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August 26, 2009

Secretary Duncan: Let Charter Schools Be Charter Schools

Gordon Macinnes

This is the third commentary on Secretary Arne Duncan’s campaign to strengthen charter schools, including an expanded role as turn-around specialists for failed district schools. 

It is a policy initiative that puts undeserved and unmanageable weight on still-fragile institutions, and deflects attention from more effective alternatives.

In his June speech to the national charter school association, Secretary Duncan challenged the evolving charter networks like KIPP, Aspire, and Uncommon Schools to turn their attention to failed district schools, particularly those that make up the bottom 5%.  Some may wonder if this modest point is worthy of such expansive commentary, but ill-conceived policies have a way of gaining momentum.

Certainly, everyone can learn from the examples that some of the schools in these networks have set.  Frequently, they have taken students from a random applicant pool in the nation’s poorest neighborhoods and demonstrated that such kids could perform at a dramatically higher level.

 

While the book hasn’t been finished on these high-performing charter schools, they share attributes that could help turn around struggling schools anywhere.  Here are the irrefutably useful lessons from stellar charter (and district) schools:

  • Focus relentlessly on academic achievement;
  • Believe that poor kids can learn whatever is well taught;
  • Assume that students from impoverished homes require more time on instruction, collective and personalized;
  • Establish a culture that emphasizes optimism, effort, and more effort;
  • Hire and support teachers who are willing to work long hours, try new approaches, teach large classes, and be accessible to students and their parents; and,
  • Prepare students for a university education.

As I indicated in my earlier commentaries, all this is made easier if one can start from scratch, enroll only students whose parents are seeking better educational opportunities, and minimize the number of students who are classified disabled or as English learners.

To get a clearer view of how Secretary Duncan’s proposal might work on the ground, I compared students in the three New Jersey charter schools that belong to networks mentioned in his speech with the students in the “5% schools” in their cities.   TEAM Academy in Newark and the KIPP Freedom Academy in Camden are both part of the KIPP network; Newark’s North Star Academy is one of the Uncommon Schools.   These two cities are home to about 36% of the 63 schools that make up the bottom 5% of the 1,264 New Jersey schools that took the 5th grade state literacy test in 2008.  I selected the 5th grade test in English literacy to establish the “5%” pool for three reasons:

 

·        The one indisputable obligation of public education is to teach all kids to read and write well;

·        that students need to be strong readers by 5th grade to have a chance for self-education; and,

·        that the longest experience of all three charter schools is teaching 5th graders. 

 

The 5% schools were identified by sorting the 2008 NJASK language arts test by lowest to highest mean scale scores and taking the bottom 63 schools.

While Newark and Camden enroll only 3.7% of all fifth graders who took the 2008 test, they supplied 6.7% of students found “partially proficient.”  Only 13% of all Camden fifth-graders were proficient (the lowest proficiency rate of any district), versus 59.9% for the state as a whole, and 33.1% among students in the poorest “district factor group.” For reasons not explained, the results for nine of Camden’s nineteen elementary schools were not reported, but eight of the ten that were, fell into the bottom 5% of schools statewide. 

Newark students did better on average, in that 32.2% of fifth graders were proficient, but only 24.9% of students in its fifteen “5% schools.”  So too, Newark’s proportion of 5% schools was noticeably lower than Camden’s, with 15 of 39 schools for which complete results were reported falling into the bottom category.

If the leadership of either district wanted to turn to a high-performing charter school in its city (a dubious assumption), there are plenty of failed schools to pick from.  And, a network-member charter school would have to step forward to inherit such a school (an equally dubious assumption).  Under Secretary Duncan’s framework, the district and charter school would have a year to plan the take-over and to assess the quality of the inherited faculty, staff, and facility.  So, let’s take a look at the match-up between district schools at the bottom of the barrel and neighboring charter schools that bring a “brand” reputation for effective instruction. 

