Sunday, October 17, 2010

The "Charter Movement" Is Not The No-Excuses Movement
Or: Why There's So Much Charter-Love And So Much Bad Charter Data

A user, under the nom de plum of cybergrace, posted this comment yesterday, on an old post in this blog. Thank you cybergrace, whoever you are, for bringing this up.

Since I put up my page on the No-Excuses Movement, and since Waiting for Superman started generating all this media hype, a number of people have come to me with data of the kind cited in cybergrace’s comment—data showing that charters, on average, are worse than public schools.[1] Well, what do you say to that? everyone wants to know. There’s a lot of legitimate confusion around this issue, so let me try to clear this up.

When Arne Duncan, Davis Guggenheim, and the like say that there’s a model out there that works and is ready to “go to scale,” they’re not talking about charter-schools in general; they’re talking about a specific pedagogical model, called No-Excuses education. Debates on the subject have been careless about maintaining that distinction, however, and the result is a peculiar tangle of incidental ideological alliances and confusing data.

Charter schools are not a movement. They are not the No-Excuses movement, and they are not any other kind of movement. They share no common philosophy nor pedagogical principles nor political affiliations. A charter school is simply a public (i.e. publicaly funded and tuition-free) school that is run not by the local school board, but by an independent headmaster or governing body.[2]

Studies that look at the overall effectiveness of charters, in general, may come in handy in political debates, but they’re of little use in a serious discussion of school-design, pedagogy, or even policy, because charters are completely heterogeneous.[3] To my knowledge, no reputable study has ever claimed that charter schools as a whole outperform regular district schools, nationwide—nor should we expect them to; after all, they’re no more than a collection of underfunded public schools.[4]

The purpose of charters, as I see it, is not to create a better system of education, but to create individual experiments in school-design. If many of those experiments fail, that does not denigrate the entire project; that is simply the nature of experimentation. (Some will no doubt argue that a child’s—or a hundred children’s—education is not something to experiment with, but I’d say better to experiment with a hundred children’s educations than to experiment with or abandon to mediocrity the educations of 53 million children.) Any politician who puts forth charter-schools in general, without oversight, without focus on any particular schooling models, as a solution to a state’s educational woes is at best missing the point.

On the other hand, many studies—both by the schools themselves and by third parties—have found that specific networks and schools that follow the No-Excuses model consistently outperform equivalent district schools.[5] Because No-Excusesism is newly emerging and has no official membership, it’s difficult to perform studies on the movement as a whole, but the data on individual schools and networks is impressive.

Unfortunately, public discussion of these issues has tended to conflate No-Excuses charter schools with charter schools in general, creating a strange intermixing of issues that rarely gets acknowledged or sussed out. (If you pay attention to issues in education and are not yet bored of this post, I urge you to check out Appendix A for an attempt to suss out said issues.) In fact, the relationship between No-Excusesism, as a pedagogical movement, and charter-schools, as a system of school-governance, is largely incidental. There’s no reason that an individual DOE school or an entire board of ed could not adopt the No-Excuses model. Many elements of that model are purely pedagogical and would fit as comfortably in a DOE school as in a charter; the rest are rapidly ceasing to be controversial. (For example, though the rank and file are still resistant, the teachers’ union, under the leadership of the apparently much maligned—I still haven’t seen that damn movie, gasp—union leader, Randi Weingarten, has been moving steadily towards accepting contracts that are consistent with No-Excuses practices, viz. tying teacher salary and retention to student performance.[6])

Even within the No-Excuses movement, though, there is surely great variation in school quality and effectiveness. Not a single governance structure, nor a single movement, nor a single network, nor a single school is homogeneous, but education is enacted differently in ever classroom.

And this is the problem with policy discussions: they always lose sight of the details of implementation. A particular idea—charter schools, preschool programs for low-income children, early-intervention programs to prevent gang-inolvement—is put forth, and, lo, debate begins: is it a good idea or a bad idea? Academics do research, reporters write articles, the board of ed publishes reports—but what so often gets lost in such debates is the obvious fact that these “ideas” can be implemented in a thousand different ways. Asking whether charter schools are good or bad is like asking whether revolutions are good or bad. Unless you’re wildly ideological or pushing an agenda, you’re going to want to know: well, what kind of revolution?

