NYC Charter Schools: Attrition Rates, Creaming, Special Ed

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January 10, 2014 by juicefong

Disclosure: I work for Teach For America, but my blogging is mine only. I am also a board member of a charter management organization, Democracy Prep Public Schools. What I write represents only my own views.

While they still have issues, I’m a fan of charter schools because I think they can be part of the solution to providing every kid a good education. Some charters are great, some are just okay, and some stink (and should be closed). Fortunately, over my 10 years in public education, I’ve had the opportunity to work with or visit mostly the great ones.

A common criticism of charters is that they cream their enrollees, and that is what accounts for higher student learning rates that we often see in some of them. I have often been defensive when I hear this argument because of my own experience in charter schools. I know how desperately they want to reach students most in need of a great school, and I see the tireless work of teachers in these schools, which is the real reason why we’ve seen achievement rise.

Every charter school is different, so it’s a bit dangerous to generalize. But today, NYC’s Independent Budget Office released a study on student attrition that I find very interesting (also see the New York Times write-up). It has good news and bad news for charter schools. The study tracked over 3,000 students who started kindergarten in charter schools in the 08-09 school year and about 7,000 who started in neighboring traditional district schools. It followed them over the next three school years to understand their attrition patterns. Let’s cut straight to the main findings, keeping in mind that I’m not a research guy.

• Overall, charter schools were found to have less student attrition than traditional public schools. While 70% of students remained in the same charter school three years later, only 61% of students remained in their original district school.

• Charter school special education students were much more likely to leave their school (80% gone after three years), though district schools also had high attrition (50%).

• Alarmingly and curiously, of the schools studied, only 1% of kindergarteners were special education students, compared with 7% for district schools.

• 70% of black students and 68% of Hispanic students were at the same charter school three years later, compared to 53% and 63%, respectively, for their district neighbors.

• A similar number of English Language Learners were still enrolled (72% of charter school students, 67% of district school students), but there was notable difference in overall enrollment: English Language Learners made up only 4% of charter enrollment in 08-09, versus 18% in neighboring district schools.

• Looking at third grade language arts test scores, students who began and stayed in charter schools performed the best among comparative groups (64% were proficient, though still not enough).

• Looking at third grade math scores, again, students who began and stayed in their charter school performed the best (74% proficient). The next highest cohort was students who began at district schools but transferred into charter schools (63%).

NYCIBO-testscores

• Overall, the study reinforced what we know—that student mobility is detrimental to learning outcomes.

• Looking at student promotion, there were markedly even results across students who began in charter schools and those who began in district schools. For both groups, about 75% of students were in third grade—their regular promotion level—three years later. About 10% were in second grade, held back by one grade; and about 1% were in fourth grade, having skipped a grade. Knowing how aggressively some charters hold kids back, this data was a surprise to me.

What does all this mean? It looks like NYC charter school parents are mostly happy with their schools, and they’re keeping their kids there at slightly higher rates than at neighboring district schools. Knowing the volume of the attrition critique against charters, this is surprising and good news for them. But we also know that mobility is bad for students, period. So all of us need to do more to keep students thriving and staying at their schools.

The study also confirms that charter schools need to do a better job recruiting and accommodating special education students and English Language Learners. The common argument is that many charter schools are small (maybe one or two classrooms per grade level), and so they may not have the facility space or the funding to provide a 12-to-1 environment for the one or two students who may require it on their IEP, for example. If this is the main issue, it needs to change.

While I believe in smaller school environments, boutique schools are not a scalable solution to providing a quality education to the masses of kids in New York who desperately need it. Schools should be required to be large enough to have the economies of scale to provide the full range of services that students need (think special ed, counselors, speech and occupational therapists, nurses, etc.). This also means that charter schools should be back-filling. Many do not. At a 10%/year attrition clip, you end up with graduating classes that are a small fraction compared to original enrollments. Yes, we need quality schools, but quantity and scale matter, too.

As new mayor Bill de Blasio threatens to charge charter schools rent, I ask him to reconsider. If anything, this study confirms that charter schools here are making progress in improving learning outcomes. If anything, de Blasio should be leveraging the city’s available facility space to ensure charter schools have adequate means to provide for all learners. Charging rent will choke charter schools of precious resources (likely 20% of their per pupil funding), and make it even harder for them to meet the needs of their students.

Kudos to those charter schools doing a great job keeping their kids. Now, let’s get it together with special education and English Language Learner enrollment.

One thought on “NYC Charter Schools: Attrition Rates, Creaming, Special Ed

  1. Brian Middleton says:

    It seems to me there’s an elephant in the room you haven’t addressed: the predominant reasons *why* students are leaving charters and leaving district schools may not be at all the same, and that may have a significant impact on the way attrition affects achievement. If the typical student leaving a charter school is a borderline achiever who has been falling behind, while the typical student leaving a district school is a high achiever hoping to “trade up” to a better school, that would explain the results quite neatly without providing an iota of evidence that charter schools are actually doing a better job in the classroom. Of course I don’t know that to be the case; but by not addressing this issue, you give us numbers that really don’t shed much light.

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