blog prompted a quick reply from Peter Murphy, Director of Policy & Communications for the New York Charter Schools Association (NYCSA), here and here. Murphy called into question the metric used by the DOE in its Progress Reports, especially the fact that student performance only counts for 25% of the overall score, whereas student progress counts for 60%. This, he contended, is “woefully lopsided,” and unfairly penalizes schools that have had students scoring high for several years running. If I read his second posting correctly, he concludes that the progress reports indeed are invalid.
Murphy went on to argue that charter schools serve more “at-risk” students than do district schools, and the fact that 16% of district students receive special education services, whereas only 9% of charter school students do, is “not at all significant.” He sidestepped the report’s findings about the disproportionately low enrollment of English language learners in charter schools.
Is this anything? Yes and no. The relative performance of charter and district schools on the DOE’s School Progress Reports is, in my view, nothing of consequence. The progress measures have been shown to be highly unreliable from year to year, and I wouldn’t base any conclusions about the relative ability of charter and traditional public schools to promote growth in student learning from these measures. I think Murphy is probably not correct in arguing that the high performance of students in a charter school in a given year limits the ability of that school to show growth the following year, as the DOE calculations now count persistence at Level 4 from one year to the next to be a year’s worth of growth, regardless of whether a student’s scale score increased or decreased. But I’ll acknowledge that the state tests that are the basis for the performance and progress measures have shown to be very inaccurate at measuring very high and very low levels of performance. In their current form, I don’t think that they’re to be trusted for important policy decisions.
On the other hand, I think there’s something to be learned from the composition of students attending charter schools in New York City. Students attending charter schools are much more likely to be African-American than students in New York City overall. In charter schools, about 62% of the enrollees are African-American; 30% are Latino; and 8% are either white, Asian-American, or members of another ethnic group. In contrast, the distribution of students overall in New York City is approximately 40% Latino; 30% African-American; 15% Asian-American; and 15% white. Moreover, 80% of students attending charter schools are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, in contrast to 75% for students in NYC overall.
The most striking figures in the DOE report are the disparities in the percentages of special education students and English Language Learners in charter and district schools. Contra Mr. Murphy, I think that the fact that charter schools are enrolling proportionately fewer special education students is worthy of more scrutiny, and can’t be explained away so easily. So too the disparity in the enrollment of English Language Learners, who represent nearly 15% of students in NYC overall, but only 4% of students in charter schools. It may be that charter schools have been sited in locations that are heavily African-American, and African-American students are less likely to be English Language Learners than Latino or Asian-American students. I’m not sure whether or not the evidence bears that out, and it warrants further study. But Murphy’s contention that “For all the handwringing about special ed students and students with English language needs, charter schools are in fact serving and benefiting a greater proportion of students deemed ‘at risk’ than the City as a whole” doesn’t hold up. It’s true only in the narrow sense that charter schools serve fewer than 8% white students, whereas NYC schools overall serve about 15%, and charter schools have a slightly higher concentration of students eligible for a free or reduced-price lunch. It’s certainly not true regarding the very great educational needs of students with disabilities or who are English language learners.
What I found most revealing about the DOE report is that in 2008-09, the New York City public schools served 1.1 million students, but only 24,000 students were enrolled in NYC charter schools. That’s about 2.2% of the students in the NYC system. Of course, many of these charter schools are still adding grades each year, such that when they are at capacity, they may enroll three or four times as many students. But even four times as many students as the current figure would place fewer than 10% of NYC schoolchildren in charter schools.