study says...

City charter students narrow gap between Harlem and Scarsdale

Map of New York City charter schools, 2008-09. Schools studied in Hoxby's report are marked by a red star.
Hoxby's study examined 43 charter schools throughout the city. The schools she researched are noted on this map with red stars.

New York City charter school students are performing so well on state tests that they may soon catch up to students in Scarsdale, the upscale suburb north of the city, according to an extensive update of a multi-year charter study released today.

The optimistic projection stems from researchers’ finding that the boost charter schools give does not taper off, but is steady throughout elementary school and middle school and even into high school.

“It seems to be really stable as an effect,” said Stanford University economist Caroline Hoxby, who directed the study.

Hoxby and her team studied 43 charter schools in New York City serving elementary, middle and high school students. They compared students who applied and were accepted into charter schools in 2000 by random lottery to those who applied but did not receive a seat.

By the time charter school students reached the eighth grade, in 2008, they scored on average 30 points higher on state math tests than students who remained in traditional public schools, the researchers found.

That’s almost the equivalent of closing the average achievement gap between students in traditional public schools in Harlem and students in Scarsdale, the affluent New York suburb north of the city where students take the same standardized tests. The average Harlem-Scarsdale math score gap is between 35 and 40 points, so the charter school students close that gap by about 86 percent.

Researchers found that charter schools had closed the Harlem-Scarsdale gap by a smaller but still substantial 66 percent on the state English test. They also scored nearly 3 points higher on average on their high school Regents exams for each year they attended a charter school.

Students who were not accepted into charters by lottery and continued in the traditional public school system continued to score at grade level but did not raise their scores enough to narrow the gap significantly, the study found.

The study also concluded that charter school students were demographically no different than students at surrounding traditional public schools and that the lottery process truly selected students at random. (See demographic details below.)

The study reports aggregated data for New York charters and did not track the performance of students at individual schools.

Researchers have not come to a solid conclusion about whether charter schools are more effective than public schools. Hoxby has published several other studies about charter schools. Her research regularly finds positive effects of school choice.

In an interview, Hoxby addressed many of the criticisms leveled against charter schools in recent years. Her analysis found that lottery admissions were truly random and that in general, students who applied for charter school lotteries shared much in common with traditional public school students who did not seek out charters.

Hoxby did note that parents of students rejected from charter school lotteries are more likely to transfer out of traditional public schools, whether to parochial schools or to schools outside of the five boroughs. “It’s possible their parents may be more motivated or committed to the idea of school choice,” she said.

But Hoxby downplayed criticisms that charters cater to a savvier population of students than the surrounding traditional public schools.

For example, some analysts have concluded that charter schools under-serve higher need populations such as special education students and English-language learners. Hoxby said she does not trust those studies. She thinks the differences might reflect different ways charter schools track special programs like English-language learner services and special education.

Hoxby pointed to figures estimating that charter school students are more likely to be African-American, and far more likely to be poor, than the average New York City public school student, but she noted that these are not final figures and do not include students enrolling in charter schools in kindergarten.

As in 2007, Hoxby estimated that charters schools enrolled just slightly fewer special education students. She also noted that significantly fewer English-language learners enrolled in charters, a figure that Hoxby linked to the proportionately fewer Hispanic students in charter school populations. (Search through special education data comparing charter school students and district students.)

When the first iteration of the study was released two years ago, one of the biggest lingering questions was why charter schools spurred these gains. Hoxby said that her findings could not show any causal relationship between various charter school policies and practices, but a number of school characteristics seemed to be strongly associated with high achievement.

Longer school days and school years, some form of teacher merit pay and mission statements emphasizing academic achievement were all statistically linked to high student achievement.

Hoxby emphasized that there was no guarantee that those factors caused student achievement, or that they were replicable. But that doesn’t mean that other schools cannot take lessons from the charter schools’ success, she said.

“I don’t know if I took a traditional public school in Harlem, and I said to them, ‘you’re going to have a long school year and a long school day,–I don’t know that it would have the same effect,” Hoxby said. “But there’s no reason they shouldn’t try.”

The study presents quite detailed information on charter school demographics and programs; I’ve pulled out some of the more interesting sets of data and presented them below.

Demographics of charter school applicants, enrolled students and traditional public school students: The study found no statistically significant differences between students who received spots through the lotteries and those who did not, confirming that the lotteries are truly a random selection process, Hoxby said.

[table id=1 /]

Prior special program participation of charter school applicants and traditional public school students: Because charters and traditional public schools track special education, English-language learners and free- and reduced-lunch students differently, Hoxby examined students who were already enrolled in these programs when they applied for admission to a charter. Hoxby acknowledged that her sample cannot be truly representative of the charter school population, but said that given its limitations, her data still shed some light on students served by charter schools.

[table id=3 /]

Policies and characteristics of New York charter schools: Hoxby and her researchers found that certain elements of charter schools’ educational programs were statistically linked to gains in student achievement. Programs with longer school days and years, academic school missions and some form of teacher merit pay were found to have the strongest correlation to student achievement. Many elements, including types of math and reading curriculum, were not found to be linked statistically. Programs that reserved seats for parents on charter school boards were found to have a slightly negative correlation, though Hoxby cautioned that association may be more indicative of other management problems.

[table id=4 /]

The full report is below, and can be downloaded alongside the original 2007 report here.

How NYC Charter Schools Affect Achievement Sept2009

first steps

Superintendent León secures leadership team, navigates evolving relationship with board

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Superintendent Roger León at Tuesday's school board meeting.

As Newark’s new superintendent prepares for the coming academic year, the school board approved the final members of his leadership team Tuesday and began piecing together a roadmap to guide his work.

