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Delayed charter sector self-assessment balances praise, critique

A chart comparing district and charter schools' principal turnover rates, from today's "State of the Sector" report.

A sweeping look at who attends charter schools in New York City, and how they fare, shows that the sector excels at advancing academic achievement but struggles to enroll high-needs students and to retain staff.

For the past nine months the New York City Charter School Center and a team of charter school founders have collected and crunched data on 35 different topics, including test scores, demographics, attrition, and enrollment. Their findings are laid out in a much-anticipated — and much-delayed — 40-page “State of the Sector” report, released today.

The report represents an inaugural effort to be more transparent about how charter schools in New York City are doing. Coming from a group that more often celebrates charter schools’ achievements, the report offers a blunt self-assessment of the sector, illuminating its shortcomings in student enrollment and staff retention while at the same making a case for it to continue to expand.

For instance, the report acknowledges “striking” staff attrition trends — nearly one-third of city charter school teachers leave annually — but points out the sector’s ability to achieve high academic results anyway. And while the schools serve low rates of students with special education and English language learners, the report emphasizes that those who do enroll tend to do better than their counterparts in district schools.

The report was originally scheduled to be released nearly two months ago. But the center needed more time to verify the data, then held the report until it could be released along with “dashboards” showing individual schools’ statistics, according to CEO James Merriman. Those dashboards were published on the center’s website today, although they have withheld  some data, including staff attrition. 

The findings confirm and herald high test scores, attendance rates, and parent satisfaction at the city’s charter schools, which serve about 47,000 New York City students and are growing.

But they also confirm critiques that have been heaved at the sector, including charges that charter schools don’t always serve the neediest students. Charter schools lag behind significantly behind district schools in serving English language learners and slightly behind when it comes to students with disabilities. And while the vast majority of charter school students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, 80 percent of charter schools have fewer poor students than their district average.

Perhaps more startling are the figures about how many teachers and principals leave charter schools each year. According to the report, a third of charter school teachers leave their schools each year, compared to about 15 percent in district schools. And charter school principals leave six times as frequently as district principals – more than 18 percent each year, compared to less than 4 percent in district schools.

And the findings also reveal several points of tension within the charter school sector. For example, the report says that “NYC charter school leaders have mixed opinions about backfill enrollment” — whether schools should accept new students to replace those who leave over time. District schools are obligated to enroll new students to fill vacant seats, but charter schools can choose to forgo state funding and leave the seats open instead.

Some charter school advocates think that backfilling seats is essential to the sector’s mission of serving at-risk students. But others argue that charter schools cannot be expected to fulfill a mandate of moving students forward if they continually accept students who would not be on par with their classmates. The report acknowledges that charter schools’ performance probably benefits from the flexibility, especially if it is low performers who leave most often. Charter middle schools, which backfill seats least often, post the strongest performance.

Dick Riley, a spokesman for the United Federation of Teachers, said the report fell short because it did not sufficiently contend with the backfill issue. “The report fails to quantify just what the impact is on test scores when students leave charter schools and are not replaced,” he said.

People involved in creating the report said the goal wasn’t to promote just good things happening in charter schools or to prescribe solutions, but to present data that could illuminate areas where solutions might be needed.

“The only way that the charter school community is going to get better and earn the right to serve more students is to be transparent about our results, both the strengths and the gaps, and to be relentlessly committed to continuous improvement,” said Dacia Toll, co-CEO and president of Achievement First, a network of charter schools in Brooklyn.

But more information is needed to draw some conclusions about the strength of the charter sector, the report cautions. The sector doesn’t have good information about why teachers leave or where they go, so it can’t conclude whether high teacher attrition is a problem. Similarly, data about student mobility in both charter and district schools are thin, making it impossible to understand the impact of student attrition on performance, the report warns. And the report suggests two possible reasons for lower special education enrollment — lower identification rates and poor perception from parents of children with disabilities — but says more research would be needed to conclude what impact those phenomena might be having.

Merriman said he expected that the data — and the holes in the data — would leave the sector vulnerable to criticism from its regular critics. But he said hoped the new transparency would ultimately lead to more a productive policy conversation about where charter schools fit into the New York City school system.

