making-up-ground game

Study: Students gain by attending city charter schools, usually

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A chart from the latest CREDO study about city charter schools shows that students at many charter schools make outsized gains in math. But in reading, charter school students tend fall behind more often, researchers found.

City students benefit from attending city charter schools, according to a new study — but the advantages are not universal.

The study, by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes, which analyzes charter school performance, concluded that city charter school students, on average, learn five more months of math each year than similar students in neighboring schools. In Harlem, where the charter school enrollment share is highest, the math gain was seven months, the researchers found.

And in reading, charter school students averaged one month’s additional learning each year, the researchers found. All of the gains were measured by students’ state test scores.

Yet within the sector, some schools did far better than the average — and others far worse. The study found that nearly two thirds of charter schools moved their students forward in math significantly farther than other schools in the area. But a full quarter of charter schools moved their students forward significantly less in reading.

In 2010, CREDO found that students at New York City charter schools advanced in math and reading faster than students at schools operated by the city Department of Education. The new study looks at a larger number of schools and also uses a methodology that CREDO has applied elsewhere. The methodology compares actual charter school students’ performance to that of “virtual twins” in district schools — students who are demographically identical and start with similar academic skills.

In almost all cases where students in charter and district schools had statistically significant differences, students’ test scores increased faster in charter schools than in district schools. All of the exceptions were for reading scores — for black and Hispanic students, where students on average did slightly worse; students in schools that spanned many grades; students in their first year at a charter school; and students in schools that do not belong to charter management organizations.

The study draws special attention to the 46 percent of charter schools whose student achievement on state reading tests was lower than the city average — and whose students made less progress than average, too.

“The number that demands attention is the nearly 46 percent of New York City charter schools that have both low growth and low achievement in reading,” Devora Davis, the lead author of the CREDO report said in a statement. “If things continue as they are students in these schools may be at risk of falling further behind their peers in the state over time.”

Charter school advocates said the 46 percent number was misleading because it was based on a calculation with a larger margin of error than most of those in the report. But they said low-performing and high-performing schools should both get a closer look. Nationally, the charter sector is lobbying charter school authorizers to close more low-performing charter schools.

“These results should finally ignite a conversation around what is working in these schools, and how successful practices can be spread so that many more students in both traditional and charter public schools can benefit,” said James Merriman, CEO of the New York City Charter School Center, in a statement.

And Bill Phillips, president of the Northeast Charter Schools Network, said the findings helped make the case for charter schools to be able to secure state funding for pre-kindergarten, an issue that is at the top of the charter sector’s agenda for the year.

And a spokesman for the city Department of Education said the report’s findings proved that school choice is benefiting students.

“This report further validates our strategy to offer families high quality school options,” said the spokesman, Devon Puglia. “We’re continuing to stay focused on building a system of great schools, and on improving outcomes in all of them — district and charter.”

Because so many Harlem students attend charter schools — 25 percent during the period analyzed in the study — the researchers could take a closer look at the impact of schools there on different kinds of students. They found that poor students, low-scoring students, and students who have repeated grades all make gains faster in charter schools. English language learners and students with special needs did not post significantly different growth in the two kids of schools.

The full CREDO report is below:

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.