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Democracy Prep and the “Same Kids” Myth

In general, charter advocates have become somewhat more responsible about acknowledging the impact of demographic differences in charter and district school enrollments on charters’ academic performance. The recent release of the New York City Charter School Center’s “State of the Sector” report is one example, and we had hoped that the existence of its database (which offers straightforward comparisons between enrollments at each New York City charter school compared to its Community School District) would help further efforts towards a more fully informed discussion of the role of charters in school reform.

Unfortunately, last week’s publication of a guest essay by American Enterprise Institute researcher Daniel Lautzenheiser in Rick Hess’ EdWeek column marks a return to the simplistic rhetoric and unsubstantiated assertions which Hess himself has warned are becoming too common among self-identified “reformers.” In “A Tale of Two Schools,” Lautzenheiser makes the claim that Democracy Prep’s high test scores come despite its enrollment of “the same kinds of students” as its academically struggling co-located school, the Academy of Collaborative Education (ACE). He offers no data to back up this assertion, other than the fact that the two schools share a building in Harlem. However, if he had taken a moment to check the Charter School Center’s database, he would have found that in 2010-11, Democracy Prep served fewer students who were eligible for free lunch, fewer students who required special education services, and fewer students who were English Language Learners than the average district school in its neighborhood.

Taking a closer look at Democracy Prep’s enrollment in comparison to ACE specifically (as we did in 2010) shows that other than the first year ACE opened, these patterns have been true throughout both schools’ existence. In addition, though Democracy Prep no longer publicly reports the type of services its Special Education students receive, evidence from 2008-09 showed that only 18% of its students with IEPs were mandated to be in self-contained classes, compared with 50% of Special Education students at ACE.

School Year
% Free Lunch
% Limited
English
Proficient
% Special Ed
Academy of Collaborative Education 2008
79
4
10
Academy of Collaborative Education 2009
71
8
13.4
Academy of Collaborative Education 2010
83
10
21.6
Academy of Collaborative Education 2011
82
10
21.7
Democracy Preparatory Charter School 2008
64
7
11.6
Democracy Preparatory Charter School 2009
64
6
no public data
Democracy Preparatory Charter School 2010
66
5
11.9
Democracy Preparatory Charter School 2011
66
6
11.5

Sources: NY State Report Cards; NY State Charter SPED Invoices; NYC CSC Database

Researchers like Lautzenheiser who seek to hold up Democracy Prep as a model for district schools to follow should stop making the argument that such schools are succeeding with “the same students” without checking the data first to see if their claims are true. Criticizing the academic performance of the ACE school community while failing to recognize the greater challenges that community faces is not helpful in moving forward in finding ways to improve the educational experience for all the city’s children.

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3 Comments:

  • 1 Remainders: NEST+M School’s parents are critical of principal | GothamSchools
    · Jul 19, 2012 at 7:10 pm

    […] A comparison of co-located charter and district schools’ scores leads to different conclusions. (Edwize) […]

  • 2 Carol Burris
    · Jul 19, 2012 at 9:52 pm

    Now that the new data is out, look at the mean scores in ELA Grades 5-8 and compare NYC Charter to NYC public. I did. They are nearly identical. Charters drill kids over the proficiency bar. Mean scores are more indicative of learning. The database is on the state website.

  • 3 Jarod Apperson
    · Jul 20, 2012 at 11:03 am

    Christina, enjoyed the article. You make some good points, and I have also been impressed with the caution and objectivity the New York City Charter Center uses in comparing charters to traditional schools.

    One thing we also have to remember is that some relevant factors, particularly parental motivation/resourcefulness, are not tracked statistically. Caroline Hoxby’s research on NYC’s charters has shown that those who apply for the charter (but lose and attend public schools) outperform their peers who didn’t apply. Some of that may be related to tracked things like free/reduced lunch, but some may also reflect parental involvement/motivation.

    In the end, I think most supporters of charters and traditional schools both want overall public education to improve. In order for that to happen, comparisons must use caution and recognize differences in the two populations when they exist.