Wednesday, September 2, 2015
The American Enterprise Institute is firmly in the free market corner of reformsterism, arguing and advocating that any form of choice, particularly charter schools, will automatically improve education. I agree that they are correct if by "improve education" you mean "make it easier for rich folks to get richer by playing in the education biz." If by "improve education" you actually mean "do a better job of providing a free, quality education for every American citizen," I think AEI is full of it. Just want to be up front about where AEI and I start respectively.
AEI, like many thinky tanks, likes to pop out the occasional PR bulletin disguised as a "research" paper, and this summer they popped one out from Michale McShane and Jenn Hatfield entitled Measuring Diversity in Charter School Offerings. And I have read it so that you don't have to.
McShane and Hatfield leap straight into the deep end with their opening sentence:
There are two main reasons given to support charter schooling: (1) that charter schools will improve academic achievement by taking advantage of flexibility not afforded to traditional public schools; and (2) that deregulation will allow for more diverse schools than would otherwise be created.
Now, the actual practices surrounding actual charters also suggest that the list should include 3) get your children away from the children of Those People. This item is mentioned both by charter critics, who see it as a bad thing, and by charter supporters, who see it as a feature, not a bug. But that's not where AEI is headed here, so we'll let that point lie for today.
The authors note that much attention has been paid to point 1 (they do not mention that the attention suggests point 1 is bogus), but not so much to that "variety" thing. And so they set out to make that point.
They set the stage with a quickie history of charters and a reference to a Fordham survey from 2013 that shows that parents want many different things from their schools. Not exactly a shock, that one. Then AEI indicates that their research comes from seventeen cities, 1,151 charter schools, and 471K students. So what did they find out?
The market is split
AEI says that about 50% of the charters are specialized in some way, and about 50% are like all-purpose public schools (only better). Their classification method was perhaps not super-solid. If the school's website included a mission statement (or something like one) included specializy words like "STEM" or "no excuses," they were considered specialized. If no such language appeared, they were considered general.
AEI here has the same problem NCTQ runs into-- to actually, legitimately answer the research questions they raise would require huge mountains of human-hours, so they take a shortcut which is likely to seriously reduce the validity of their findings. It's not that I'm unsympathetic to the problem, but don't tell me you've researched the prevalence of obesity in my neighborhood when all you actually did was drive down the block and count the houses with empty Twinkie wrappers in their garbage.
The writers do come up with an interesting taxonomy of charters based both on pedagogical style (e.g. no excuses) and on content focus (e.g. vocational training). By number of schools, their accounting shows that No Excuses and Progressive are most common, followed by Credit Recovery. Vocational comes up sadly back of the pack-- unfortunate because schools with a vocational focus are hugely valuable. When you break it down by average number of students enrolled, General and Public Policy lead the pack; notably, Credit Recovery, which scored high on number of schools, comes up last in number of students. When you count just plain number of total students, No Excuses, Hybrid, STEM, and Progressive are tops.
The report does break these numbers down for each of the cities in the study, so you can page through and note local variations. Denver is a big STEM city. Boston has far more general schools that specialized. Minneapolis, Camden, and Albany have far more specialized than general. Some cities show large difference between the breakdown by school and by student; Newark has far more general charters schools, but far more specialized charter students. In fact, many of the patterns shown in the combined numbers for the seventeen cities disappear entirely on the city-by-city level.
The study breaks down some demographic correlations. Among other tidbits, this reveals that No Excuses schools are definitely more connected with poor, black families.They also looked for a correlation with market share (the paper repeatedly talks about "markets") and market maturity (if charters breed variety, won't older markets show more variety). There was no clear-cut connection there.
Interviews with operators yielded a consistent result. Asked if they were promoting variety, charter operators said they were after quality first.
The writers posit the interesting idea of Maslow's hierarchy applied to schools and communities:
They first look for a school that is safe, then a school with generally strong academics, and then a school with some of their desired specializations. If a school isn’t safe, it doesn’t matter if it matches their preferences for pedagogy or curriculum; parents don’t want to send their kids there.
