Warnings about market-choice and charter school proliferation from New York City

The following is an excerpt from,  “Bring This City To A Place Where Our Children Really Are Put First:” Implementing Mayor-elect de Blasio’s Education Platform in New York City, written by an insider at the New York City Department of Education, and appeared on Diane Ravitch’s blog in December, 2013.

Has the portfolio strategy based on market-choice and charter schools improved student outcomes?

The DOE’s portfolio/choice strategy has not addressed extreme divergence in school outcomes and the lack of diversity in schools. The DOE’s data sets show that schools in NYC are not providing students with equal opportunity. SAT scores- in only 28 out of 422 schools with reported data did the average critical reading score match or beat the national average score of 496 in 2012. In only 31 out of 422 schools with reported data did the average math score meet or beat the national average score of 514. Only 28 schools had scores that meet or beat the national average of 422 in writing.  Advanced Placement exams- in over 40% of schools not a single student took and passed an AP exam last year. In only 56 schools, out of the 468 with reported data, did more than 50% of students pass the AP exams they took. Eight schools account for over half of the number of AP exams NYC students passed last year. High school Advanced Regents Diploma graduation rate- only 20 schools out of 419 with reported data had 50% or more of their students graduate with this college preparatory diploma last year. College readiness- in only 30 schools out of 407 with reported data did 50% or more of students graduate with Math and English score that New York State consider indicative of college readiness.

De facto education redlining continues to exist in NYC with extreme inequities in educational opportunity across districts. One report concluded “low-income children and children of color are not receiving the benefits of school integration.” A report from New York University on the school choice process concluded “the decline over time in the number of academically mixed, educational option high schools is notable.” A report from Brown University found that “eighteen of the twenty-one neighborhoods with the lowest college-readiness rates are in the Bronx…thirteen of the fifteen neighborhoods with the highest college readiness rates are in Manhattan” and concluded that “high school choice seems not to have provided equity of outcomes for the city’s high school students.” The Independent Budget Office report analyzed data and found that African American, Asian, and White students in NYC now attend less diverse  middle and high schools than in the past. A New York Times infographic shows that although neighborhood diversity increased in NYC the typical African-American student’s schooldecreased in diversity. An audit of the high school admissions process by the NYC Comptroller’s Office concluded “we do not have reasonable assurance that the possibility of inappropriate manipulation of the student rankings, favoritism, or fraud is being adequately controlled.”  The number of Black and Hispanic students at the city’s specialized high schools has decreased although the tests used to determine admissions decisions are seriously flawed. One analysis found that the schools serving the most advantaged student populations have over 70% more “proficient” students than the schools serving the most disadvantaged students. Another analysis found not a single school serving and holding onto (i.e. without large cohort attrition rates) 90+% students living in poverty in the top half of city schools for English/Math proficiency.


Cohort attrition at charter schools is so high that parents end up with limited choice.  At some charter schools 24%-68% of the students are lost from each cohort. Up to 7 out of 10 parents at these charter schools do not see their child complete schooling at the charter school they chose. Other “high performing” charter schoolssuspend 25%-40% of their students a year in order to see gains in test scores. This means that each year up to 2 in 5 parents at these charter schools have their choice forcibly taken away by the very charter school they chose to send their child to. In one particularly egregious case a charter school pushed out 1/3 of its student body in order to improve test scores. Unlike public schools, charter schools are able to expel students and generally do not backfill the vacated seats in the cohort.


Charter schools do not serve a representative student population. If you are the parent of an English Language Learner or of a student with special needs you won’t have much choice since charter schools tend to accept very few of those students. And if they do accept your child it seems that at least some charter school chains will attriteEnglish Language Learners and students with special needs at very high rates.  An academic research paper found that “English language learners are consistently underrepresented in charter school populations across 3 academic years.” An analysis of two districts found that the charter schools in those districts served 31% fewer students with low incoming Math scores, 18% fewer students with low incoming English scores, and 16% fewer special education students.


Charter schools are not transparent about their data and finances.  The DOE under Mike Bloomberg refused to share data on special education services in charter schools. A charter school chain sued New York State to prevent an audit of how it used public money. New York State backed down. Joel Klein, former DOE Chancellor, falsely claimed that charter schools “closed the longstanding achievement gap.” He made this claim even though the data showed it to be false. In 2007, when the big political push to open up more charter schools began, the data showed that charter high schools had an on-time graduation rate less than half that of public schools. Even so more charter schools were opened. As many sources have pointed out very little of the data that can be found for public view on the official web pages of public schools can be found on the official web pages of charter schools.


