Wednesday, June 4, 2008

HOW SOME CHARTER SCHOOLS MAKE IT TO THE TOP

OPEN EDUCATION Newsweek Magazine offered its annual list of the top public high schools in America. As soon as the list was published, charter school proponents began using the compilation as justification for furthering the charter school movement. 10 charter schools made the top 100 Newsweek list. With charter schools currently comprising only about 3% of all public schools nationwide, the fact that 10% of the top performers were of that type is indeed statistically significant.

Advocates for the movement were quick to pounce on the Newsweek list. The Alliance for Public Charter Schools President Nelson Smith offered this glowing assessment: “The charter school principles of accountability and innovation are producing remarkable results.”

The Newsweek list of high schools is constructed [using] a single calculation. . . Based on the ratio constructed by Jay Mathews: the ratio takes the number of college-level exams. . . taken by students and then divides that number by the number of graduating seniors.

While other bloggers have taken to analyzing the merits of the calculation itself (meritorious or not, it is in fact only one piece of data about a school), we decided to take a peek at the three top performing charter schools on the list. . .

A glance at the top three reveals some very interesting information, data that demonstrates why the charter school movement must be thoroughly vetted before experts begin throwing accolades around. In fact, one, Preuss, offers data reminiscent of the so-called Texas miracle that came back to haunt former Secretary of Education Rod Paige, while the other two call into question the meaning of the term public.

In November of 2006, Pat Kossan, writing for ‘The Arizona Republic’ took an in depth look at BASIS Charter School. The title of her article perhaps best sums up her analysis, “BASIS Charter Schools May Offer The Best Free Education In The U.S. But Applying The Formula To Public Schools May Not Work, Founders Say.”

What Kossan found was not a public high school as intended under American law.

Kossan writes, “Most of its students are ambitious children of engineers, attorneys and doctors, kids willing to hammer through math, science, history and literature courses years beyond their academic peers.

“Only 10 percent of its students are minorities. None is an English-language learner. Few are low-income or have special-education needs.”

Olga BlockSchool founders Michael and Olga Block told Kossan that the school does not adjust its expectations based on student needs. Instead, parents, students and teachers must adjust to the expectations of the school.

Legally, though the school takes anyone, that is simply not an accurate descriptor of what takes place. Few students are Latino, African-American or Native American, and the school does not recruit students to broaden the schools’ population.

In essence, what Kossan found was a private school mentality and philosophy backed by public money. Instead of offering an education to all students, Kossan wrote that BASIS “weeds out the academically weak in the first few years of middle school. The school loses 10 percent of its students by seventh grade. After eighth grade, the school loses an additional 40 percent of its Tucson students who decide against attending the Basis high school.”

While such a philosophy appears to get BASIS a top rating from Newsweek, there is simply no comparison of this form of high school to that of a comprehensive inner city high school with English language learners and a special education population. In fact, the comprehensive inner city high school would be charged with the violation of the law if it did not modify a program according to a special education student’s individual education plan.

While selected as the number four school on the list, Preuss has recently been going through a very stormy period that calls into question its high rating. An investigation was launched last May at the request of the chairman of the school’s board of directors.

Once the audit had been launched, the nationally recognized school soon found itself in the papers for all the wrong reasons. The independent audit found widespread grade tampering and instances where students received credit for courses they never took.

Roughly 420 grades at the Preuss School were inaccurately recorded over a six year period. The audit revealed a corrupt system “with insufficient internal controls and pressure on teachers to pass students, according to the audit, to be released today.”

The findings brought to mind the so called Texas miracle and the performances of students in Houston that formed the basis of the No Child Left Behind Act.

The Boston Globe did a follow up story on MATCH [School]. The Globe wrote, “student defection is high” and “the school’s four-year graduation rate last year was 60 percent, only 2.1 percentage points higher than the Boston public schools.”

The Globe also noted how MATCH fared under the recent study last fall by Johns Hopkins University. In that study, researchers referred to many schools as drop out factories.

Globe noted, the study “designated MATCH as among roughly 10 percent of public schools nationwide that are ‘dropout factories,’ where 60 percent or fewer freshmen graduate in four years. One Boston public high school made that list.”. . .

Though charter schools offer a potential model for school improvement, the assessment of these three entities calls to mind the need for multiple measures of progress to rate our schools.

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