More than scores

New research takes an in-depth look at Chicago charter schools — and finds good news beyond test scores

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Charles Wiriawan

Most of what we know about the effectiveness of charter schools has come from scrutinizing testing data. That’s frustrated some who see the focus on test scores as too narrow. Now, a major study recently released by the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research joins a growing body of research that moves beyond tests to judge charters.

This analysis focuses on charter high schools in Chicago, which now educate over a fifth of Chicago high school students. The main takeaways: charter schools seem to help students in the short- and long-run, but those schools also have higher student turnover.

“Test scores are important, but so are other things,” said Julia Gwynne, one of the study’s authors.

The study’s findings will provide grist for both supporters and critics of charter schools. It also offers a number of important takeaways for national charter school observers.

The study shows that one of the larger charter high school sectors in the country is having big positive effects on students.

Attending a charter high school in Chicago led to substantial improvements in test scores, high school attendance, college enrollment, and college persistence.

These effects were relatively big: charter students were in attendance about eight more days on average and scored a full point higher on the ACT (which is out of 36 points). They were nearly 20 percentage points more likely to enroll in a four-year college, and also much more likely to persist in college through four semesters.

“The college enrollment rates are quite high – I would put that at a very sizable difference,” said Gwynne.

Source: UChicago Consortium of School Research

(It’s worth pausing here to note that although charters had a big edge in getting students to college, the college persistence for both sets of students was fairly low, echoing a national trend.)

These are not just raw comparisons of performance: the authors control for a variety of factors that might affect student performance in high school, including poverty, eighth grade test scores and attendance rates, and special education status. This strongly suggests that differences between students are caused by the quality of their schools. The study largely uses data between 2010 and 2013, although the paper goes further back to assess college outcomes, focusing on students who entered high school between 2008 and 2010.

These results are consistent with another recent study showing that Noble, a large charter network in Chicago, led to a big boost in college attendance.

On one important measure charter students were on par with district kids: high school graduation rates were essentially identical.

Interestingly, the results from this study are quite similar to research on Boston’s charter schools. Students there saw big gains in test scores and four-year college enrollment, but the same or lower high school graduation rates.

It’s among the first studies to document a common criticism lobbed at charter schools: high rates of student attrition.

There’s a big caveat to these findings: students are much more likely to leave a charter high school than a district one.

The natural question when considering the two main findings from the study — better outcomes but higher transfer rates — is whether one causes the other. That is, do Chicago charters just get better results because only more successful kids stick around? No, at least not directly.

To measure the effects of charters, the study follows students over time. Charter schools are judged by the performance of all students who start ninth grade at a charter — even if they subsequently transfer out. This is a common technique among researchers and means that the estimated charter impacts are likely conservative.

Still, the paper adds weight to a criticism that has dogged charters across the country: that they push kids out who are struggling or who have behavior problems. There have been a number of anecdotes to support this, but previous studies in a few districts, including New York City and Denver, had generally found little evidence that students leave charters at high rates.

Generally, low-achieving students in Chicago charters were more likely to transfer out than high-achieving ones — but that pattern was also true in district schools. Charter high schools had high attrition rates among both high- and low-performing kids.

The research does not show why students were more likely to leave charter schools.

Source: UChicago Consortium of School Research

The study highlights that even in a successful charter sector, there are some really low-performing schools.

It’s often heard in the charter school debate: charter success varies significantly from school to school. This is hardly surprising; it’s true of district schools too. But the Chicago study finds that on measures like test scores and college enrollment, charters vary even more than district schools in their impact on students.

That means there are more really good charter schools, but also more bad ones, even as on average the charters are better. (There is some evidence that is true of charter schools in Arizona, North Carolina, and Texas.)

Source: UChicago Consortium of School Research

The findings suggests that policymakers should be wary of judging a school by its sector, and that they need to be especially vigilant for struggling charter schools.

The study hints at — though doesn’t definitively explain — why some charter schools are successful.

The latest research can’t show why, overall, Chicago’s charter high schools seem to be high-performing, but it can point to ways they differ from district schools.