If we want to improve schools, we should look at the specific schooling models and teaching practices that work and how they work and how they could work better. You will see, in coming weeks and months, a shift in the focus of this blog, away from policy discussions and towards analysis of individual schools and classes. That shift began a couple weeks ago with my post on the first day of a No-Excuses kindergarten. More observation-based posts will be coming soon.

[1] ^ The blog-post that cybergrace linked to in her comment is referencing this Times article. That article is about the drop in test scores this past spring, due to more stringent state standards; that drop, for reasons that are not yet clear, hit charters harder than it did district schools, reversing what had been a significant edge that charters held over district schools, city-wide. More conclusive and far-reaching is the study concluded last summer by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University and widely sited in the media, which found that, nationwide, only 17% of charter schools outperformed equivalent district schools, while 37% performed worse than the equivalent DOE schools. Incidentally, CREDO did a similar study that focused only on NYC, and found that, on average, in New York City, charters outperform regular publics—that study was released before the 2010 state exams, though, so it does nothing to clear up what the heck happened when the NYS board of ed raised the bar on the state exams.

[2] ^ Things play out a little differently from state to state, with regard to oversight, funding, etc. Many charters get additional monies through private grants and donations. Some have unionized faculty, most do not, but I think all of them have a separate hiring process from that of regular public schools. Some are operated by for-profit management companies, but most are not—or so the data I’ve gathered implies; as of 2004 at most 19% were operated by for-profits; I’m in the process of researching this issue.

[3] ^ In fact, one should be suspicious of any study that purports to compare charter-schools in general to regular public schools. The differences in student-demographics, due both to distribution in different types of locations (inner-city, suburban, etc.) and to biases inherent in the lottery admissions process employed by most charters (see my ridiculously in-depth discussion of this issue) makes it difficult to perform a meaningful comparison of the two types of schools—and difficult for the casual reader to distinguish a meaningful comparison from a misleading one.

[4] ^ In most states, charters receive significantly less public funding than do regular DOE schools, and according to my rather shoddy, word-of-mouth data, private donations rarely make up the difference. Again, better references as soon as I have them.

[5] ^ Most No-Excuses schools display data on their student achievement and progress on their websites; these data are of course cherry picked to cast the schools in the best possible light, but third party studies have often born them out. Some of these have gone to great lengths to construct reliable control groups. Notably, this study by Mathematica Policy Research, Inc of 22 KIPP schools found strong positive effects from a KIPP education. (KIPP has been the subject of eleven third party studies, all of which have found, to a greater or lesser degree, a positive impact of a KIPP on student performance, as compared to equivalent district schools.) There’s another very high quality study on some other charters—from the Boston area, I think—that I’m looking for; I’ll add a reference as soon as I manage to locate it.

[6] ^ See this Times article

Appendix A

The purpose of this appendix is to match oft-heard arguments about education to the issues they actually relate to, and thereby to dissolve what appear to be sides in a manichean debate into what they really are: collections of incidentally associated issues. I take up four common lines of argument below, but if you think of another than I’ve neglected, please let me know, by email or comment, and I’ll add it to the list—assuming I know enough to analyze it. I hope my readers find the succeeding items clarifying, and that those who harbor—or display at full-sail—a sense of ideological alignment in any direction whatsoever find themselves pleasantly calmed and their seeming enemies, emerging out of the ocean mists, revealed as no squadron of men-at-war, as they first appeared, but an accidental arrangements of separate boats, thrown together haphazardly in the fog.

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  • School choice is an argument for charter schools in general. It is an economic argument, put forth mostly by conservatives, claiming that choice will lead to competition and competition to better schools. This argument is used in support of both charter schools and voucher programs. Currently, the prevailing evidence is that school choice has had little or no impact on school quality. (A lot of studies to that effect are sited in this paper The author is actually arguing, among other things, that the problem so far has been that programs to foster school-choice, mostly vouchers and charters, have failed to generate real school competition. That’s a whole other discussion, but the lit review is nice and comprehensive.)

