Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Diane Ravitch and the Performance of Charter Schools

Diane Ravitch is no fan of Charter schools. In her book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, she makes several claims about Charters having unfair advantages over traditional public schools with no significant performance benefit as their justification.

Although she was once in favor of options for giving students a choice in selecting a school, she believes that the various plans have either not worked, or they have worked to the detriment of the regular public school systems. She sees Charter schools as being the vehicle of choice for those would wish to apply market-based principles to schools or those who wish to experiment with alternative educational approaches. I think it is important to recall that these are two different approaches to the vision of charter schools. Ravitch has a tendency to lump these two types together when evaluating the utility of charter schools. This can be misleading.

With respect to market-based initiatives, the author points out that:
"The basic strategy was the market model, which relied on two related assumptions: belief in the power of competition and belief in the value of deregulation. The market model worked in business, said the advocates, where competition led to better products, lower prices and leaner bureaucracies, so it would undoubtedly work in education as well."There are so many things that could go wrong with this type of approach that one need not take the time to explain why they would agree with Ravitch that this not the way to go. However she tends to paint all charter schools with the same brush, often forgetting the second class of charter school—those who wish to experiment with new techniques that might be more broadly applied.
"Charter schools represented, more than anything else, a concerted effort to deregulate public education, with few restrictions on pedagogy, curriculum, class size, discipline, or other details of their operation."

"They recalled that one of the original goals of the charter movement was to engage in experimentation to see what works best, but the repeated claim that charter schools were superior to regular schools suggests that ‘experimentation is not necessary because charter school operators already know what works’."
There is a recent study which presumably came out too late for inclusion in this volume, but she does refer to it in a recent article in The Nation magazine. That particular article was discussed here. The study was by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University (June, 2009). This study seems to support her claim that charter schools have not been successful—at least in general. This is a long report with much data. The most quoted outcome of the study was a chart which is referred to as a "Market Fixed-Effects Quality Curve." What this is intended to do is compare charter school performance to those of comparable traditional public schools (TPS) as fairly as possible. The summary results were that the performance of 37% of the charter schools was below the level of TPS, for 46% there was not significant difference with TPS performance, and 17% of the charter schools produced significantly better results than TPS.

Ravitch looks at this data and sees failure on the part of the charter movement. I look at it and see success. Given the sloppy approach to introducing charter schools in many states (well documented by the author), I would not expect many to outperform the traditional public schools. However, why not rejoice in the 17% who have succeeded. To support her thesis, the author has to argue away this success. She concludes that the successful charter schools are "gaming" the system in one way or another. The ways this is done are usually via student selection. Most of the successful charters seem to work with a lottery system for children in socially and economically challenged environments. Students who apply for charters (which generally promise increased demands on the students) are the most motivated of the students whose departure will leave the traditional school at a disadvantage. Charter schools are also claimed to enroll fewer special-needs students such as English learners and disabled children. She also claims that such schools have high attrition rates, which means that the lowest performers have to be reabsorbed by the traditional schools.

She points out that the KIPP schools tend to perform well.
"The charter schools with the most impressive record of success are the KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) schools, which have been called culture changing schools, because they aim to teach students not just academics but also self-discipline and good behavior"She then proceeds to try and negate the KIPP success by the various student selectivity arguments given above. Then she makes the claim
"Thus while KIPP schools obtain impressive results for the students who remain enrolled for all four years, the high levels of student attrition and teacher turnover raise questions about the applicability of the KIPP model to the regular public schools."She then, curiously, couples that statement with the following observation.
"In the demands they make on students, teachers, and parents, the KIPP schools are reminiscent of the American public schools of the 1940s, or even the 1920s, before the onset of class-action lawsuits and union contracts. In those days, it was not unusual to encounter schools with strict disciplinary codes and long working hours (although not nine-and-a-half hour days."So, she says it can’t be done that way, and in the next breath says that was the way we used to do it in the good old days. I find that a bit perplexing. Does she not realize that by making comments like that she is playing into the hands of those who would claim that unions and regulations are the source of all problems?

Malcolm Gladwell wrote at length about the KIPP school approach in his book Outliers. What he emphasized is that the long hours at the school and the study requirements essentially created a new community for the children. Disadvantaged children were taken out of an environment in which they had little social capital in terms of parental guidance and positive peer pressure, and lacked of a sense of empowerment—a sense of personal worth. Within the KIPP community they begin to obtain the same social capital that children from more wealthy and successful communities obtain almost by birth right.

Needless to say, based on what I know, I am a fan of the KIPP approach. But what of the claims of unfair advantages that accrue to their schools. There is yet another study recently published. Several foundations (not the Gates Foundation) contributed funds to support a long term study of the performance of KIPP schools by Mathematica Policy Research (Princeton). Since this study is funded by a friendly audience one should look at it carefully. I will, for now, assume it to be accurate and unbiased. The first report was issued in June 2010. Its summary conclusions were:
KIPP does not attract more able students (as compared to neighboring public schools).

KIPP schools typically have a statistically significant impact on student achievement.

Academic gains at many KIPP schools are large enough to substantially reduce race and income-based achievement gaps.

Most KIPP schools do not have higher levels of attrition than nearby district schools.
The author’s claim of higher attrition rates that would leave only the high performers who bend the performance curve upward does not seem to be applicable here. While the claim that the most motivated students are being drawn to the KIPP schools might be true, it does not appear that the public schools are being left stripped of talent. Although KIPP can draw from private funds for development and expansion, its spending per student is comparable to ambient public schools. The report did indicate that the KIPP schools tend to have fewer "special needs" students. If the KIPP schools can do more with the students than the traditional schools, then more power to them. Isn’t that precisely the point of a charter school? How can Ravitch argue that it is wrong to take 2%, 5%, 10%, 20%, or whatever number of willing students there are, and put them on a path to success, when the alternative is to let them remain part of a failing population?

Found here  is a short article summarizing the KIPP study findings. And here is another article describing a charter high school in Chicago that is located in a poor area and has managed to get 100% of the students (all male, all black) from their first graduating class accepted into four-year colleges, even though only 4% were reading at grade level as incoming freshmen. Like KIPP, this is not your average school. Like KIPP, the school tries to create a more nurturing community where the students can accumulate knowledge and the required social capital necessary to succeed.

There are ways to do things better. Rather than damning all because many are not exceptional, we should applaud those who have demonstrated methods that work, and try to take better advantage of what has been learned.


  1. heartening news!

  2. It is always good to hear that someone left feeling better!


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