Charter high school teachers reported a higher sense of trust and collective responsibility among colleagues. Charter students said their schools were more engaged in helping them plan for life after high school, and teachers said there were greater expectations for college attendance. The schools also had tougher requirements for moving on to the next grade and for graduating high school.

Perhaps surprisingly, charters had a similar number of school days as the district.

Charter schools may have certain advantages over district schools. For instance, charter teachers report that parents are significantly more involved in schools; this may be a reflection of how charters work with parents, but it could also be about the families who select charters (or both).

The fact that charter schools have higher transfer rates may also matter, as does the finding that those students usually end up in district schools. Other research has shown that students entering school mid-year can hurt the performance of their peers, which might be a particular challenge for Chicago’s neighborhood schools.

The study does not look at financial differences across the sectors, including the role of outside money in supporting charter schools, nor does it examine school discipline or student suspension rates.

“What our next steps should be — really understanding best practices in high-performing charter schools is probably at the top of the list,” said Gwynne, the researcher. “To really understand what’s happening on the ground, you need to send researchers into schools.”

making the rounds

Tennessee’s new education chief ‘very confident’ that online testing will be smooth in April

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Tennessee's new education commissioner Penny Schwinn (second from left) met with Douglass High School students and Shelby County Schools leaders Friday.

As Tennessee’s new education commissioner wrapped up her second week on the job by visiting four schools in Shelby County, Penny Schwinn said she feels “very confident” the state has learned from its mistakes in online testing.

During the more than three-hour ride to Memphis on Friday, Schwinn said she continued to pore over documents showing evidence that the corrections the state department staff have put in place will work.

“I feel very confident that our team has looked into that,” she told reporters in a press conference after meeting with students. “They’re working with the vendor to ensure that testing is as smooth as possible this year.” Currently the state is working with Questar, who administered TNReady online last year.

She also said the state’s request for proposals from testing vendors, which is already months behind, will be released in about two weeks.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
From left: John Bush, principal of Douglass High School; Penny Schwinn, Tennessee Education Commissioner; and Joris Ray, interim superintendent for Shelby County Schools.

“No later than that,” she said. “We hope and expect to have a vendor in place before the end of the fiscal year,” in late June.

The day Schwinn was hired, she said getting state testing right would be her first priority. Three years of major technical failures have severely damaged the trust educators and parents have in the state’s test, TNReady. It is the main measure of how schools and teachers are doing, but state lawmakers exempted districts from most testing consequences in 2018.


From Schwinn’s first day on the job: Tennessee’s new education chief wants to ‘listen and learn’ with school visits


Prior to talking with reporters, Schwinn said she heard “hard-hitting questions” from several students at Douglass High School in Memphis about what the state can do to improve education. Schwinn has said she will visit Tennessee schools throughout her tenure to ‘listen and learn’ by talking to students and educators.

Reporters were not allowed to attend the student discussion with Schwinn and some Shelby County Schools leaders.

Douglass High entered Shelby County Schools’ turnaround program, known as the iZone, in 2016 and saw high academic growth in its first year. But test scores fell this past year as the state wrestled with online malfunctions.

Timmy Becton Jr., a senior at Douglass High, said he hopes for fewer tests and more projects to demonstrate what a student has learned. Those kind of assessments, he said, can help a student connect what they are learning to their daily life.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Tennessee’s new education commissioner met with students at Douglass High School and Shelby County Schools leaders.

“We figured it would be a different way to measure and see how much knowledge a student really has on a specific subject,” he told Chalkbeat after meeting with Schwinn during a student roundtable session. “It’s a good alternative to taking tests.”

He said he was “surprised and happy” to see Schwinn actively seek student perspectives.

“I really think that’s the most important part because students are the ones going to school every day,” Becton said. “So, if you want to find a good perspective on how to solve a problem, it’s really great to talk to the people who are actively involved in it and the people who are actually experiencing these problems directly.”

The state’s annual testing window runs from April 15 to May 3.

School discipline

Michigan schools have expelled fewer students, but that may not be cause for celebration

PHOTO: Getty Images

Michigan schools have expelled far fewer students since the state enacted laws aimed at cutting back on expulsions. But an advocate who’s pushed for an end to zero-tolerance policies pointed out persistent problems and told elected state education leaders this week that, “We shouldn’t start celebrating yet.”