Camden’s KIPP Freedom Academy has been operating since 2004 serving grades 5-8.  With 275 students it is about half the size of most of the Camden schools on the “5%” list.  In common with other KIPP schools, Freedom Academy operates on longer school day, requires Saturday attendance, and operates during the summer.  KIPP students spend almost four hours or 66.7% more time in class each day than do Camden district students, and they spend more days.  The added time helps explain why KIPP’s proficiency rate is more than three times that of Camden district (44.6% v 13%).  While below the state average proficiency, the difference is great enough to establish KIPP Freedom Academy as a credible take-over candidate.  A closer look, however, raises doubts.

The first question is whether KIPP Freedom Academy has the knowledge and experience with young students to take on even one of the smaller failed schools.  All eight Camden 5% schools start with either preschool or kindergarten students and go through 8th grade.  The requirements for teaching three year-olds or second graders are much, much different.  Just because the Freedom Academy folk delight in spending so much time with the bigger, louder, sassier, hormone-hopping middle graders, does not mean that they would do well with small, young children.

The school closest in size, Lanning Square, illustrates a second problem for the KIPP management: almost one-fifth of its students (52 or 18.9%) are classified as disabled, including 36 who spend most of the day in specialized, small classes.  KIPP reported that three of its 22 special education students were too severely disabled to be assigned a grade level. These contrasts in the severity and magnitude of special education students raise big questions about KIPP’s suitability as a take-over agent.

A third factor has generated little comment.  At least in New Jersey, high-performing charter schools are dominated by girls, and this usually makes a significant difference in academic performance.  NAEP has tracked a gender gap in reading that has barely budged since 1992 (eight v. seven scale points in 2007).  Girls out-performed boys by 7.8 scale points on the NJ 2008 5th grade literacy test.  Meanwhile, girls have closed the “math gap” in the lower grade assessment.  The pattern is well-known and well-documented.  KIPP Freedom Academy begins with a noticeable advantage in that 55.7% of its students are girls!  In the failed 5% schools, conversely, 55% are boys.  There is no certain explanation for this enrollment imbalance, although a reasonable hypothesis might be that the parents of younger girls seek alternative schools that are smaller, safer, and more demanding academically. 

A fourth question-raiser is the high faculty and student turnover at KIPP Freedom.  Basically, the faculty turned over more than twice in just three years.  And it loses more than a third of its students each year (36.8%, on average, in the last two years).  A sympathetic interpretation is that the leadership of KIPP Freedom is very demanding and is quick to replace teachers who cannot measure up to the high academic expectations and the grueling hours.  Or, it’s possible that young teachers feel that the school leadership does not provide enough assistance for such a demanding schedule.  A less friendly view of its student mobility is that difficult and under-achieving students are “counseled out.”

This analysis—based on one small charter school in one of the nation’s poorest cities—may be unfair to the KIPP brand.  However, since the question is whether Secretary Duncan’s emphasis on charter schools as instruments of improvement is sensible, it must be answered in the context of real places, real schools.  Newark offers a bigger base of charters and of failed schools.

Freedom Academy’s Newark cousin, KIPP TEAM Academy, is larger, more experienced (it begins its 8th year in September, 2009), and is launching a primary school in 2009.  Moreover, it presents a picture of much greater stability than does Freedom, with its student and faculty mobility rates both around 3%.  During the regular 180-school year, TEAM students spend the equivalent of 108 additional days in class instruction (based on the district’s 5 hour, 50 minute daily instruction)!   Plus they spend another 28 days!  A modest 8.9% of students are classified disabled and there are no English learners. 

Yet, Newark district leaders might pause before approaching TEAM.  In looking over the results of the benchmark 5th grade literacy assessment, TEAM students did slightly better than the average district student (a mean score of 188.8 v. 185.0), but not as well as the 5th graders in ten of the district’s 38 schools or in four of Newark’s 12 charter schools.  If the TEAM leader were really interested in taking on a struggling district school, he might reply, “Hold on, we inherited our 5th graders primarily from district schools and had them for only seven months before the state assessments.  What counts is the performance after a year or two.”