Charter schools do not have better scores than public schools. In 2009 a report showed that students in charter schools made less progress than those in public schools. In 2010 the data showed that public schools were 24% more likely to get A’s or B’s on the NYC school report cards than charter schools. In 2011 yet another analysis showed that charter schools are more likely to get D’s or F’s on the progress section of the NYC school report cards than public schools. In fact, charter schools were twice as likely to get F’s as public schools. Charter high schools had half the college readiness rate of public high schools. This past year charter schools saw bigger drops in performance on the Common Core exams than public schools. Additionally charter schools performed worse on average than public schools in English and the same as public schools in math. This is all the more concerning given the creaming, the extremely high suspension and alarming attrition rates. Despite these competitive “advantages” charter schools overall do worse than public schools. A report, funded by conservative groups, claiming the opposite had significant flaws and a review of the data found that, in fact, charter schools had student outcomes 6.5% below that of similar schools.  In 2012-13 Charter schools on average were at the 46th percentile in English and the 53rd percentile in Math growth. Focusing on the students that charter schools claim to be dedicated to serving, namely students who most need great schools and great teaching, they do even worse. The data reveal the sort of job charter schools are doing educating students who scored in the lowest third the year prior. Looking exclusively at progress with these high-needs student charters are at the 41st percentile in English and the 45th percentile in Math. This means that they are doing a below average job as compared to other schools in serving this population of students. According to teacher value-add metrics, an admittedly unreliable measure as we will see below, charter schools on average are not adding as much value as non-charter public schools in ELA and are adding about as much value in Math.


Charter schools are funded at higher levels than public schools. As a whole charter schools in public buildings receive almost $650 more per student in public money than public schools. When the fact that charter schools have fewer high needs student is accounted for charter schools in public buildings receive $2,200 more per student in public money than public schools. Many charter schools spend a lot more money per student than public schools. KIPP spends over $3,000 more per student. Other well-known charter chains spend $4,300 more per student than public schools. When charter schools are “co-located” with public schools they take resources such as libraries, science labs and computer rooms from the existing public school.


Student outcomes have not improved compared to similar districts, which did not implement the market-based reforms reviewed above, over the past 12 years. On the National Assessment of Education Progress (the only multi-year national measuring stick) Trial Urban District Assessment, NYC had lower growth in 8th grade reading and math by an average of 5 points and a single point of improved growth in 4th grade reading and math as compared to other large urban districts. The achievement gapincreased by 3%. Sorted by demographic group NYC is second to last among large cities. NYC’s SAT scores declined by 20 points over the past 12 years, a larger decline than would be expected even with more students taking the exam. An educational impact statement prepared by the Coalition for Educational Justice found declining SAT and AP outcomes for Black and Hispanic students.

The high school graduation rate increased and there is plentiful evidence that this is due to changing student demographics, the lowering of standards, and the manipulation of metrics rather than educational progress. The under 18 population in NYC changedfrom 2000-2010 with a 15% decline among Blacks/African Americans, a 15% increase among Whites and 28% increase among Asians. Yonkers, the only demographically similar “Big 5” city in NYS has seen its graduation rate increase by 9% since 2008 while NYC’s has stalled.

The grading curve on the Algebra exam was lowered by over 25 points over this time period and the curve on the United States History exam by 13 points. At the same time, the content grew less rigorous and multiple choice questions compromised ever larger proportions of the exams.  As noted earlier, credits were granted at a rapidly increasing rate and Regents exam scores in NYC were inflated as compared to the rest of New York State. A 2009 NYC Comptroller’s Office audit “identified significant weaknessesthat DOE has not addressed to help prevent or detect the manipulation of test scores.”

There is also evidence that schools started to cut corners to increase the graduation rate. A 2009 audit by the NYC Comptroller’s Office found that “schools 1) awarded students multiple credits for passing the same course two or more times 2) made numerous changes to transcripts without sufficient explanation and 3) did not maintain evidence that all transcript changes were properly approved.” It took another 3 years and pressure from the New York State Education Department (NYSED) for the DOE to follow-up. A 2012 internal audit “found problems at 55 out of 60  high schools reviewed… including the improper grading of Regents exams, the graduation of students who did not meet credit and testing requirements, the awarding of credits for work not performed, and gaps in reporting about students who supposedly switched to other schools.” It took additional pressure from the Commissioner of the NYSED for the DOE to finally begin to address the abuse of “credit recovery programs,” four years after the New York Times had reported on the issue. Data released after a Freedom of Information Law request revealed that in schools using credit recovery 2.6% of all credits were earned through this often unrigorous process. The graduation rate in 2012 got a bump of at least 2% from credit recovery. A 2009 report by a researcher at Columbia University found that from 2000 to 2007 the number of students discharged (and therefore not counted against the graduation rate) from NYC public schools increased by 3.5%. The 2007 graduation rate, reported as 62% by the DOE, was actually 43.6% when discharged students are factored in. A 2011 audit by the New York State Comptroller’s Office found that 14.8% of randomly selected general education students and 20% of special education students  the DOE coded as discharged should, in fact, have been classified as dropouts. It is disturbing to note that many of the fixes designed to address these issues were only put in place over the last year, when they will have no impact on the “numbers” for the Bloomberg-era.


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