It's an interesting way to put it. But then they spoil the mood with this:
In low-income and minority communities, the primary concern is having a school with a quality educational program. This explains why we see relatively strong correlations between enrollment in no-excuses schools and both median income (negative correlation) and the percentage of the population that is black (positive correlation).
The embedded assumption here-- that no-excuse schools are the very epitome of quality educational programs-- is a huge one. And it skips over a far more interesting discussion-- is this study showing us something about how charters actually are, or is it telling us something about how charters are actually marketed.
Now that would have been an interesting topic to pursue-- how has marketing affected the world of charters, and what kind of relationship does the marketing have to the reality. But that's not in the study.
It does have its moments
For instance, in the conclusion we find this
If we require all schools to perform well across one set of metrics before we think about allowing for diversity, we will most likely limit the amount of diversity that we will see.
Yup. If we're looking for diversity, we can't very well find it, see it, or, for that matter, market it if our only metric is standardized test scores. And the conclusion of the report totally gets that. So that's something.
What else is missing?
In addition to talking repeatedly about markets without examining the implications of marketing schools as a product, the report also conspicuously leaves out public schools.
Public schools mostly involve a general approach to education, and I think that is vastly more desirable than a buffet of diverse charter offerings.
Diversity under one roof is best
There are two reasons that a diverse assortment of offerings under one roof is the best way to go.
First, it allows students to explore diverse interests. A student who wants to be both and athlete and an artist can easily do both. A student who wants to be a musician and a scientist can do both. A student who can't make up his mind can sample from a wide variety of offerings. That's the first benefit.
The second benefit is, perhaps, even greater. The musician and the athlete will sit next to each other in English class. The artist and the scientist will bond over how much trouble they have learning French.
Diversity of charter offerings is not a good thing
I know, I know. Charter fans imagine a charter world like a big educational strip mall. Some charter fans (McShane is one) even imagine a world where the buffet is sampled on a class by class basis. This is a lousy idea.
The end result of a diverse charter smorgasbord is sitting a fourteen year old down to decide what career path she wants to follow. Some small percentage will be ready for that. Most won't, and what's more, they shouldn't be. The whole diverse-charter-offering idea is predicated on the notion that by their teens, students are fixed entities, their needs, interests, preferences, wants, inclinations, issues, and future paths pretty much set in cement. That's simply not true. They have lots of change and growth and development and shifting around and trying out and sampling and succeeding and failing to do across a whole swath of paths.
Diversity in charter offerings ironically provides the very antithesis of diversity-- students locked into particular silos that can only serve particular aspects of their selves, dealing only with other individuals on a similarly narrow path. Also ironically, the diverse offerings allowing students to custom build a study path to suit themselves that McShane envisions is exactly what we offer our students here at my little rural high school.
Anyone else want to chime in?
If you want to read a more thorough look at this report, check out the National Education Policy Center review. Short form, they also find the classification methodology a little iffy and the sample too small and varied to mean much.
And what about diversity, anyway?
The report really didn't find diversity blooming over time in mature markets, and I wouldn't expect it to. Investors and entrepreneurs aren't going into the education biz in order to capture small boutique markets that bring modest returns. They got into this game because they were promised healthy ROI.
And that means a chase to the big fat middle of the road. If you want to see how the free market doesn't foster diversity, just check out your cable channels. 500 not-too-different channels all chasing a slightly different (or not even different) slice of the broadest part of the market. Or if you want to think about how the market affects diversity, meditate on the story of the Beverly Hillbillies, a show that was canceled even though it was hugely popular, because it wasn't popular with the right segment of the marketplace.
The free market doesn't really care for diversity. So in the end, I will bet that even though the dream of a big charter buffet is not a desirable one, it is unlikely to ever happen anyway.