Tag Archives: charter school performance

Letter to Betsy (#1): Dance with the Ones Who Brung Him

Hey, Bets.

Before I start: My parents loved Amway products and I still think SA8, LOC, Pursue, and Trizyme are the awesome. Please give my best to your father-in-law. Now, to business.

Congrats on being a relatively uncontroversial Trump cabinet pick. You have been subjected to all sorts of advice, I know. But I have some qualifications that are not often found in combination.  I am the only college graduate in my family. I teach three subjects at a Title I high school.  I voted for Trump. You’re 0 for 3 thus far.

Plus, while I have no money, fame, or influence, I’m an original thinker.  You…aren’t. I’ve reviewed a number of interviews you’ve given before your nomination. I’ve read your quotes on education. Every comment you’ve made was said by others first. You’re not unintelligent. It’s just that up to now, your primary task hasn’t involved thinking, but rather signing. The education policy field is comprised of the occasional thinker, ideologically-driven funders, and far too many hacks grovelling for  whatever notion gets them the check. You’re the one in the middle.

So your contribution to education has been, literally, contributions, the checks you’ve written to further your conservative values through education reform, and therein lies a potential problem. Education reform was born out of the conservative movement, and education reform, traditional conservatives and the neo-liberals, went all in on Never Trump.  I mean, y’all didn’t even try to be nice. But then Trump won, and wow, talk about a lucky break: education is one of the areas that Trump doesn’t care about, so is happy to give out jobs to conservatives like kibble to puppies.

But precisely because Trump doesn’t care much about education, because he picked someone without giving much thought to policy, you could get into trouble. Remember that feeling all you traditional conservatives had during the primaries? The horrible, stomach-turning realization that most of the GOP didn’t give a damn about all your dearest principles? The realization that GOP voters had shrugged and voted for your candidates because they didn’t have any other choice? Except now they did?

Bets, you need to remember that feeling and hold onto it for dear life. You live in that traditional conservative bubble, the one that sees black kids getting shot by white cops and blames bad (white female) teachers.  Technically, education reform focuses on improving education, but the reason they get funding is conservative belief that decimating union clout in traditionally blue states, thus disrupting a faithful, powerful Democrat lobby, will make the world a better place.

What, you think I’m cynical? In the metric ton of writing Rick Hess does every year the words “West Virginia” rarely, if ever, appear. (I thought I’d found an example but  it turned out to be a guest blogger.) Michael Petrilli is equally uncaring about the Mountain State, and mentions Detroit often, Michigan rarely or never. Go through the list of education reform organizations and see how often they worry about those isolated Wyoming schools, or whether or not the children of those Syrian refugees Hamdi  Ulukaya brings into Idaho because apparently no native workers want employment in his Chobani yogurt factories.

Reformers might be conservative, but they target blue states and blue voters. Take a look at the school district with the greatest charter penetration  as of 2015:


Hey, that map looks familiar. Oh, yeah, it looks like this county by county election map for 2016:

Except it’s a weird mismatch, isn’t it? Conservative reformers have had their greatest strengths in  Democrat strongholds. Even the ones found in Trump territory are in majority-blue areas.

Here’s what the reformers never tell you while asking for funds: Charter support requires unhappy parents. But most parents are quite pleased with their schools, and most parents understand, despite years of attempts to convince them otherwise, that native ability and peers matter more than teachers and curriculum. Changing innate ability levels is tough, so selling charters means finding parents who are unhappy with their childrens’ peer groups. Put another way, all parents want their kids away from Those Kids. Charters are attractive to parents who can’t use geography to achieve that aim.

Practically, this means selling charters primarily to two groups of parents: 1) highly motivated but poor black and Hispanic parents in schools overwhelmed with low ability, low motivated kids (the KIPP sell) 2) white suburban professional parents in schools that are either too brown or too competitive for their students, but who aren’t rich enough for private school or a house in a less diverse district (the Summit sell, or the progressive suburban charter). These are very blue groups.

Understanding the charter constituency explains the discrepancies between the charter and election map, and why the discrepancies go mostly in one direction–that is, why are there blue spots on the map that don’t have significant charter penetration?