“Any time you try to have a rational conversation around data there will be people bent on misusing the data and there’s little that anyone can do around that,” Merriman said. “My hope is, as the report says and I believe we’re justified in hoping this, that this will lead to a more thoughtful, balanced and data-driven conversation.”

The full “State of the Sector” report is below.

Election Forum

Tennesseans are about to get their first good look at candidates for governor on education

PHOTO: TN.gov
Former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen speaks as his successor, Gov. Bill Haslam, listens during a 2017 forum hosted by the State Collaborative on Reforming Education. Tennesseans will elect their next governor in November.

For almost 16 years, two Tennessee governors from two different political parties have worked off mostly the same playbook when it comes to K-12 education.

This year, voters will choose a new governor who will determine if that playbook stays intact — or takes a different direction from the administrations of Bill Haslam, a Republican leaving office next January, and Phil Bredesen, the Democrat who preceded him.

Voters will get to hear from all but one of the major candidates Tuesday evening during the first gubernatorial forum televised statewide. Organizers say the spotlight on education is fitting since, based on one poll, it’s considered one of the top three issues facing Tennessee’s next governor. Both K-12 and higher education are on the table.

Candidates participating are:

  • Mae Beavers, a Republican from Mt. Juliet and former Tennessee state senator;
  • Randy Boyd, a Republican from Knoxville and former commissioner of Economic and Community Development and a Republican from Knoxville;
  • Karl Dean, a Democrat and former mayor of Nashville;
  • Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, a Democrat from Ripley and minority leader in the Tennessee House of Representatives;
  • Rep. Beth Harwell, a Republican from Nashville and speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives;
  • Bill Lee, a Republican businessman from Williamson County

The seventh major candidate, U.S. Rep. Diane Black, a Republican from Gallatin, is in the midst of a congressional session in Washington, D.C.

The next governor will help decide whether Tennessee will stay the course under its massive overhaul of K-12 education initiated under Bredesen’s watch. The work was jump-started by the state’s $500 million federal Race to the Top award, for which Tennessee agreed to adopt the Common Core academic standards for math and English; incorporate students’ scores from standardized tests in annual teacher evaluations; and establish a state-run turnaround district to intervene in low-performing schools at an unprecedented level.

Tennessee has since enjoyed steady student growth and watched its national rankings rise, but the transition hasn’t been pain-free. Pushback on its heavy-handed turnaround district led leaders to widen school improvement strategies. They also ordered new academic standards due to political backlash over the Common Core (though the revised standards are still basically grounded in Common Core).

A major issue now is whether the next governor and legislature will retain Tennessee’s across-the-board system of accountability for students, teachers, schools and districts. Snafus and outright failures with TNReady, the new standardized test that serves as the lynchpin, have prompted some calls to make the assessment just a diagnostic tool or scrap it altogether. Haslam and his leadership team have stood firm.

“We as Tennesseans made the right call — the tough call — on the policies we’ve pursued,” Education Commissioner Candice McQueen told Chalkbeat recently. “Nearly every other state has compromised in some way on some of these core foundational components of policy work, and we have not.”

The State Collaborative on Reforming Education, an advocacy group that works closely with Tennessee’s Department of Education, is a co-host of Tuesday’s forum. Known as SCORE, the group has sought to shape the election-year conversation with priorities that include teacher quality, improving literacy, and developing school leaders — all outgrowths of learnings during Tennessee’s Race to the Top era.

SCORE President David Mansouri said the goal is to maintain the momentum of historic gains in student achievement from the last decade. “The next administration’s education policy decisions will be crucial in determining whether Tennessee students continue to progress faster than students in other states and whether they graduate ready for postsecondary success,” he said Monday.

The one-hour forum will delve into a range of issues. College and career readiness, education equity, and school funding will be among the topics broached before each candidate is allowed a one-minute closing statement, according to David Plazas, a Tennessean editor who will help moderate the discussion.

“It will be really exciting,” Plazas promised. “We’re hoping the candidates are prepared to talk substantively on the issues and to avoid slogans.”

The event begins at 7 p.m. CT at Nashville’s Belmont University. Along with SCORE, it’s being co-hosted by USA TODAY NETWORK and Nashville’s NewsChannel 5. You can livestream the event here and learn more about attending or watching here.

Tennessee’s primary election is set for Aug. 2, with the general election on Nov. 6.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede