Sunday, December 18, 2016

Gerrymandering Charter Success

Once again I'm reading a spate of charter fan fiction in which charters are lauded for out-performing the rest of the schools in their city.

That one right there near the center is where I've been smacking my head

"Out-perform the rest of the schools in East Egg" is a meaningless metric, and I keep trying to explain why to some folks. Let me try it again, because looking at the mess in North Carolina has given me a thought.

Let's start with one of the best graphics out there for explaining gerrymandering. It comes from an article by Christopher Ingraham at Washington Post's wonkblog, with the graphic itself adapted from Stephan Wass.

This shows how you can divide up a city to create different combinations of the voters to create particular outcomes. It explains, for instance, how Pennsylvania and North Carolina can have legislatures completely dominated by one political party even though that party doesn't have a vastly greater number of actual voters.

But now, look at the graphic again, and this time, think of the red blocks as high-achieving students.

Let's say East Egg, back when it had only public schools, looked like #2. Five schools, all containing some high-scoring students (aka "high-achieving," but as always I will remind you that "high-achieving" just means "got a high score on the Big Standardized Test") and some low-scoring students, with the proportion being such that all five schools come out "blue," which for our purposes will mean "sad and Not Good" schools (because when we talk about low-achieving schools, we just mean schools that have lots of low scores on the BS Tests).

"We must turn around East Egg," declare some Very Concerned Politicians, and soon three new charter schools open up. That takes us to #3, where the three "red" schools are the high-scoring charters, while the two remaining public schools are now very blue.

But here's the thing-- the overall total distribution of high- and low-scoring students in East Egg has not changed a bit. This whole game will still work even if all students get exactly the same score they got back in the all-public system.

Every one of the charters can brag about "out-performing" the public schools, but it means nothing. The overall total performance for East Egg has stayed exactly the same, static, flat, unmoved (exactly, in fact, as overall test results have proven to be on tests like PISA and NAEP).

"How can we gerrymander the students when we get students in random assortments?" some charter fans will say. From marketing to applying to push-outs to recruiting from outside the community, charters have shown themselves highly adept at managing their student population. No less a reformster all-star than Chris Barbic left the Tennessee ASD noting that, gee, it's really hard to lift up a school when you have to work with all of the same students that are there in the community.

So if a charter operator wants to impress me, I would need to see some data showing that the results improved for the total student population of the city where they operate. Being able to gerrymander your way to success is not the same thing as actually changing the makeup of the entire city system.


  1. At some point, we may get our arms around the real trouble with "public" education. It is not academics, per se, nor it is, should we turn That Public School into a Charter (for whatever reason). The problem is simply cultural. We have a large segment of our society (many Deplorable, some not) which neither values nor supports education as it is now delivered. Add to that an ever growing sense of student power and entitlement, and what you have is what we got. Good schools (due to lucky demographics, or good lottery choices) will excel. Bad schools (populated by kids who simply don't want to be there, and whose parents can't make them) will not. All the No Child Left Behind in the World won't change that dynamic. Until we decide to stop genuflecting at the altar of "Our Great Public School Systems", we will not be able to improve them. There are private initiatives out there that are attempting to bridge the gap, get kids involved and WANTING to learn, as opposed at forcing them to. But these are small efforts. And they cost money. Our system needs a total rethink.

    1. On top of all the stress, grief and anxiety that especially little children have to navigate in many of our urban school districts, they also lack access to nature. For people who live in areas where nature is not a 45 minute or more drive away, it is hard to explain what existence is like where the calming effects of a breeze in the trees is just not there. Furthermore, how many students, especially boys, would benefit from much more physical activity (not just sport) as part of school. Everything about the life of children in crisis-based urban school districts is unnatural - the fear, the danger, the poverty, the anxiety, the cement everywhere. We shouldn't be surprised that school-setting type learning is not a top priority for people in survival mode.

      Rethinking schools is what some charters try to do. I get that. But the constant emphasis to industrialize (replicate anywhere) whatever new idea someone has moves us farther away from the fundamental student needs. Even kids who live in more rural areas could benefit from working outdoors more as a part of school. It is just too tragic that every breath, every minute must be captured in some data management system and assessed by some self-proclaimed body of experts in order to be considered valid.

      Rethinking the system? Relationship based learning is the key to helping underachievers. Students are strengthened through positive, communicative relationships with other people and with even nature (Last Child in the Woods). The realities of children living in dangerous urban areas are almost impossible to fathom for people who do not live there. If school is going to help them grow into well grounded adults, school has to mean so much more than a required set of experiences that are supposed to provide a foundation for their entire adult life. School needs to become much more than the industrial model we live with today. Tweaking that model is not working. Technology is not helping. Grants are not working. Teacher accountability measures are not working. I wholeheartedly agree that the cultural expectations and preferences are at the core of the problem. People living in extreme deprivation (not just materially but emotionally, psychologically) need to be nurtured. School will have to "deliver" in those areas if any lasting results are going to be expected. Can public schools do that without it becoming something that is inevitably industrialized and captured with data points? Can we even imagine, let alone create a "model" that will allow for this much ambiguous humanity to be part of the inevitable algorithm?

      Trying to cram so many things into the average school day, would this "human component" (for lack of a better term) be too costly in terms of time management?

      When we can find a public school model that validates the humanity of students and not just their standardized test results, you will have something that can bring the change that children deserve. Everything else, I fear, will be more of the same.

    2. There weren't any "bad" or so-called failing schools in my North Carolina county until the school board and voters decided to get rid of busing and go with neighborhood schools. Of course, the primary motivation for the neighborhood schools idea was racial, but no one said that publicly, only in private.

  2. I certainly agree that traditional catchment schools reinforce SES segregation in the country. I even think that is a reason to think choice schools are a good idea.

    1. I agree that traditional catchment schools, especially the way lines are drawn, causes segregation, along with "red-lining" real estate policies. That's why bussing was mandated, and according to the pod cast that you recommended, it was working. Grading schools according to standardized test results to use to influence real estate values reinforces that segregation. But recent studies show that "choice" schools don't help the problem, and often make it worse.