  • Accusations of union-busting have been leveled against charter-schools in general, because they’re not required to follow union rules regarding hiring, firing, and salary. Most No-Excuses schools, being charters, are not unionized, but in my experience, they tend to pay significantly higher salaries than those providecd by union contracts, offer good benefits, and provide way more support and professional development to their teachers, than do district schools—so, at heart, No-Excusesism is in not at all antithetical to teachers unions. The sense that charters pose a serious threat to teachers’ unions arises out of political rhetoric that holds up charters as a replacement for the public school system (see above). Erm… I find I have a bunch more to say about this. Perhaps in a future post….

  • Accusations of brainwashing have been leveled against No-Excuses schools, by progressive educators and those who share their values. Certain ill-considered animations, featured in Waiting for S., which evidently depicted teachers opening up children’s heads and dumping in knowledge, did nothing to lessen the hysteria around this issue—though the question as to whether No-Excuses education involves a kind of brainwashing is a perfectly legitimate one (more on this in future posts).

  • Advocates of progressive education have also raised concerns about excessive standardized testing with regard to the new education reform movement in general. These are, again, legitimate concerns, but it’s not clear why they should come hand-in-hand with harsh criticism of charters and No-Excuses schools. The connection between charters and high-stakes testing is fairly incidental. True, most state laws require that charter schools commit to producing certain measurable outcomes, as measured by state and national exams—but NCLB, as well as many state-level education laws, require that all public schools demonstrate measurable student improvement on standardized exams, so that’s not really a charter-specific issue. The relationship between high-stakes testing and No-Excusesism is more complicated. One of the central tenets of No-Excuses education is heavy reliance on concrete, mostly quantitative data—to drive instruction, to determine teacher bonuses and salaries, to rank students, to determine who needs tutoring, etc. Thus, the idea of testing is definitely closely connected to No-Excusesism—but I’d argue, and this is now purely hypothetical, that you could have a very high-performing No-Excuses school that made little or no use of standardized tests.


  1. Above, as in several of your posts, you refer to critiques of high-stakes testing and the seemingly unanswered question of whether it generates (and can reflect) "real" learning. Yet you've rarely gone into this in much detail, even though it would seem that the whole value of the No Excuses movement rests on the answer. Are there studies and data addressing this, and, if so, what do they say? Will you be going into it in one of these numerous future posts?

  2. There are many issues wrapped up in the question you're asking, and it's really a more appropriate subject for a book than for a blog-comment; but here are some points addressing issues you raise.

    First of all, the "unanswered question" that you're talking about really contains two very different questions:
    1. Do the tests we're currently using measure deep learning (i.e. conceptual understanding, and the ability to apply knowledge in new contexts)?
    2. Are tests capable of measuring "real learning", and thus are they good ways to motivate education? High-stakes testing does not refer to any specific test, and progressive critics of standards-based reform seem to take aim at the very concept of high-stakes testing, not merely at its current implementation.

    I'm pretty comfortable answering the first question definitively in the negative. There is data on this-- you can compare state test-scores to other, more reliable measures of educational achievement and find a lack of correlation; I'm not ready to present that data-- but my position on this is first hand. I've taught to these tests and no them (the nys math tests, at least) to be pretty shallow.

    The second question is a debate between two paradigms. No concrete data can be presented in support of any answer to it, because it addresses the very meaning and possibility of measurement and data in education.

    Second of all, it is incorrect to say that "the whole value of the No-Excuses movement rests on the answer [to the questions just discussed]." No-Excuses is not a test-prep program; it's an entire philosophy of education, and it's value is not only that it raises scores. It's value has so far been demonstrated by its ability to raise scores, but that doesn't mean that's its only value.

    Finally, as to these "future posts" that have been slow to materialize, point taken; but the questions you're raising in this comment are very large and very difficult to address cogently. I am wary of taking on large questions that force me to deal in abstractions. I am trying to make this blog more specific, local, and concrete, not less so.