study says...

Who’s helping and who’s hurting? New national study looks at how charter networks measure up, from KIPP to K12

PHOTO: Andy Cross/Denver Post

Some charter school networks are significantly improving student achievement, but others are harming student learning.

That’s the conclusion of the latest study from CREDO, a Stanford-based research group that has released some of the highest-profile research on charter schools.

In the new analysis, they set out to answer key questions that are hotly debated in the charter school world. What types of charters are most effective? Which networks are most successful? And what students benefit most?

A number of well known “no excuses”-style school networks like KIPP and YES Prep come out looking good, but others — including large virtual school networks and for-profit charters — don’t. And the authors of the report say too many schools aren’t being held accountable for their results.

“Charter school authorizers are charged with acting as the gatekeepers to ensure schools of choice are beneficial to their students,” the authors write. “Some of them seem to be abdicating that responsibility.”

The study is considerable in scope, and examining hundreds of school networks across 26 states between the 2012–13 and 2014–15 school years. (This and other studies from CREDO were funded by the Walton Family Foundation, which supports charter school expansion; Walton also supports Chalkbeat.)

Here’s what the study tells us:

What kinds of charter schools work best?

The latest study distinguishes between three types of charter schools. The first is independent stand-alone schools, which account for 68 percent of the country’s charter schools. The second is schools that are a part of charter-management organizations — networks that include both for-profit and nonprofit providers and account for 22 percent of schools. The third is “vendor-operated” schools, where a charter board outsources operations to a company (usually run for profit), which account for 8 percent of schools.

Students attending a school run by a charter management organization seem to benefit the most. CMOs lead to small but statistically significant annual gains in math and reading, relative to both traditional public schools and other types of charters.

The impact is roughly equivalent to a student moving from the 50th percentile of performance to the 51st percentile. (CREDO converts that impact into “days of learning,” but a number of researchers have questioned the accuracy of this approach, as well as CREDO’s method of comparing students at charter schools to peers who attend nearby district schools.)

“Despite the wide range of CMO quality, larger organizations of charter holders have taken advantage of scale to the benefit of their students,” the study says.

Both independent and vendor-operated schools perform about the same as district schools in math and very slightly better in reading.

The report also breaks down performance by a school’s tax status. Giving credence to concerns among some advocates, charters operated by a nonprofit perform modestly better in both math and reading than for-profit schools.

There is an even starker divide when comparing fully virtual schools against brick-and-mortar charters. Online schools significantly reduce test scores, while in-person charter schools lead to small gains in performance. That is consistent with past studies, including CREDO’s.

“It is time for operators, authorizers and legislatures to step up to their responsibilities to ensure virtual schools, both traditional and charter, are only used when they are the best option for students,” the authors write.

Which specific networks of schools do best?

Individual networks also lead to dramatically different results. Moderate or large networks with positive impacts included Achievement First, BASIS, Democracy Prep, the Denver School of Science and Technology, Great Hearts Academies, Harmony Schools, IDEA, KIPP, National Heritage Academies, Uncommon Schools, and YES Prep.

Conversely, some big groups of schools produced significant drops in achievement. Those include Chicago International Charter Schools, Connections Academy, K12, the Leona Group, and White Hat Management. These school networks often serve as many or more students than the higher-achieving networks.

K12 and Connections Academy have previously disputed CREDO’s approach.

Who benefits the most?

CREDO finds significant variation from state to state, as well as by student population.

For instance, in both CMOs and vendor-operated schools, black and Hispanic students generally see achievement boosts, but white students and students with disabilities see their test scores drop.

Among charter networks, schools in Massachusetts boosted scores the most, while charter networks in Nevada actually hurt students’ scores.

What should oversight of charter schools look like?

The “grand bargain” of charter schools has been autonomy in exchange for accountability. But what that accountability looks like has ranged widely by location and among authorizers overseeing the schools.

Some charter school advocates believe in strict accountability based largely or exclusively on standardized tests. The National Association of Charter School Authorizers, for one, has pushed for charters to be closed based on poor academic progress.

Other choice advocates argue that tests are limited measures of performance and that families are best situated to assess school quality. U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has been seen as belonging to this camp. (Notably, though, DeVos met with NACSA last week.)

The authors of the report say their findings show that accountability based on academic performance is needed to ensure students are attending high-quality charter schools.

“Why are charter schools with weak academic track records allowed to replicate? Why are some networks with terrible average growth allowed to continue to operate multiple schools?” the report asks.

get out the vote

Can schools encourage students to be more involved citizens? A new study suggests yes they can.

Democracy Prep charter network superintendent Seth Andrew at a 2012 admissions lottery event.

In a city of roughly 1,800 schools, many have names that have little to do with what students experience.

Not so for Democracy Prep, a network of charter schools that a new study concludes makes students far more likely to vote once they turn 18.

The study, conducted by independent researchers commissioned by Democracy Prep, took advantage of New York City’s charter school admissions rules to examine the impact of applying to, getting accepted to, and enrolling in the network’s schools on later civic participation.

Looking at more than a thousand students who applied between 2007 and 2015 who were old enough to vote in 2016, the researchers found that just being selected in the admissions lottery was correlated with a slight increase in voting rates. Students who were chosen voted 6 percent more often than students who were not.