The board confirmed three assistant superintendents chosen by Superintendent Roger León: Jose Fuentes, the principal of First Avenue School in the North Ward; Sandra Rodriguez, a Hoboken principal who previously oversaw Newark Public Schools’ early childhood office; and Mario Santos, principal of East Side High School in the East Ward. They join three other assistant superintendents León selected for his team, along with a deputy superintendent, chief of staff, and several other officials.

The three assistant superintendents confirmed Tuesday had first come before the board in June, but at that time none of them secured enough votes to be approved. During last month’s meeting, the board assented to several of León’s leadership picks and to his decision to remove many people from the district’s central office, but it also blocked him from ousting several people.

This week, Board Chair Josephine Garcia declined to comment on the board’s reversal, and León did not respond to a request for comment.

What is clear is that the board and León are still navigating their relationship.

In February, the board regained local control of the district 22 years after the state seized control of the district due to poor performance and mismanagement. The return to local control put the board back in charge of setting district policy and hiring the superintendent, who previously answered only to the state. Still, the superintendent, not the board, is responsible for overseeing the district’s day-to-day operations.

During a board discussion Tuesday, Garcia hinted at that delicate balance of power.

“Now that we’re board members, we want to make sure that, of course, yes, we’re going to have input and implementation,” but that they don’t overstep their authority, she said.

Under state rules, the board is expected to develop district goals and policies, which the superintendent is responsible for acting on. But León — a former principal who spent the past decade serving as an assistant superintendent — has his own vision for the district, which he hopes to convince the board to support, he said in a recent interview on NJTV.

“It’s my responsibility as the new superintendent of schools to compel them to assist the district moving in the direction that I see as appropriate,” he said.

Another matter still being ironed out by the board and superintendent is communication.

León did not notify the full board before moving to force out 31 district officials and administrators, which upset some members. And he told charter school leaders in a closed-door meeting that he plans to keep intact the single enrollment system for district and charter schools — a controversial policy the board is still reviewing.

The district has yet to make a formal announcement about the staff shake-up, including the appointment of León’s new leadership team. And when the board voted on the new assistant superintendents Tuesday, it used only the appointed officials’ initials — not their full names. However, board member Leah Owens stated the officials’ full names when casting her vote.

The full names, titles and salaries of public employees are a matter of public record under state law.

Earlier, board member Yambeli Gomez had proposed improved communication as a goal for the board.

“Not only communication within the board and with the superintendent,” she said, “but also communication with the public in a way that’s more organized.”

The board spent much of Tuesday’s meeting brainstorming priorities for the district.

Members offered a grab bag of ideas, which were written on poster paper. Under the heading “student achievement,” they listed literacy, absenteeism, civics courses, vocational programs, and teacher quality, among other topics. Under other “focus areas,” members suggested classroom materials, parent involvement, and the arts.

Before the school year begins in September, León is tasked with shaping the ideas on that poster paper into specific goals and an action plan.

After the meeting, education activist Wilhelmina Holder said she hopes the board will focus its attention on a few key priorities.

“There was too much of a laundry list,” she said.

early dismissals

Top Newark school officials ousted in leadership shake-up as new superintendent prepares to take over

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Incoming Newark Public Schools Superintendent Roger León

Several top Newark school officials were given the option Friday to resign or face termination, in what appeared to be an early move by incoming Superintendent Roger León to overhaul the district’s leadership.

The shake-up includes top officials such as the chief academic officer and the head of the district’s controversial enrollment system, as well as lower-level administrators — 31 people in total, according to documents and district employees briefed on the overhaul. Most of the officials were hired or promoted by the previous two state-appointed superintendents, Cami Anderson and Christopher Cerf, a sign that León wants to steer the district in a new direction now that it has returned to local control.

The officials were given the option to resign by Tuesday and accept buyouts or face the prospect of being fired by the school board at its meeting that evening. The buyouts offer a financial incentive to those who resign voluntarily on top of any severance included in their contracts. In exchange for accepting the buyouts, the officials must sign confidentiality agreements and waive their right to sue the district.

Earlier this week, León submitted a list of his choices to replace the ousted cabinet-level officials, which the board must approve at its Tuesday meeting. It’s not clear whether he has people lined up to fill the less-senior positions.

It’s customary for incoming superintendents to appoint new cabinet members and reorganize the district’s leadership structure, which usually entails replacing some personnel. However, many staffers were caught off guard by Friday’s dismissals since León has given little indication of how he plans to restructure the central office — and he does not officially take the reins of the district until July 1.

A district spokeswoman and the school board chair did not immediately respond to emails on Friday about the shake-up.

Some staffers speculated Friday that the buyout offers were a way for León to replace the district’s leadership without securing the school board’s approval because, unlike with terminations, the board does not need to sign off on resignations. However, it’s possible the board may have to okay any buyout payments. And it could also be the case that the buyouts were primarily intended to help shield the district from legal challenges to the dismissals.

León was not present when the staffers learned Friday afternoon that they were being let go, the employees said. Instead, the interim superintendent, Robert Gregory, and other top officials broke the news, which left some stunned personnel crying and packing their belongings into boxes. They received official separation letters by email later that day.

The people being ousted include Chief Academic Officer Brad Haggerty and Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon, who oversees enrollment. Also included are top officials in the curriculum, early childhood, and finance divisions, among others, according to a list obtained by Chalkbeat.

In addition to the 31 being pushed out, several assistant superintendents are being demoted but will remain in the district, according to the district employees.

There was concern among some officials Friday about whether the turnover would disrupt planning for the coming school year.

“I don’t know how we’re going to open smoothly with cuts this deep,” one of the employees said. “Little to no communication was provided to the teams about what these cuts mean for the many employees who remain in their roles and need leadership guidance and direction Monday morning.”