David Osborne on Charter Policy

December 5, 2017

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Bob Bowdon interviews David Osborne and around the 8 minute mark the discussion raises the topic as to whether parents can lead the way in school closure. Osborne claims that parents cling to schools for non-academic reasons and should not be trusted with this task. Bowden raises Arizona as a counter-example, and Osborne cites research from five years ago that found Arizona charter schools had less than stellar results.

Osborne is correct that research from five years ago found less than stellar results. What one must appreciate however is that in a sector as dynamic as Arizona charters those results are ancient history. Charter schools are constantly opening and closing in Arizona. The studies referenced by Osborne have data that ended in 2012. In 2013 Arizona educators opened 87 new charter schools and closed 18 other schools. This alone was enough to mean that the Arizona charter school sector of 2013 was a different animal than the 2012 sector, but it was hardly the only change to happen that year. In addition to schools, teachers, students and administrators moved in and out of Arizona charter sector. Younger schools gained a year of experience, moving out of their shake down cruises. A professional football team can win the Superbowl in one year and fail to make the playoffs the next year, and there is a greater degree of year to year continuity in sports than in Arizona charters. Fortunately all the available indicators (NAEP and AZMerit) show over time improvement in Arizona charters.

And then, it all happened again in 2014…and 2015…and 2016…and right now. Any look into academic results in a constantly changing Arizona charter sector is merely a snapshot. This makes it entirely possible for analysts like CREDO and Marty West to have found meh results in 2012 but for NAEP to show this in 2015:

This river of course runs both ways- the 2015 NAEP is just a snapshot as well. Fortunately Arizona’s charter results were also strong in the 2015 AZMerit, got better in the 2016 AZMerit and better still in the 2017 AZMerit.

Although Arizona law requires admission lotteries and Arizona charters educate a majority minority student body, there is obviously room for multiple factors to explain the above chart. Nevertheless, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Arizona’s AZMerit exam also shows large advantages for charter school students. In addition, school data of the sort CREDO and West relied upon five years ago is quite messy , especially when it comes to free and reduced lunch status. I won’t go into details but let’s just say that the record keeping at the Arizona Department of Education doesn’t always cover itself in glory and in addition many Arizona charter schools do not participate in the federal program at all. The use of Free and Reduced Lunch as an independent variable has grown increasingly questionable over time, but has been problematic for a long time in Arizona.

So in conclusion, Arizona charters are crushing the academic ball without the benevolent guidance of heavy handed technocrats. The same is true is several other Western states that show either high scores, high over time progress or else both of these things:

If Mr. Osborne would care to explain why westerners should abandon what they are doing to emulate Louisiana, I’m all ears but data from five years ago is of little more than historical interest to discussions of prospective policy.

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Riding on the Trainwreck of New Orleans?

November 15, 2017

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Peter Cook brought bad news about the latest test scores from New Orleans, and used the term “train wreck” to describe the results. This was ironic as the other day I saw a quote from David Osborne’s book that claimed that states that close charter schools have charter school sectors that substantially outperform district schools. In previous looks at NACSA state charter law rankings that came out before the most recent NAEP data, something like six of the top 10 states had too few charter schools to have made it into the NAEP sample, with the top two states in the rankings (Indiana and Nevada) included in the no-scores club despite have charter laws for many years. Of the top 10 rated states, Louisiana looked to be the best of the bunch, and they were towards the bottom of the top 10.

The figure below puts state charter sectors into context by comparing their 2015 NAEP 8th grade math score against their 2011 to 2015 cohort gain in scale points, and also includes all “Wild West” charter sectors. Unlike Nevada, most western states got middling to very low grades from NACSA, but can console themselves with the fact that they actually have “charter schools” generated by their “charter school law.”

Yes, okay, so well that happened. Don’t be looking for many westerners to be dropping everything their doing to emulate either Louisiana or Nevada. I remain a fan of the Louisiana RSD, as in my mind it was a very successful play to leverage the only thing New Orleans had left after the hurricane (empty school buildings) and get a system up and running. However, there is a lot of space between saying that and rushing to embrace the concept as the solution to our all of our problems.

Well, perhaps the reading results are more promising…

Nope- the reading results look very consistent with the math results. New Mexico charter school leaders just filed a petition with the Department of Cosmic Justice to protest Louisiana charters receiving much more hype but less demonstrable academic progress.

So my mutant mind reading power is reading objections in one or more of your minds. These comparisons aren’t fair! Only three of those Wild West sectors (Arizona, California, NM) have majority minority student bodies…given what we know about achievement gaps, we would not expect Louisiana charters to land on the right side of these charts. True enough unless you had a very high rate of improvement. Note that Louisiana charters demonstrate rates of improvement in both reading and math that weren’t bad, but also wasn’t either very high, or very different from the host state.

Again, this does not mean that RSD is bad. It seems to have been brilliant for New Orleans after the hurricane. That is a different question from “has it been so successful that everyone should rush to adopt them?” It is also a different question from “is this model politically sustainable in the face of predictable push-back?” or “what if Katrina hit Houston instead of New Orleans- are there that many TFA kids in the entire country?” or the question “is it possible that RSD would have been more successful without the benevolent guidance of a central command?” or most important of all “wouldn’t we be better off if we got to the point where parents rather than technocrats took the lead in closing schools?”

Some additional problems include the fact that a series of focus groups I saw earlier this year made it clear that people detest the idea of having the government shut down schools based on test scores. Oh, then there is the decisive rejection of an RSD by Georgia voters. The demos do not seem to be buying what the technos want to sell. Then there is the small matter of more recent state scores, which Peter Cook describes as a “train wreck” for RSD. Then the steady and insidious effort to essentially convert RSD back into a normal school district that seems to be going quite well for the reactionaries so far. I’m not sure about the train-wreck take, but I’m also confident that RSD is not a magic carpet made of steel, er, a solution we are likely to see politically sustained at scale.