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While Adults Play Politics, Kids Continue to Lose

By Nicole Brisbane, DFER-NY State Director

I’m not sure I understand Assemblywoman Deborah Glick’s rationale to deprive certain kids of getting a good education. In an op-ed by the New York Post Editorial Board on August 8, they noted that she wrote a letter to the chairman of the State University of New York Board of Trustees demanding they ban new public charter schools in District 2, which she partially represents. Her reasoning for the ban is because District 2 has some of the highest-performing traditional district schools.

District 2 covers some of the wealthiest communities in Manhattan, on the Upper East Side and Midtown West and below. Once you dig deeper into the facts you realize the high-performing schools she references are serving over 80% white students. In the same district, schools that serve a majority African-American and Latino students aren’t making the grade, with dismal performance on state tests.

Parents looking for better alternatives seek out coveted spots in public charters that have to turn kids away in droves because of space. Instead of supporting this opportunity for African-American and Latino students, Assemblywoman Glick seeks to limit it. I guess being an elected official in Manhattan means only representing the interests of white kids who go to good schools.

To read the full op-ed, click here.

Nicole Brisbane is originally from Miami, FL, born to immigrant parents. After graduating from Miami-Dade County Public Schools and Florida State University, she taught middle school intensive reading and language arts to students who were 4 or more years behind their peers. Read more about Nicole here.

Is there a relationship between state public charter school policies and charter student learning outcomes?

By Marianne Lombardo, Policy Analyst

In late May, The Fordham Institute announced a “Charter School Policy Wonk-a-Thon” to help answer the question: “Why do charters in some cities and states perform much better than their traditional district counterparts, while others perform worse?” Several thought leaders provided insightful responses.

This got us thinking about the relationship between public charter rating systems and student performance. So, we decided to dig deeper by comparing state scores on two rating systems (one by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS) and one by the Center for Education Reform) against student achievement. For the latter, we used CREDO’s National Charter School Study comparing learning gains made by public charter school students to gains made by similar students in traditional district schools.

A few caveats: these analyses are intended for discussion purposes only, and are not meant to imply cause and effect. Nonetheless, we think examining these relationships both through scatter plots and Pearson R’s (which signify the percentage of variance in student outcomes between the NAPCS and CER rankings) is useful in furthering the discussion about the factors that affect public charter school performance.

Results of Analyses

Neither CER’s or NAPCS’ rankings have statistically significant (p , ≤.o5 represents the likelihood of results due to chance are less than 5%) relationships with average days of public charter student learning compared to students in traditional public schools (see Figure 1).

Four of the states with the highest-performing public charter students had high NAPCS state law ratings: Indiana, Massachusetts, New York and Michigan. Three states with the highest-performing public charter students were ranked by NAPCS in the bottom five of all states: New Jersey, Rhode Island and Tennessee. Conversely, some states with low student learning gains had policies that were rated highly by CER and/or NAPCS: Arizona and Utah (both models), Ohio (CER model) and New Mexico (NAPCS model).

Click here to view the CER rankings and NAPCS rankings as PDFs.

We then tested the relationship between rankings from individual components of the two models with CREDO days of learning results.

We reiterate that observations of relationships do not imply causation. However, there are findings worth noting. Neither the overall NAPCS nor CER rankings of state policy had a significant statistical relationship with CREDO student learning outcomes. None of the individual components of CER’s rating system were related to student outcomes. Only two of the NAPCS components were found to be statistically significant, and both had inverse relationships with student learning outcomes and fairly high R-squared results.

Extracurricular and Interscholastic Activities Eligibility and Access (NAPCS Component 16)

This component, measuring the degree to which state law explicitly allows public charter school students to participate in extracurricular activities and interscholastic leagues, had the strongest relationship to student outcomes. States that scored low on the extracurricular component tended to have more student learning. Policy implications are unclear and suggest a need for further inquiry; does involvement in both district extracurriculars and charter school academics create stress for students and take time away from their studies?

