Monday, July 23, 2018

More sloppy & non-fact based journalism from NY Times on charter schools

David Leonhardt
David Leonhardt's latest NY Times column touting charter schools is full of bogus claims and sloppy journalism.  He inveighs against progressive critics, writes that he wants a fact-based debate over education reform “in a more nuanced, less absolutist way than often happens" but then adds: "Initially, charters’ overall results were no better than average. But they are now." The link is to a CREDO website that doesn't show this.

The most recent CREDO national study of charters from 2013 examined charters in 26 states plus NYC and found significant (if tiny) learning gains in reading on average but none in math.  CREDO is generally considered a pro-charter organization, funded by the Walton Foundation and many independent scholars have critiqued its methodology.

Moreover, the main finding of the 2013 study was that the vast majority of charter schools do no better than public schools, as Wendy Lecker has pointed out.  In 2009, CREDO found, 83 percent of charters had the same or worse results in terms of test scores than public schools, and in 2013, about 71-75 percent had the same or worse results.

Finally, to the extent that in some urban districts, there are studies showing that charters outperform public schools on test scores,  there are many possible ways to explain these results, including an overemphasis on test prep, differential student populations, peer effects, higher student attrition rates and under-funding of most urban public schools.

Leonhardt also writes that "The harshest critics of reform, meanwhile, do their own fact-twisting. They wave away reams of rigorous research on the academic gains in New Orleans, Boston, Washington, New York, Chicago and other cities, in favor of one or two cherry-picked discouraging statistics. It’s classic whataboutism. "

Yet three out of these four links have nothing to do with charter schools, nor are they peer-reviewed studies. The NYC study by Roland Fryer instead focuses on which attributes of NYC charter schools seemed to be correlated with higher test scores compared to other NYC charter schools.

The Chicago link goes to a NY Times column Leonhardt himself wrote on overall increases in test scores and graduation rates in Chicago public schools that doesn’t even mention charter schools.  The DC link also is far from “rigorous research,” but sends you to a DCPS press release about the increase in 2017 PARCC scores, with again no mention of charter schools, or even “reform” more broadly.  
 
If there is indeed “reams of rigorous research” supporting charter schools, one might expect that Leonhardt would link to at least one actual, rigorous study showing this. 

Leonhardt's previous column on charter schools discussed this recent report from Doug Harris of Tulane's  Education Research Alliance on the improved results of New Orleans charter schools.  Others including Mercedes Schneider have critiqued the Harris study.  I immediately focused on the section of the report in which Harris mentions possible alternative explanations for these schools' academic progress, including their substantial increased funding after Katrina.  

After citing the the abundant research that spending matters when it comes to student outcomes, and admitting that the NOLA schools saw a $1,358 funding increase per student after privatization, Harris then argues:

It is questionable, however, whether the results from these studies provide a valid indication of the counterfactual in this case. First, the corruption and dysfunction in the Orleans Parish School Board prior to the storm implies that the additional resources would not have been used to generate better outcomes to the extent that the average district did in the above school funding studies. Second, the city’s spending increase, which came mainly from local funding and philanthropists, may have been partly caused by the reforms. The same inefficiencies that led to public disenchantment with the local OPSB pre-Katrina led to a widespread perception in the city that the reforms improved schools (Cowen Institute, 2016). This increased public support likely contributed to political support for local property tax levies and the backing of philanthropists that produced the spending increase. Any effect of spending on student outcomes, in this sense, may not be just an alternative explanation, but rather an indirect effect of the reforms. Therefore, while spending almost certainly contributed to the overall effect, it is unclear whether it was a substantial cause.

Here Doug Harris maintains that he doesn't even have to attempt to disentangle the differential impact of increased funding in NOLA schools on student outcomes from their charterization, since in his estimation, it was unlikely that philanthropic support or increased local spending would have occurred without privatization happening first.  Thus he posits that the political will to fund schools properly was an effect of charterization, and thus not a possible cause of their academic improvements - a speculative argument at best.

One could study whether increased funding for schools has occurred primarily in those school districts that charters have taken over.  One could also analyze the degree to which public support for public schools has become dependent on their privatization.  Harris doesn't attempt either, as far as I know.  In any case, if either statement is true, this says more about the weaknesses in our political system than the inherent quality of charter schools.
Leonhardt, of course, doesn't mention this weakness of Harris' argument in his column on the NOLA report, nor does he mention any of the evidence that the growth of charter schools nationally has also been associated with reports of corruption, increased segregation, suspension rates, abuse of student rights, and loss of funding for democratically-governed public schools, as the recent NPE/Schott report card points out, among others. 

Research studies focusing on other aspects of the corporate “reform” agenda more generally, including the implementation of the Common Core, teacher evaluation linked to test scores, more closures of public schools, and expansion of online learning, have shown generally dismal academic results.  It is indeed time to engage in more “fact-based” discussions of these trends, and I would urge NY Times columnists like Leonhardt to start doing so.  

3 comments:

Unknown said...

Leonhardt lost all credibility with me when he referred to what happened in New Orleans as a success story. No real teacher in NO sees it that way. Thanks for exposing the shoddy journalism here. Leonhardt's column belongs on Education Post or The74--not the NY Times.

Ira Shor said...

Thank you! Leonhardt needed a strong rebuke and rejoinder, and you provided it.

Unknown said...

"Here Doug Harris maintains that he doesn't even have to attempt to disentangle the differential impact of increased funding in NOLA schools on student outcomes from their charterization, since in his estimation, it was unlikely that philanthropic support or increased local spending would have occurred without privatization happening first. Thus he posits that the political will to fund schools properly was an effect of charterization, and thus not a possible cause of their academic improvements - a speculative argument at best."

Not only is it a speculative argument, but the worst-case scenario is that it is an accurate one. If the baseline assumption that politicians will not fund education unless it lines the pockets of their donors (instead of paying the actual service providers), it does not speak well of the political structure. One would wonder how public schools did as well as they had in the face of such opposition.