The release of a new “State of the Sector” report by the New York City Charter School Center will hopefully mark a turning point in efforts to have a more substantive conversation about charter schools’ demographics and performance in our city. As local media have noted, the report is one of the first from within the charter sector itself to acknowledge some troubling data on charter schools that we and other analysts have been discussing for several years.
Specifically, the report found that, compared to the average school in their Community School District in 2010:
- 68% of charters served a lower proportion of students eligible for free or reduced price lunch
- 72% of charters served a lower proportion of students with IEPs
- 96% of charters served a lower proportion of English Language Learners
The report also noted that the charter sector was experiencing significantly higher turnover of principals, teachers, and students than the district:
- 26-33% of charter teachers left each year between 2007 and 2011, compared to 13-16% at district schools
- 18.7% of charter principals left each year between 2005-06 and 2010-11, compared to 3.6% at district schools
- Charter middle school enrollments shrunk by 5.9% from 2010 to 2011, compared to an increase of 3.2% at district middle schools
As researchers have noted, high teacher turnover in New York City has been linked to negative effects on student achievement, even for the classes where teachers stayed. In addition, our research has shown that student turnover is especially high at many of the local charter middle schools with the highest test scores.
Since this is the inaugural report, the authors are careful to point out that much of their data is limited and their analysis preliminary. With that in mind, here are a few suggestions for improving future versions of the report and ensuring that potential charter parents and other stakeholders have an accurate view of the sector:
- The charter sector should dramatically increase its transparency around issues of student attrition and replacement. If even advocates like the Charter School Center have problems finding good data about how many and what type of students leave charters, why they leave, and whether or not they are replaced, what chance do parents or researchers have of finding answers to their questions on this issue? The Center should also encourage the difficult but necessary conversations within the sector regarding the impact of decisions not to backfill empty seats, and should discourage members who choose not to backfill from claiming that they have open enrollment policies and that they serve the same students as local schools.
- Given the documented differences in enrollment demographics and policies in the charter sector compared to district schools, future versions of the report should continue to emphasize the inaccuracy of interpreting higher test scores at some charters as evidence of the sector’s superiority, and should discourage charter school leaders and advocates from statements that they achieve higher test scores with “the same students” when the data doesn’t support their claims.
- Future reports should attempt to offer a more finely-grained analysis of the demographic differences within the high-need groups the report discusses. While the report does distinguish between free lunch students and the combined free and reduced-price lunch category, it fails to adequately acknowledge the wide variation in need level among English Language Learners and students with IEPs. Our research on this issue has demonstrated that in the case of special education students, charters tend to disproportionately enroll those with lower needs than do local district schools. Again, the Charter School Center should take advantage of its unique access to these schools to encourage them to provide a greater level of transparency regarding this type of detailed data.
- The introduction of the report describes charters as “a way to wrest control of public schooling from a large, clumsy and mandate-bound bureaucracy and restore it to communities, passionate educators and the students they teach.” However, recent events have indicated a troubling move away from this vision towards a more corporate model of control by some of the sector’s most high-profile advocates and policy-makers. If the charter sector truly wants to challenge wide-spread beliefs that it is part of a movement towards the privatization of public schools, it should take a leading role in increasing public transparency and engagement not just in terms of charter data, but also in charter governance and policy.