A Variety of Public Charter Schools Allowed (NAPCS Component 2)

This component, described as states allowing new start-ups, public school conversions and virtual schools, had the second-strongest relationship of all variables. The higher a state scored on the component, the lower they scored on overall student learning.

One hypothesis is that in states with high scores on variety, virtual charters are bringing down student performance levels. All states rated 3 or 4 on this component had laws allowing virtual schools in 2011. New Jersey, which scored high on public charter student performance, scored a 4 on the variety component in 2011 but was later downgraded to a score of 2 because applications for new virtual schools were rejected. States that scored low on variety, but high on student learning—Rhode Island, Tennessee, New York, and Massachusetts—did not allow virtual schools at the time of the evaluation.


School choice alone does not guarantee success, but can create the potential for success. Policy and laws do matter, but as they are rated now, they do not clearly explain why some states are having more success with public charter schools than others.

We expected to find a positive correlation between strong laws and strong academic outcomes, but the only statistically significant results were an inverse relationship between two NAPCS rating components and student outcomes. This does not mean that the NAPCS and CER ratings are unimportant; some, like equitable funding and facilities, are a matter of fairness. But important questions remain.

How can we better identify the necessary and sufficient conditions for public charter school success? Some states, such as Rhode Island and Tennessee, have strong student learning results even though their policies are not aligned with CER and NAPCS’ best practices frameworks. Other states, with varying levels of policy ratings, are clearly not managing their public charter sectors well.

The thought leaders responding to Fordham’s “Wonk-A-Thon” challenge made common observations around two themes that may help explain the results here and suggest areas for future research.

  • The “No Excuses” talent sandbox: Match Education's Michael Goldstein argues that the transfer of knowledge between Boston’s interconnected teaching and leadership talent pipelines result in authentic execution of high-performing “No Excuses” schools.
  • Andy Smarick noted the presence of Building Excellent Schools, Teach for America and TNTP in high-performing Boston as a possible explanation for the city’s academic success.
  • Jed Wallace and Elizabeth Robitaile observe that California’s high-performing public charters tend to be “nonprofit, mission-driven charter organizations serving historically disadvantaged students.”
  • Perhaps the best explanation was Robin Lake’s: “You can get a lot done with suboptimal policy if you’ve got great people, and all the policy in the world won’t save you if you don’t.”

The following are considerations for further research:

1. This inquiry should be repeated using more recent policy evaluations and student performance data to see if similar overall and component results are attained.

2. Further student learning research might consider disaggregating results by school type, including virtual schools, and by city. Aggregating results statewide may mask important differences.

3. Consider refining policy evaluation metrics to better capture what’s observed in cities and states where students are showing great learning gains—talent development, a supportive culture, and investment.

Marianne Lombardo is a policy analyst at Democrats for Education Reform (DFER). Before joining DFER, Marianne was the Vice President for Research & Evaluation at the Ohio Alliance for Public Charter Schools, an Education Administrator for Ohio’s statewide Juvenile Correctional System, a Program Evaluator for a welfare-to-work project, and an Adjunct Instructor of Sociology. Read more about Marianne here.

High Demand for Public Charters in Boston

As in climate change, ignore the deniers.

By Liam Kerr, DFER-MA State Director

Climate change deniers often argue that some scientists agree with their position. Yet here in Massachusetts, we know that climate change is real—and we know something’s not right when a lone, climate change-denying scientist uses a questionable study to disagree with the vast majority of widely accepted scientific research. When evidence overwhelmingly points in one direction, we shouldn’t give equal weight to the one data point in the opposite direction, especially when it is questionably obtained. The same kind of logic should apply to the “debate” over public charter school demand in Boston.

Just like with climate science, the majority of evidence is clear: Boston parents and voters support public charter schools. An ERN poll last winter—using President Obama’s pollster—found that more than 70% of Boston voters view charter schools favorably. A majority of respondents to the same poll said they would send their children to a Boston public charter school over a traditional district public school.

But, you don’t have to take just our word for it. WBUR (Boston’s NPR station) sponsored a September 2013 poll by MassINC that found 61% of Boston residents favor lifting the cap on public charter schools. A Herald/Suffolk University poll from July 2013 found that Boston parents would rather send their children to a public charter school than a district school. Now, as the MA Senate mulls a charter cap lift, a poll commissioned by the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association found that 62% of parents support raising the cap. And these results are backed up by those with the most at stake—the 20,000 students on waiting lists for Boston charter schools.

As with climate change, the consensus is clear. But an article published in yesterday’s Boston Globe told a slightly different story. The piece reported on the latest poll finding strong support for lifting the charter cap—but allotted equal space to a BTU poll finding that only 29% of voters favored public charter schools in Boston.

The BTU poll is clearly an outlier, and looking at the wording of the question on the poll explains why: respondents were asked to choose between focusing on the “large majority of Boston's students” instead of “charters that only serve a few.” While the Herald, ERN, WBUR, and MPCSA polls all asked straightforward questions such as “should the limit on the number of students who can attend charter schools in Boston be kept in place as it is today OR should the limit be raised so more students from Boston can attend charter schools?”, this push poll yields a strongly biased result—due to setting up a question that nearly anyone would agree with.

Maybe another poll, neutral and methodologically sound, could put to bed once and for all the doubts about charter school demand. Just as in climate change, we’re fairly certain results will be consistent.

But if the BTU is convinced to the contrary, they should develop a fair question for us to ask. They can even choose the pollster. Deal?

Liam has advised nonprofits in Massachusetts, an NGO consultancy in the Czech Republic, a charter school incubator, and a charter school network. He has worked on statewide political campaigns in Massachusetts and Vermont. Prior to DFER, Liam worked for the management consultancy The Parthenon Group and the national venture philanthropy fund New Profit Inc. Read more about Liam here.

Myths and Realities of MA's Public Charter Schools

By John Griffin, DFER-MA Policy Fellow

Policy leaders from across the United States are trying to reproduce the proven success of Boston’s public charter schools. But you wouldn’t know that from the charter debates currently happening in the Commonwealth, where opponents are repeating the same tired, unsupported criticisms. They argue charters achieve their high performance through unsavory means, like taking money from public schools, failing to serve all kids, or somehow forcing kids out.

The sad reality is that no matter how good charter schools are— no matter how much good they do for students that need them most— there will always be a political struggle replete with undue criticism. But now with new data from the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, we can bust some myths about Boston’s public charter schools..

Myth #1: Charters bump up their test scores by failing to serve students with special needs.

According to this argument, public charters dump special needs kids back into district schools, widening the disparity in test scores to their benefit. But the best-performing public charters actually serve greater proportions of special needs students than the average BPS school, and they serve greater proportions of special needs kids than BPS’ top performers.

The average BPS district school has a special needs population of 19.5% of the total student body. (The state average is 17%). But all five of BPS’ Level 1 schools come in below that figure. The three top BPS performers (Boston Latin, Latin Academy, and the O’Bryant) have rigorous entrance exams and special needs populations ranging between 1.1% and 3.1% of their student bodies.

The top-performing Level 1 public charter schools, by contrast, serve special needs populations close to or greater than the BPS district average. All six public charter high schools serve special needs populations greater than 16%, and two of Boston’s Level 1 charters (Codman Academy and City on a Hill) have special needs populations of 25.3% and 22.4%, well over the BPS average.

Myth #2: Charters drive up performance by booting out students that don’t get good test scores.

This hypothesis assumes that public charter stability is low (students that begin the school year in a Boston public charter don’t end the year there) and that attrition is high (students who end a year at a charter school don’t return to that school the next year)


DFER-MA testifies against new school performance assessments

Source: MA Charter Public School Association

On Tuesday, June 24th, DFER-MA sent policy fellow John Griffin to testify against proposed changes to public charter school regulations at the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. The proposed policy is projected to eliminate charter school seats in four high-need, urban districts while increasing seats in higher-performing suburbs. The Board unanimously adopted the proposal, but DFER voiced its opposition, bearing testimony to the unjust consequences of the newly-adopted plan.