Fair enough.  However, TEAM students who benefited from four years in the KIPP system, did not perform nearly as well as their peers in four Newark charter schools or in seven district schools.  On the 2008 8th grade literacy test, a credible 71.1% were proficient with a mean score of 208.6, but at North Star its 8th graders were 100% proficient and 21% of them “advanced proficient.”  So, too, at Discovery Charter, Robert Treat Academy and the Gray Academy did 8th graders perform much better.  And the Newark superintendent might have a hard time explaining turning to a charter school for help when so many of Newark’s own schools are achieving at noticeably higher levels (the range of higher scores was from 215.9 at Ridge Street to 220.6 at First Avenue).

There may be KIPP schools elsewhere that merit consideration as take-over candidates in Secretary Duncan’s view, but New Jersey’s KIPP schools are not ready.

When Secretary Duncan made his first official visit to NJ, he selected North Star Academy for his media stop.  And for good reason.  A key participant in Uncommon Schools, North Star has produced some dramatic results since opening in 1997.  Its middle school students consistently out-perform their peers in district schools.  While three district schools out-scored North Star’s 5th graders, not one district school came close to its 8th graders in terms of average scale score or proficiency or advanced proficiency rates.  North Star enjoys a much more stable student body and faculty, no English learners, and a low 7.0% special education rate.  It provides the equivalent of an additional 85 days of instruction time over the Newark public schools. 

If North Star’s leadership were willing to take over a failed district school, is there anything that would give the Newark superintendent pause?  To start, special education.  The fifteen 5% schools have a classification rate averaging 17.9% compared to North Star’s 7.0%.   None of the North Star students were severely enough disabled to be placed in an ungraded status.  What happens in a class of 25 students when teachers deal not with one or two mildly disabled students but four or five, some with more severe disabilities?  A difficult job is made more difficult is what happens.   

Second, at North Star 59% of its students are girls, an enormous imbalance that will not be found in any of the failed schools.  Not one 5% school has a commanding majority of girls, five are male dominated (Camden Street is 62% boys).  Aside from the well-established gender advantage in literacy, a school top-heavy with girls is more likely to enjoy a serious academic, less rowdy, atmosphere. 

Third, is North Star’s lack of experience with English learners.  As it turns out, only two of the fifteen 5% schools have significant populations of English learners, two have none.  Plainly, North Star would avoid selecting a heavily Latino school.

Fourth, in common with its KIPP colleagues, North Star has little experience with primary-grade students, and none with preschoolers.  It opened a primary school in 2007.  Since its first kindergarten class only finished first grade in 2009, it is premature to judge North Star’s efficacy in preparing literate third graders.

Are these four issues sufficient to eliminate North Star from consideration if it wanted to take on a failed Newark school?  Not necessarily.  We certainly do not know enough details about the fifteen candidate-schools to be definite.  Clearly, North Star should steer clear of schools with high special education and English learner counts.  There are four schools that have special education rates between 7 and 9.9% and have only one, two or three English learners that might be worth a discussion.  The motivating force should be the opportunity to turn over a school to a leadership group that has demonstrated that it can produce dramatically improved results with students from poor neighborhoods.  That is worth is a chat.

This analysis of three charter schools in two NJ cities is not conclusive.  There may be charter operators that are ready to take up Secretary Duncan’s challenge.  However, the evidence from one state suggests that his approach will produce few opportunities for failed schools.  If any.  He should support and encourage network charter schools to do what they’ve demonstrated they can do: start effective schools de novo.  Suggesting that they take on the toughest instructional problems faced by public schools is premature and unfair.

Secretary Duncan’s attention would be better placed on more certain bets, like expanding opportunities for high-quality preschool and intensive early literacy in the primary grades.  This preferred approach requires cooperating with districts that are ready to tie the two programs together.  When that happens, even schools without the “hero” principals the Secretary hopes to recruit, can improve dramatically.

 

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Sharon McCloskey

Perhaps you might be interested in this story comparing Newark's KIPP schools with Discovery Charter:

http://columbia.news21.com/?p=749

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