Grasping at Straws Over Detroit’s Charter Schools


(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

Following the exposure of all the errors, distortions, and key omissions in the recent NYT hatchet job on charter schools, the new line from the reporter and her teacher union allies is that the CREDO data is current only through 2011-12, but the charter cap was lifted starting in the 2012-13 school year. So sure, charters may have been outperforming district schools before “opening the floodgates,” but now the supposed “free market” (which, for the record, has no price mechanism, no free entry and exit, and lots of regulations regarding school mission, admission standards, testing, etc.) is letting in all sorts of bad actors.

But is there any hard evidence for this? Charter critics point to several anecdotes, but as Jay noted earlier, the plural of anecdote is not data. They’re simply grasping at straws.

Until CREDO updates their report or some other group tries to replicate it, we won’t have accurate apples-to-apples comparisons. Until then, we can’t conclusively reject or accept that hypothesis. But what data we do have cast doubt on it.

According to the Mackinac Center’s “2014 Michigan Public High School Context and Performance Report Card,” which used data through 2013, Michigan’s charter schools are punching above their weight: “Though charter schools make up just 11 percent of the schools ranked on this report card, they represent 35 percent of the top 20 ranked schools.” Two of the top 10 high schools in the state were charter schools in Detroit. The study awarded an “A” or “B” to four of the 14 Detroit charter high schools, while only two received an “F.” By contrast, 12 of 14 non-selective Detroit district schools received an “F.”

Results from their 2015 Elementary & Middle School Report Card are more mixed, but charters still come out slightly better.

The Great Lakes Education Project also broke down the 2015 M-STEP proficiency and found that Detroit’s charter schools–which must have open enrollment–outperformed Detroit’s open-enrollment district schools, although they lagged behind Detroit’s selective-enrollment district schools (and, frankly, none of the sectors have particularly stellar performance). Again, this is not an apples-to-apples comparison, so we should be cautious in interpreting these data, but they certainly don’t lend support to the notion that the charter sector is particularly troubled.


Detroit’s open-enrollment charters outperform open-enrollment district schools.

Moreover, as shown in this infographic that GLEP put together, Detroit’s charters are over-represented among the top-performing schools and outperform Detroit’s district schools on average:

18 of the Top 25 schools in Detroit are Charter schools

22 of the Bottom 25 schools in Detroit are DPS schools

 Charter average: 14.6%

 DPS average: 9.0%

 Charters are 62% more proficient than DPS

 71 charters (79%) perform ABOVE the DPS average and 19 charters schools (21%) perform BELOW the DPS average.

 20 DPS schools (30%) perform ABOVE the DPS average and 46 DPS schools (70%) perform BELOW the DPS average.

 12 DPS schools (18%) perform ABOVE the charter average and 54 DPS schools (82%) perform BELOW the charter average.

 40 charter schools (44%) perform ABOVE the charter average and 50 charter schools (56%) perform BELOW the charter average.

To reiterate yet again, these are not apples-to-apples comparisons. For that we will need another carefully matched comparison, like the CREDO studies, or (better yet) a random-assignment study. But until then, charter critics should be more circumspect in their allegations. Certainly there is plenty of room for improvement in both Detroit’s charter and district schools. But the charter critics have not presented any hard evidence that Detroit’s charter sector is particularly troubled, or that the increased choice and competition is at fault for the poor performance in either sector (especially since Detroit’s district schools have been seriously troubled for decades).

Neither Detroit’s charter schools nor their district schools are above criticism. But critics should put their criticism in its proper context — and be sure to bring evidence.

8 Responses to Grasping at Straws Over Detroit’s Charter Schools

  1. Normally you have the evidence to demonstrate that Detroit charter schools have null or negative effects on student outcomes BEFORE you write an article based on that assertion. Searching for evidence after the article is published is only evidence of the bias that must have existed when writing the piece.

    • allen says:

      And in the academic sphere you’d be mostly right but the fight over public education reform, in this case charter schools, is occurring in the political realm and there evidence may or may not be of interest.

      The reporter, like all supporters of the public education lobby, is ensconced in the political realm and uninterested in evidence which can’t be turned to the advantage of her views. That leaves her free to explore any number of unlikely reasons for and objections to education reform while ignoring any evidence that’s unhelpful.

      Here in Michigan it’s the DeVos family, of Amway fame, that are the sole cause of the rise of charter schools and thus villains de luxe.

      Never mind that forty-one other states have charter schools. The local defenders of the public education hegemony relentlessly hammer the DeVos family as the sole instigators of charter schools as if it’s not a nation-wide phenomenon and a trifle beyond the reach of even a guy as rich as Dick DeVos.

      Fortunately your necessarily narrow focus on evidence is supported by a rising tide of public discontent with the public education system that’s finally crested some invisible barrier. So the initial reform, in the form of the seemingly less threatening charter school movement, having helped establish a constituency that’s not afraid of departing from the district-based orthodoxy, has set the stage for vouchers, etc.

  2. Greg Forster says:

    She blocked you on Twitter for pointing out her errors, so now you’re not allowed to post about her, Jason.

  3. edthinktank says:

    Greg… the pronoun “She” needs an antecedent…. Of whom are you speaking?

    • Greg Forster says:

      The reporter Jason is talking about in this post. In his last post he showed that she blocked him for showing she was wrong.

  4. Mike G says:

    CREDO could run an updated Detroit data set in < 1 week. Someone should ask for that.

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