The new formula calculates the bottom 10% of districts using 75% achievement data—the district’s performance on standardized tests—and 25% growth—the improvements of individual students in that district over time. Previously, the bottom 10% was calculated using 20% growth and 80% achievement data.

That change in percentages might not seem like much, but DFER’s testimony bore witness to its monumental consequences. Several struggling districts will leave the bottom 10%, a status that affords them a higher charter school cap by state legislation, and as a result will lose significant charter seats. The districts projected to leave the 10%-—Worcester, Brockton, Somerville, and Haverhill—serve large, diverse populations with many low-income students. The four suburban districts who will enter the bottom 10% under the new calculation, on the other hand, tend to serve more affluent populations.

The new formula effectively widens the opportunity gap, granting increased access to a quality education to students who are, on average, already more advantaged. At the same time, it denies that opportunity to the 2,200 students on public charter school waiting lists in the four communities slated to lose their higher charter cap—communities serving much larger proportions of disadvantaged students.

During the deliberations, several proponents of the change suggested the Board may further change the formula, placing yet more emphasis on growth and thereby removing more public charter seats from high-need urban areas. While growth in struggling districts should be commended, students in those districts cannot wait for that growth to reap fruit.

We need to do all that we can to ensure that all Massachusetts students have access to a quality education. But removing public charter school seats from the districts that need them most directly impedes that goal. Moving forward, we hope proponents of quality public education will resist further emphasis on growth in calculating the bottom 10% of districts.

A transcript of DFER’s testimony follows.

Thank you Dr. Commissioner, Madame Chairwoman, and members of the board.

My name is John Griffin. I am a policy fellow at Democrats for Education Reform, Massachusetts; a rising junior at Harvard College; and a proud graduate of Walpole Public Schools. I am also a former member of the Southeast Regional Advisory Council to the Board of Education, where we conducted rigorous studies of charter school policies in the Commonwealth.

When I was on the Advisory Council from 2010 to 2012, charter schools were a frequent topic of discussion. The debates were often contentious, but as student representatives in the room, we all seemed to share a common goal of reducing inequality and increasing parity of educational opportunity in Massachusetts. Today’s proposed regulations completely undermine that goal, effectively widening the opportunity gap by decreasing access to quality education of choice to already disadvantaged students while increasing access for students who are, on average, already more advantaged.

Under the proposed regulation, four districts—Worcester, Somerville, Brockton, and Haverhill—would no longer be classified in the bottom 10%, thereby losing their higher charter school cap. Four other districts—Hawlemont, Wareham, Dennis-Yarmouth, Spencer-East Brookfield, and Easthampton—enter the bottom 10%, gaining a higher cap. These districts feature significantly better performance than those districts removed from the bottom 10%, while also serving smaller proportions minority or low-income students.

While the Commonwealth has taken considerable steps toward reducing the opportunity gap since 1993, we cannot deny the fact that equal educational opportunity is not yet a reality in Massachusetts. Low-income and minority students still have greatly decreased access to quality education compared to their more privileged peers, and districts featuring greater proportions of minority or low-income students tend to exhibit unsatisfactory performance and growth.

According to the Supreme Judicial Court in McDuffy, the state Constitution mandates that the Commonwealth provide a quality education to all Massachusetts students—regardless of income level or zip code. The proposed regulations impede fulfillment of that obligation, solidifying a two-tiered educational system in which students of means are afforded several high-quality educational choices while students of need are consigned to struggling districts that cannot meet their needs.

In the four districts slated to be removed from the bottom 10%, fewer than half of all students were educated to a proficient level in math and English in 2013, as measured by MCAS. Meanwhile, 2,200 students in those communities remain on charter school waiting lists. The proposed regulations would directly decrease the chance of a better education for those students. If we are truly committed to the ideal of equitable public education, we cannot raise the cap in more affluent districts while lowering it in districts where public charter schools can do the most good.

The proposed regulations run counter to both conscience and Constitution.

Thank you.

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