This is why: Peri Stone-Palmquist, executive director of the Ypsilanti-based Student Advocacy Center, told State Board of Education members that in the 18 months since the new laws took effect in 2017, expulsions have dropped 12 percent. But she’s concerned that too many school leaders don’t understand the law or are ignoring its requirements. And she believes some schools are finding other ways of kicking kids out of school without expelling them.

Michigan did away with zero-tolerance policies that had earned it a reputation for having some of the toughest disciplinary rules in the nation. In their place, lawmakers instituted new rules, such as requiring schools to consider seven factors — including a student’s age, disciplinary record, disability and seriousness of the incident — in making expulsion decisions.

“We have had districts and charters tell advocates that they would not consider the seven factors at all,” Stone-Palmquist said. Others aren’t sharing with parents and students how those seven factors were used. And she said there’s a general “lack of understanding of lesser interventions and the persistent belief that lengthy removals remain necessary.”

That’s a problem, she and others say, because of the negative consequences of kicking students out of school. Studies have shown that students kicked out of school are often missing out on an education and are more likely to get into trouble. Advocates also worry that expulsion exacerbates what they describe as a “school-to-prison” pipeline.

She said advocates are noticing that more students are receiving long suspensions, an indication that some schools are suspending students rather than expelling them. Hiding students in suspension data won’t work much longer, though. Michigan now requires schools to collect such data, which soon will be public.

Stone-Palmquist also said that some schools aren’t even going through the expulsion process, but simply referring students with discipline issues to “understaffed virtual settings.”

“Once again, the students who need the most get the least, and no one has to report it as an expulsion.”

Stone-Palmquist gave an example of a ninth-grader involved in a verbal altercation who was expelled for a long time for persistent disobedience, “despite our team lining up extensive community resources for him and despite the district never trying positive interventions with him.”

In another case, a fifth-grader was expelled for 180 days for spitting at another student who had done the same to them first. Stone-Palmquist said the seven factors weren’t considered.

“We were told at the appeal hearing that the student’s behaviors were too dangerous to consider lesser interventions.”

She and Kristin Totten, an education lawyer for the ACLU of Michigan, provided board members with statistics that some members found alarming. Totten noted that an ACLU review of data collected by the federal government shows that for every 100 students in Michigan, 38 days are lost due to suspension. In Oakland County, 26 days are lost for every 100 students. In Macomb County, it’s 35 days and in Wayne County, it’s 55 days.

One child who’s experienced trauma for years was repeatedly suspended from multiple schools. The 11-year-old has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. This school year, she’s been suspended for 94 days.

“Never once were the seven factors mentioned to her mother,” Totten said.

Stone-Palmquist asked board members to consider recommendations, including developing a model student code of conduct that incorporates the new rules, partnering with the advocacy center to request an attorney general’s opinion on what districts are required to do, and expanding data collection.

Tom McMillin, a member of the state board, asked whether the state should consider financial penalties, such as withholding some state aid.

“I’m a fierce advocate for local control. But in areas where the incentives might not be there to do what’s right … I’m fine with the state stepping in,” McMillin said.

Board member Pamela Pugh said she appreciated the push for the board to “move with great speed.” She said the data and stories provided are “compelling, as well as convincing.”

Stone-Palmquist said that despite her concerns, there have been some successes.

“Districts that used to automatically expel 180 days for fights, for instance, have partnered with us to dramatically reduce those removals with great outcomes,” she said. “We know alternatives are possible and that they actually help get to the root of the problem, prevent future wrongdoing and repair the harm.”

The Detroit school district didn’t come up during the hearing. But on the same day Stone-Palmquist presented to the state board, Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti gave a presentation to his local board of education about what’s happened in the months since the district embarked on an effort to improve school culture by revising the student code of conduct, hiring deans for each school, and providing training on alternative discipline methods.

The bottom line: Vitti said that schools are booting out dramatically fewer students and greatly increasing alternative methods of discipline. In-school suspensions are up, given the push against out-of-school suspensions.

But the changes have also raised concerns. Some school staff have said the new rules are tying their hands. Vitti said it will take time for the changes to take hold, and he outlined some areas that need to improve, including more training.