Charters, A Mixed Bag
All this week, we’re taking a look at the school reform lessons New Orleans might hold for Detroit.
Charter schools are a major part of the New Orleans reform model. So today, Michigan Radio’s Sarah Hulett and Jennifer Guerra take a look at charter schools’ track record of success in both cities.
University Preparatory Academy is one of the best-known charter schools in Detroit. And it’s often held up as a model of what charter schools can accomplish for urban education.
Doug Ross is the founder of the University Prep network of schools. He says when charter schools first came on the scene in Michigan 15 years ago, they were not necessarily the cure for public education people hoped for.
“I think initially most charters, if you go back 10 years or more, were started as initially safer, more parent-friendly alternatives to the DPS schools down the street,” says Ross. “But they tended to start with the same teaching and learning designs, and so initially the results were not so different, which led to this kind of conclusion early that, gee what’s the big deal, they don’t seem to be getting better academic outcomes.”
But Ross says because charter schools operate with more autonomy than traditional schools in the Detroit Public School system, they were nimble enough to fix what wasn’t working. And he says because of that, kids in Detroit’s charter schools are starting to do better academically than their peers in the city’s traditional public schools.
“Graduation rate for charter high schools last year was 78 percent. For DPS it was 58 percent,” says Ross. “Elementary and middle schools making AYP, you know this adequate yearly progress under No Child Left Behind, between 85 and 90 percent of all the elementary and middle school charter schools in Detroit made AYP. For DPS schools it was between 20 and 30 percent. So that’s starting to be a huge gap.”
In New Orleans, it’s a similar story. In the Recovery School District, which is where they’re working to turn around the worst performing schools in the city, the most recent state test scores show that 8th graders at charter schools did better in math and English than 8th graders at traditional schools.
But while charters in the two cities are outperforming their traditional counterparts, the story for Michigan and the nation is actually the opposite.
On Michigan’s most-recent reading and math tests, grade-school students in traditional schools statewide outscored charter school kids by about nine percent. And in high school, the gap was even wider. Test scores for students in regular schools were about 30 percent higher than for kids in charter schools.
The Michigan trend mirrors a recent study by Stanford University that looked at charters in 15 states and Washington, D.C. The study found that only 17 percent of charter schools did better than traditional public schools. So clearly the results are mixed.
So that still leaves the question of why these two cities – Detroit and New Orleans – are anomalies? Why are they doing better than the traditional schools in their home districts?
Diane Ravitch has a theory, she’s a research professor of education at New York University.
Ravitch believes that charter schools cherry pick the best students. That leaves a city like New Orleans with what she calls a two-tier system, where you have 60 percent of the kids in charters, and she says the remaining 40 percent “are the lowest performing kids and the charter operators don’t want; they don’t want them because their scores would drag down the charter scores.”
“This has what’s evolved: the haves and have nots,” continues Ravitch. “It’s a kind of separate and unequal system. And so the 60 percent may or may not be getting a better education, but the 40 percent have been written off. So they’re in effect the lost children of New Orleans.”
Paul Vallas disagrees. Vallas runs the Recovery School District, which is trying to turnaround the city’s worst schools. He says charters schools take whatever kids walk through their doors, and he says students in both charters and traditional schools are improving. And there are state test scores to back that up.
“Now what are the reasons for that? I think there are fundamentally five reasons, 5 key ingredients to school transformation,” says Vallas.
They include using data to measure teacher and student performance, making sure school days and years are longer, allowing parents to choose where to send their kids to school, and letting principals chose their own staffs.
“When you have those components,” continues Vallas, you will always have an improving school system.”
But it’s one thing to enact those reforms in a place like New Orleans, where there’s no teachers’ union. It is much more difficult to require a longer school day or a longer school year, or to fire teachers who aren’t working out in a city like Detroit, where organized labor is much more of a force.
But there are some changes on the horizon that will allow Detroit to look a little bit more like New Orleans.
State lawmakers passed a whole slew of new laws at the end of last year. One of them creates a statewide “reform district” that will function in much the same way New Orleans’ Recovery School District works. Mike Flanagan is Michigan’s schools superintendent:
“Our hope and really our intent is to try and make sure that they don’t go into the Reform District. But…I’m a realist, and it’s going to be that some will. Some just won’t turn it around; some won’t have the right trajectory.”
The Reform District will have its own superintendent. That person’s job will be to turn around about 100 of Michigan’s worst-performing schools. That could mean turning some of them over to charter management companies. And Flanagan says teachers and principals will be evaluated in part on student achievement.
“All of us need to understand,” explains Flanagan, “that this isn’t about the adults; this is about kids learning and demonstrating their proficiency.”
The big question is how is the state going to pay for all these reforms. Flanagan says he got a little money from the state to hire a few positions, but at this point there is no money to pay for everything that he wants to do.
But the federal government has a big pot of money – more than $4 billion in a fund called Race to the Top. It’s making that money available for states that commit to doing these kinds of reforms. Now Michigan lost out in the first round of grants that were awarded earlier this year. The state just submitted its application for the second round, and the winners will be announced at the start of the next school year.
To hear other stories in the series “Rebuilding Detroit Schools: A Tale of Two Cities” and see related photos, videos and information, click here.
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