In overwhelmingly white districts, parents aren’t buying. Vermont, an all-white state, doesn’t even have a charter law, last I checked, despite being so progressive that networks called the state the minute the polls closed. The California Bay Area doesn’t have the battalion of charters you see in Los Angeles–and many of the ones that do exist are in Oakland, the only place in the Bay Area with enough blacks to support urban charters. The Bay Area and other wealthy suburbs with lots of Hispanics do get some limited support for progressive charters like Summit, in part because Hispanics aren’t easily districted out in the suburbs without inviting lawsuits and in part because suburban comprehensive high schools can be very competitive and some parents would prefer a softer environment for their snowflakes.

In dominant red states,  charters aren’t selling. Not a lot of charters in rural Mississippi and Alabama, despite the pockets of black voters, because teachers unions are historically weak in the South. Nothing of interest to conservatives. (See? Told you it wasn’t about making education better.)

Chinese, Korean, and Indian immigrants tend to build ethnic cocoons which create Asian majorities in public schools. Increased Asian presence in schools drive out whites, who find their approach to education….unattractive, giving a whole new meaning to the term white flight.  Asian immigrants are much better than whites at crafting race-segregated environments, and they aren’t terribly tolerant of blacks or Hispanics. Hence, not much need for charters. We’ll see how this all plays out when we get to third or fourth generation Asian American in significant numbers. When they don’t have enough numbers to create an enclave, Asian charter selection most closely mirrors whites–they like progressive charters or better yet, competitive ones.

None of this should be news. Michael Petrilli has been desperately trying to convince the suburbs that charters matter to them because their schools suck. Such a compelling message.

So charters, the only real success of the reform effort, have seen  their efforts pay off with quasi-private schools for people who aren’t going to be voting Republican any time soon.   GOP voters, those faithless bastards who voted in Trump, aren’t terribly interested in reform. Education Next surveys the public on those values traditional conservatives hold dear. You can see all the 10-year trends at this link, but I thought I’d pick out GOP and general public trends on a few select–and somewhat damning–questions:

First up: support for charters, unions and merit pay. GOP responses first, general public second. You can click to see the enlarged version, but  you can clearly see that two of them have flatlined and one of them is increasing slightly.




The increasing trendline? Union support. Yes, Bets, GOP belief that teacher unions are a net positive for schools is on  the rise. Charters and merit pay? Decreasing slightly, but look at them over time. No movement. Needle’s stopped. Public opinion, same.

I grant you, of course, that GOP voters still like unions less than Democrat ones. But I think you can agree these trendlines are all resistant to happy talk.

Next up: support for vouchers, both low income and universal.

Whoa, serious tanking there. Isn’t that your primary issue, Betsy? I’m assuming Trump hasn’t seen these numbers, or he’d wonder why he’s hiring a fool who’s gotten nothing for her money all these years. How the hell can education reformers demand merit pay when they’ve failed so miserably at their own assignments?

Reformers haven’t changed public opinion about the overall suckiness of teachers and unions or the fabulosity of vouchers.  Yeah, you’ve got more charters but not dramatically more public support for them–and the people who want and get charters aren’t grateful GOP voters. At least charters provide dramatically better academic outcomes. Oh, wait.

Where was I?

Oh. Yeah. Look. You didn’t get Trump here. The epic wave that gave Trump the win didn’t start or end with education reform. You gotta dance with the people who did get him the job. Your policies aren’t popular. Try to remember that. Try to act like that. Try to care about actually making education better, not enacting reforms that have already failed and don’t have popular support.

That doesn’t mean ignoring black and Hispanic kids.

It means coming up with education “reforms” that speak to all schools, all students. I’ll have some suggestions. I promise they won’t involve spending more money.  You won’t have to write a single check!

And remember: education reform has not traditionally been a friendly place for women in charge. Voters and parents have found them wanting. And the bosses haven’t shown much sympathy. Just ask Michelle Rhee and Cami Anderson. You don’t want Trump to suddenly start caring about education for the wrong reasons, y’know?

Happy New Year.

KIPP Mathematica Study and Bragging Rights

After snarling at diCarlo earlier, I can generally agree with his on the one hand, on the other hand analysis of the Mathematica KIPP study. But I have some quibbles:

They show meaningfully large relative gains in all major subjects and on multiple assessments, as well as in other types of outcomes, such as student and parent satisfaction (as is often the case, longer-term outcomes remain an open question).

Understand here I’m talking not as a researcher (which I’m not), but a regular, reasonably well-informed person. Compared to our goals, the gains aren’t that large:

For the full matching sample of 41 KIPP schools, the average impact three years after enrollment is 0.36 standard deviations in math, which is equivalent to moving the KIPP students in our sample from the 44th percentile to the 58th percentile (Figure IV.1).38 Another way of interpreting these impact estimates is to compare KIPP effect sizes to national norms regarding the amount of student academic growth that takes place during middle school (Bloom et al. 2008). Expressed this way, our impacts suggest that on average, KIPP middle schools produce approximately 11 months of extra learning growth in math after three years. For comparison, in study districts there is a gap of 0.90 standard deviations between the average math test scores of black students and white students; students eligible for reduced-price school meals have math scores that are an average of 0.77 standard deviations lower than other students.

The average impact of KIPP after three years in reading (0.21 standard deviations) is somewhat smaller than that for math—equivalent to moving the KIPP students in our sample the 46th to the 55th percentile. This is consistent with a variety of other studies that have found reading scores to be more difficult to move than math scores. In other words, the size of the math impact produced by KIPP schools after three years is equivalent to about 40 percent of the local black-white test score gap and 47 percent of the local achievement gap between higher and lower income students.

(from the study, emphasis mine).

See, that’s what passes for awesome, stop the presses news in educational miracle stories. Not “After three years, KIPP kids have closed the achievement gap.” We aren’t getting, “In high school, KIPP students are getting average scores of 1800 on the SAT”. We aren’t getting “KIPP students are taking and passing 4-5 AP tests” or “KIPP kids are reading at high school level when they enter high school.”

Those would be “large gains”. What we get–and again, I agree this is better than anyone else has managed—is a slightly narrowed gap.

I am not dismissing these results. I’m just sayin’…..well, wait. I said it earlier:

IF you take low ability kids (of any race or income) and IF you select for motivation in the parents, at least, and IF you remove the misbehaving or otherwise highly dysfunctional kids who don’t share their parents’ motivation, and IF you enforce strict behavioral indoctrination in middle class mores and IF you give them hundreds of hours more education a year and IF they are in middle school and IF they are simply being asked to catch up with the material that middle to high ability kids learned fairly effortlessly—that is, elementary reading and math skills…..

…then they will have a slightly better test scores than similarly motivated low ability kids stuck in classes with the misbehavers and highly dysfunctional kids and fewer hours of seat time and less behavioral indoctrination into middle class mores, but their underlying abilities will still be weak and just as far behind their higher ability peers as they were before KIPP.

We can and should discuss the possibility of unmeasured factors such as peer effects, but it seems unlikely that these factors would come close to explaining away the estimated impacts.

Um. What? I looked diCarlo up—no, never been a teacher. Okay. Because the KIPP improvements look exactly like what low ability kids could do if problem children weren’t allowed to daily obliterate classroom learning environments. The improvements don’t look like better teaching, better curriculum, or higher expectations. They aren’t miracles. They are the results of motivated, low ability, kids with caring, committed parents working hard in a rigidly disciplined environment and few distractions.

And, as di Carlo notes, it’s the discipline and the longer school day, not the higher expectations or culture, that made the difference. That, too, sounds a lot like peer effects.

I guess some people think that KIPP’s approach works with the problem kids and turns them into hard workers? Yeah, I’m laughing at that idea.

To over-generalize a bit, critics sometimes seem unwilling to acknowledge that KIPP’s results are real no matter how well-documented they might be, whereas some proponents are quick to use KIPP to proclaim a triumph for the charter movement, one that can justify the expansion of charter sectors nationwide.

I know of no KIPP critic who denies the results are real. They all make much the same point—a point that the Mathematical study observes as well:

Students at three quarters of KIPP schools and parents at about half are required to make participation commitments before students enroll, as reported by principals. The “Choice and Commitment” pillar emphasizes that students and parents have a choice to enroll in a KIPP school and that everyone at the school (leaders, teachers, students and parents) make a commitment to do their part to achieve success. After the admissions lottery determines which students are to be offered admission (if applicable), one way KIPP schools implement this principle is by asking parents and students to sign commitment agreements during a home visit conducted by school staff. Almost half of KIPP principals (48 percent) report that their schools have such participation requirements for parents, and principals at more than three-quarters of schools (76 percent) report that students must sign a responsibilities agreement. Principals at KIPP schools in the matched comparison analysis are significantly more likely to report these participation requirements for parents (61 percent) than principals at all KIPP schools.

(emphasis mine)

To KIPP critics, any reluctance to concede that this commitment requirement isn’t all, or at least most, of the ballgame is just asinine, and insulting to boot. A big difference between KIPP critics and KIPP supporters is the degree to which each group believes that public schools could make the same gains, if they could restrict their population to parents and kids willing to accept home visits and sign commitment agreements. KIPP proponents think that the principals with just 2.5 years experience and brand new teachers that can be fired whenever the brand new principals say so contribute to the gains. KIPP critics demur.

It’s very difficult to put a number on this, but it’s safe to say that this model is not a good fit for a very large proportion of students, regardless of background.

Don’t pussyfoot, di Carlo, spell it out: it’s safe to say this model is not a good fit for white or Asian kids, regardless of background. In fact, no research I know of examines KIPP’s impact on white or Asian kids of any income level, because white or Asian parents are unlikely to ever find KIPP attractive.

It also isn’t a good fit for many low achieving black or Hispanic students, of course. But it’s worth remembering that, apart from Jay Mathews when he’s in super-booster mode, no one seriously argues that the KIPP model is acceptable for all but a fraction of a percentage of white or Asian students.

Ultimately, though, di Carlo continues to skate the larger issue. KIPP proponents are claiming that KIPP gets its results from superior teaching and management—and, not incidentally, use their claims and the gains to attack public schools. KIPP’s critics argue that the results are due to skimming the kids with motivated parents, attrition of the discipline problems returning to public schools, fewer special ed or ELL kids, and KIPP’s freedom to ignore constitutional requirements that public schools have to abide by. (I would add one more caveat: I am highly skeptical that the KIPP middle school kids are doing well in high school, or we’d hear of it. But that’s just me.)

On these points, the Mathematica study offers more support to the critics than the proponents.

The Parental “Diversity” Dilemma

Ah, the eduformers have discovered the progressive charter:

Fueled by a confluence of interests among urban parents, progressive educators, and school reform refugees, a small but growing handful of diverse charter schools like Capital City has sprouted up in big cities over the past decade…These schools attract children of city workers, project residents, New York Times reporters, and government officials, and simultaneously attempt to address the weaknesses of “no-excuses” charter schools, progressive education, and school segregation: “Usually in the places that are all about accountability it doesn’t feel like there is a ton of learning going on as the primary outcome,” says Josh Densen, a former KIPP teacher who is set to open Bricolage Academy next year. “In schools where it’s all about learning, discovery, and projects and teamwork, there seems to me to be an absence of or a reluctance to have any kind of accountability.”

Russo, who’s a pretty even-handed education reporter, touches delicately and indirectly on the cause for the attention: progressive, “diverse” charters spring up in “diverse” environments precisely because the environments are diverse.

Look at the history of most progressive charters and you’ll find they are initiated by white people who fit into one or more of the following categories:

  • Unnerved by the high percentage of low-achieving, low-income kids at their neighborhood school.
  • Unwilling to risk the lottery system for the good schools in their district.
  • Unable to afford private school, or a house in a homogenous suburb.
  • Unsure their kids are going to be able to compete with the top kids in their neighborhood school (particularly in high school)
  • Unhappy with the public school’s treatment of their idiosyncratic little snowflake.

These are people who would move to homogeneous environments, but can’t.

So a bunch of well-off but not super-rich white folks* who don’t want to or can’t move and don’t want to or can’t pay for private school live in a school district in which low-income black/Hispanic kids must be a part of their kids’ school environment. This is not optimal. However, if they can create a charter school and require a bunch of commitments, they can skim the cream off of this population, minimize the impact of low ability kids on their own child’s education, get their kids something close to straight As with far less work than they’d have to do in a public school, congratulate themselves on their tolerance and dedication to diversity, and all for less than the cost of a mid-tier private school. Such a deal.

Unlike low-achieving, majority URM charters, which are generally funded with billionaire grant money or for-profit charters, progressive charters are normally started by parents who are willing to fork out $10K or so apiece to get a charter school off the ground for their kids. Then, once they’ve got seed money, off they go in search of a reasonable amount of low income URM kids.

This kicks off a big hooha with the local school district. First, the charter will never be as “diverse” as the local school district. It will always run considerably behind in URMs. Then, the local school districts will accuse the charter of creaming just the motivated students, of URM attrition, of creating rules and expectations that are tough for the low-income (read Hispanic/black) parents to follow. Then there’s the yearly squabble as the local school district points out that the charters are pulling the public schools’ top achieving low income Hispanic/African American kids whilst leaving behind low incentive kids, special ed kids, English language learners, thus lowering the district school scores, while the charters congratulate themselves for their diversity, tolerance, humanity, generosity and high test scores. The local school district will often reject the charter’s extension, only to be overridden by lawsuits or the state. All done ostensibly in the name of good intentions and diversity, all done actually in the name of minimizing their own kids’ exposure to the lower achieving, poorly behaved low income blacks and Hispanics. (Of course, if the charter’s in a rich enough district, then they don’t even have to worry about finding URMs.)

Am I painting this in the worst possible light? Probably, but it’s not all that pretty. Using taxpayer dollars for upscale liberals (they are, usually, liberals) who don’t want their kids in the overly “diverse” local schools or have a little snowflake who just isn’t good enough to compete in a more competitive public school, gaming the system and using their own dollars to bootstrap a plan to qualify for state and federal dollars? If you’re going to do it, then own it. We can argue about whether or not it’s appropriate to create charters for entirely low income populations, schools that skim the motivated kids without any disabilities or sped problems from the local public schools overloaded with all that and more and then take those kids and mercilessly beat information into them in the hopes of moving them to a better-educated life and middle class jobs. But at least, there, we are working with kids who have no other options, who are being funded largely by grants from billionaires who want to pat themselves on the back for helping the little people.

None of this means that the teachers aren’t hardworking and dedicated and that some low income kids are getting a much safer education than they otherwise would. (In high school, however, it does mean that the kids are all getting much, much better grades than they would be getting in their local comprehensive high schools, which gives them a huge advantage in college admissions.)

The eduformers have started to notice these progressive, “diverse” charters, as well as gentrifying urban schools, which spring from the same motivations. Mike Petrilli** has a book out (What, you didn’t know? You must not be on his Twitter feed.) celebrating the parents who seek out this choice for their kids, despite their concerns about performance and their own little snowflakes’ educations. Why, Petrilli himself suffered through the “diverse schools dilemma”. His own local school in Takoma Park had a student body in which THIRTY FIVE PERCENT of the students qualified for free lunch! I mean, that school almost qualified for Title I! Oh, the humanity. So you can see why Petrilli felt the need to write a book celebrating the parents who brave these schools full of the great illiterate unwashed, and showing them how to find schools that only looked bad on the outside, but weren’t, you know, actually bad.

In fairness, Petrilli, like all educational policy folks, is fixated on elementary and middle schools, which are far more segregated than high schools. So 35% probably seems like a rilly rilly high number to him. But I can list at least five high schools in my general vicinity that have are 65% free-reduced lunch and 65% ELL (mostly Hispanic) with a 30% population of white students, ranging from working class to well-off, a situation that’s becoming increasingly common in many suburbs. So Petrilli’s intro has already spotlighted him as a dilettante. I mean, gosh. 35%!!!

But Petrilli as a eduform policy wonk has been focused on pulling in whites to the reform movement for a while—in fact, I’m deeply skeptical that he ever really researched the issue for his own kids, given how neatly this book ties in with his clear policy goals. In his summary of takeaways from the 2012 election, #1 on his list is “don’t piss off the suburbs”. (And of course, Petrilli didn’t take any of his own advice, running away from the scarily “diverse” Takoma Park in favor of uprooting his family to an expensive house in the suburbs and sending his kids to lily white Wood Acres Elementary, a school he tsks tsks in the intro for being over 90% white. Really, who hands out book deals to people like this?)

So call me uncharitable, but I figure Petrilli and other eduformers are pushing “diversity” as a means of gently tempting house-poor or other economically stretched white folks into seeking out charters in order to further undercut public schools, while also reassuring the suburbs that the reform movement won’t drill and kill their kids to test heaven.

Of course, the real “dilemma” is one I wrote about earlier:

….why are charter schools growing like weeds?