The impact was much greater on students who were chosen and actually enrolled: They voted 24 percent more often than students who applied but never got a chance to attend.

The findings suggest that Democracy Prep is achieving its explicit goal of promoting civic participation. They also offer one answer to the question of whether charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately managed, undermine democracy.

“Democracy Prep provides a test case of whether charter schools can successfully serve the foundational purpose of public education—preparation for citizenship—even while operating outside the direct control of elected officials,” the researchers write. “With respect to the critical civic participation measures of registration and voting, the answer is yes.”

Seth Andrew, who started the network with a single middle school in Harlem in 2006, said he was pleased by the findings — and unsurprised, because the network has baked civic participation into its culture and academic program. Students must take on a personal “Change the World” project and pass the U.S. citizenship exam to graduate.

“This idea of ‘change the world’ was very central to what we were trying to get our kids prepared and excited to do,” he said.

Creating more engaged citizens takes more than just adding a civics class, said Katie Duffy, the CEO of Democracy Prep. Schools have to make democracy a part of the daily culture, she said.

“The more you talk about the importance of voting, the importance of elections, the importance of advocacy,” she said, “the more it becomes ingrained in our kids.”

The network has also long used Election Day — when district-run schools are often closed so their buildings can be used as polling stations — as a teachable moment.

In 2008, Democracy Prep students spent the day working to get out the vote in their neighborhoods. Four years later, Democracy Prep schools were among the few housed in city space that got special permission to stay open — and the network sent students out to advance the “Vote for Somebody” campaign it had kicked off in a catchy viral video. The next year, students promoted a different message — “I can’t vote but you can” — in an effort to boost the city’s 11 percent primary election voter participation rate.

The network’s influence extends far beyond its students. In 2012, six years into the network’s existence, officials estimated that students had helped 5,000 New Yorkers register to vote. Now, the network runs 22 schools in five states.

Andrew said the study’s findings about the impact of the network — which he left in 2012 to work on other civic engagement initiatives, including at the White House — offer only a start at a time when the United States lags behind other developed countries in voter turnout.

“I was thrilled with the outcome,” said Andrew. “But the as the guy that founded Democracy Prep I feel like there’s a whole lot of room to grow.”

bills bills bills

New legislation aims to diversify New York City’s elite high schools. Here are 3 reasons to be skeptical.

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
State Senator Jamaal Bailey unveiled legislation to boost diversity at the city's specialized high schools on Thursday.

Legislation introduced Thursday aimed at integrating New York City’s specialized high schools skirted one big issue: the admissions test.

Instead, the bills would create a new citywide test for sixth graders designed to help them prepare for the exam; establish a commission to study the admissions process and issue recommendations; and require that all specialized high schools admit some students who just missed the cutoff score.

“We want to make sure that we’re doing more to allow more students access to the test,” said Jamaal Bailey, a state senator who represents parts of the Bronx and crafted the legislation.

Specialized high schools have remained starkly segregated for years, despite pledges from Mayor Bill de Blasio to promote diversity at them. Last month, the education department announced black and Hispanic students accounted for just 10.4 percent of offers to the eight specialized schools that admit students based on a single exam — a number that has gone essentially unchanged since de Blasio took office more than four years ago. (Citywide, nearly 70 percent of students are black or Hispanic.)

Standing on the steps of City Hall, and flanked by the alumni foundation president at Brooklyn Tech — a specialized school — Bailey unveiled a legislative package he said would help move the needle.

But there are good reasons to be skeptical of the plan. Here are three of them.

1. Experts say changing the admissions process is crucial to integrating specialized schools. This legislation leaves it alone.

Critics of the current admissions system argue that it favors students who have time and resources to prepare for an admissions test that serves as the sole gatekeeper for the ultra-selective schools. And researchers at New York University have shown that changing the admissions requirements to offer admission to the top 10 percent of students at every middle school is one of the few surefire ways to “substantially change” the schools’ demographics.

2. The proposal doubles down on a diversity program that is already in place — and isn’t making a dent.

Bailey’s legislation requires each specialized high school to participate in the Discovery program, which allows a small set of students to gain admission even if they score just below the cutoff. The city has already expanded that program to include every specialized school and it has helped a shrinking share of black and Hispanic students in recent years. And even if it helped more underrepresented students, its impact would likely be small: Just 4 percent of all specialized school admissions offers were issued through the program last year.

3. The bill assumes preparation will help underserved students gain admission, but the city’s test prep programs haven’t made a big difference.

The legislation creates a citywide test for sixth graders that would mimic the current exam for eighth graders, giving students a head start on preparing for the exam while simultaneously increasingly awareness of it. “Many children in my district don’t know about the test,” he said. But the city has already boosted public test prep programs (which some students have said are not high-quality) and expanded outreach to increase the number of students who take the exam. None of those efforts have changed the racial balance at specialized high schools, which are just as segregated as they were before those programs were expanded.

Bailey, who is himself a graduate of Bronx Science, a specialized school, acknowledged that his proposals may not radically change the demographics at the elite schools. But he said he is “not averse” to broader changes and said he imagined the new commission created by his legislation could recommend more systemic changes.

“I believe they will pay off,” he said. “It’s more opportunities and more information for children.”