IN SEARCH OF THE QUICK EXPLANATION! Why did charter kids score higher? The editors spoke from on high: // link // print // previous // next //
TUESDAY, DECEMBER 23, 2008
Tis the season/North of Boston: Were heading north for a week and a day or two, incomparably timing our trip to coincide with the holiday season. Below, we finish yesterdays ruminations about DCs charter schools:
IN SEARCH OF THE QUICK EXPLANATION: Statistical illiteracy tends to prevail when the Washington Post discusses educational testing. (Example: Are this years tests are hard as last years? You cant compare test scores unless you know. Have you ever seen the Post ask?) So no one should have been surprised when the editors offered those puzzling data about (low-income) kids in DC charter schools. Heres that part of last weekends editorialthe part which made us glance away, cheeks burning in embarrassment:
In fact, the report dealt with low-income students in DC charter schools, not with students in generalbut that wasnt why we averted our gaze. Students in middle-school charters scored 19 points higher than their peers in regular schools on national reading tests, the editors proclaimed. To recall why we blanched, then glanced away, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/22/08.
In fairness, the editors blunder about those test score gaps was a minor part of this editorial. In their opening paragraph, the eds had done something much more significanttheyd tried to explain why DC charters were outpacing DCs traditional schools. Assuming that students in the charters really are doing better, thats a question which actually matters. And heres the way the eds explained it, right at the start of their piece:
Again, the editors misstated their factual claim from the jump; the news report on which this editorial was based concerned low-income students (in middle schools), not DC students generally. But quickly, the editors stated their larger view: In DC, charter school kids are scoring higher not because they come from more privileged backgrounds but because the charters are free to innovate and implement practices that work. Thats a very important judgmentand we dont know why the editors feel so certain about it.
Lets return to the lengthy news report on which this editorial was based. In DCs middle schools, charter kids are outscoring their peers in traditional schools, Dan Keating and Theola Labbe-DeBose said. (Were assuming their data are accurate.) And sure enough! Right in the front-page headline in our hard-copy Post, a judgment was made about the cause of the score gaps:
We think thats a fair account of what the authors said in their report. They suggested two reasons for the charter schools higher scores; the charters have a funding advantage, they said, and the charters apply rigorous methods not often seen in the regular schools. Five days later, the editors voiced their own viewsand skipped right past that funding advantage. The eds made the news reports tale even simpler: Charter school kids are outscoring their peers because the charters are free to innovate and implement practices that work. Soon, the editors identified a few of these practices: [L]onger school days, summer classes, an inclusive culture of parental involvement, and the power to hire teachers who are committed to a school's philosophy and dismiss teachers who aren't up to the job.
According to the editors, charters students are doing better because of those practicesand thats the end of the story. No other explanations need apply. Charter kids are not doing better because they come from more privileged backgrounds, the editors specifically said.
But is that true? Were not real sure why the editors feel so certain.
In their original news report, Keating and Labbe-DeBose also seemed to reject a traditional notionthe notion that charter schools may draw brighter, more ambitious students away from the regular schools. Unfortunately, their analysis of this possibility was rather superficial. In the following passage, we see the heart of their case. Because the question is so important, we dont think this reasoning cuts it:
The authors say that charters and traditional schools are, in general, educating students from similar backgrounds. To establish this fact, they cite data about income and raceand about nothing else. But low-income students are not all alike, and the authors make little real attempt to address the long-standing, basic question about charters: Are the students who choose to attend these rigorous charter schools more ambitious, more determined, more focused than the students they leave behind? It would be hard to answer that question, of course, but the authors brushed past it quicklyand five days later, the editors treated it as a settled point. But this is typical of the way these eds work when discussing the public schools.
By the way: Not all low income families are equally low-income. Are the low-income kids in the charter schools as low-income as the kids in the regular schools? We can think of a few simple ways to start to check, but the authors didnt try to do so. Nor did they try to quantify the expulsions they mention above, seeking a sense of the role these expulsions might play in the charters success. In their report, a KIPP official tells them that expulsions have not been a major factorand thats where the matter ends. This is not an impressive attempt to examine these parts of their story.
Assuming the Posts test score data are accurate, why are low-income kids scoring better in DCs charters? Thats a very important question. We think the eds should maintain open minds about possible answersalthough such miracles rarely occur when the Post proclaims on the schools.
In closing, three more basic points:
First, if you read through the Keating/Labbe-DeBose piece, you will read about a lot of people in charter schools who are working very hard to succeed. How different are some DC charters? Heres a quick overview:
School culture has vastly changed in these schools. In our book, the people who run these schools deserve praise and credit for their ongoing efforts. But: Are the low-income parents who sign those statements, thus sending their kids to these vastly changed schools, the same as the low-income parents who dont? Are their kids the same as the kids left behind? The editors tell us the kids are the samethat the kids in the charter schools do not come from more privileged backgrounds. But low-income children are privilegedas opposed to some of their peersif they have disciplined, focused, insistent parents. As always, the editors issue proclamations from high in Versailles. Do they know whereof they speak?
A second point: Is there any possibility that testing is conducted differently in these ambitious charters? We have no idea, though its obviously possible. But youll see big newspapers ask that question when you see a cow jump past the moon.
And then too, a final point, concerning DCs low-income students as compared to their low-income peers in the rest of the nation:
To review DCs cores in the 2007 National Assessment of Educational Progress, just click here, then click through the pages of this Trial Urban District report. In Figure 2 (page 11), youll see that DCs low-income fourth-graders scored lower in reading than their low-income peers from the nine other cities in this study. (The differences can be fairly sharp. In DC, low-income kids scored in the 18th percentile as compared to all other kids in the nation. In New York City, low-income kids scored in the 35th percentile.) DCs low-income eighth-graders also scored lowest in reading (Figure 7, page 21). DCs black kids are at the bottom in fourth grade readingand are next to the bottom in eighth grade reading. We assume these data includes kids from traditional schools and charters, though the charts dont specifically say.
In DC, those facts are also part of this story. There is much more to say about this story than was found in the Post news reportthough Keating and Labbe-DeBose included a lot of useful information. (Assuming their test score data are accurate.) But five days later, the editors blew fairly hard, offering the types of sage conclusion their high class now tends to prefer. They huffed and puffed, till we averted our gaze. Thus do our editors tend to perform in matters of low-income schools.