I offer this up as opinion/assertion, without a lot of evidence to back me: most parents know intuitively that bad teachers aren’t a huge problem. What they care about, from top to bottom of the income scale, is environment. Suburban white parents don’t want poor black and Hispanic kids around. Poor black and Hispanic parents don’t want bad kids around. (Yes, this means suburban parents see poor kids as mostly bad kids.) Asian parents don’t want white kids around, much less black or Hispanic….So charters become a way for parents to sculpt their school environments. White parents stuck in majority/minority districts start progressive charters that brag about their minority population but are really a way to keep the brown kids limited to the well-behaved ones. Low income black and Hispanic parents want safe schools. Many of them apply for charter school lotteries because they know charters can kick out the “bad kids” without fear of lawsuits. But they still blame the “bad kids”, not the teachers, which is why they might send their kids to charter schools while still ejecting Adrian Fenty for Michelle Rhee’s sins.

As I’ve mentioned before, education reformers are now pushing suburban charters with strong academic focus, which are nothing more than tracking for parents who can’t get their public schools to do it for them.

And so the dilemma Petrilli and others write about involving both progressive charters and “gentrifying” public schools: how can white middle to upper class parents who can no longer afford to move to a homogeneous district sculpt the schools they want while minimizing the impact of the undesirable students?

Clearly, step one is for the parents to publicly congratulate themselves. They’re not avoiding diversity, they’re seeking it out! (They just don’t mention the part about controlling it.)

And then, wait patiently for step two: Eventually, all but the best low income students will either behave badly enough or get tired of the rules and leave the charter schools for the required-to-take-them comprehensives, and eventually, gentrification will be complete and all the low income students, good and bad, will go off to an exurb somewhere.

So all they have to do is cope until that happy day, and avoid the lawsuits. Tiptoe tentatively around the cultural issues in the meantime. If you want to worry, worry that you bet on the wrong neighborhood and that gentrification won’t take hold.

That’s the diversity dilemma, in a nut shell: a white parents strategy to minimize the impact of low income low ability students on their kids without the expense of a private school or a new house. If the economy or the housing market picks up, expect the trend to fade. Sorry, eduformers, but by and large, white folks like big high schools and full-service middle schools.

Anyway. Russo touches on another point directly: the upper middle class white funded charters are, in almost every case, progressive. They hire their teachers from straight from top-ranked ed schools, all of them thoroughly steeped in the tea of social justice, heterogeneous classrooms, complex instruction, and Freire. Teachers dedicated to closing the achievement gap not by drill and kill, but by shrinking the range by pulling the top-end in sharply. Not, to put it mildly, teachers who will provide an academically rigorous education.

What this means in practice is that progressive charters (and, probably, the gentrified publics) do not have a high-achieving white population–particularly at the high school level. The parents who start progressive charters are more likely to have idiosyncratic kids who would be labelled weird in their public school. Others, like the parents of Emily Jones in Waiting for Superman, are worried their kids wouldn’t track into the top group in their local suburban high school, and thus be stuck with the lower achieving kids. Still others just know their kids won’t work terribly hard and will get weaker grades at the local high school than they would at a progressive charter where they’d be the top students (and where, of course, they will be donating quite a bit of money for that sort of consideration). Parents with high achievers are either going to seek out academic charters (which are rare) or leave their kids in the comprehensive high school, where they are able to compete and perform at the top level.

You can see this reality reflected in the research on charter schools, with one of its key findings: Study charter schools’ impacts on student achievement were inversely related to students’ income levels.

Yep. Drill and kill works great for low ability kids, but heterogeneous complex instruction is a lousy way to teach a mixed ability classroom without many high achievers.

But that’s predictable, isn’t it? After all, progressive charters are a hybrid of the worst of both sides of the education debate. Progressive instruction and goals, social justice crap given full rein, all in an organizational structure designed to pull off exactly the sort of kids who wouldn’t benefit from it, courtesy of the reform movement.


* I know many nice parents who send their kids to charters. I get it. But stripped of all the rationalizations, this is what’s left.

**I am normally a middling fan of Petrilli. He does come off a bit like a hyper-enthusiastic, gormless Richie Cunningham. But the minute he decided to move his family out to the homogenous zone, he should have dropped the book deal.