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Why Charters and College Access Programs Should Cream

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For the past 10 years I have worked in two education sectors frequently tagged with the "creaming" label - charter schools and a nonprofit focused on STEM education for high-potential students. The debate as to whether or not this accusation is true is unimportant. In fact, I am going to tell you that I hope it is true. You see, our urban and rural schools have been doing better at educating lower achieving African American and Latino students in their attempt to close the achievement gap. However, while such schools have been moving students from below basic to proficiency more affluent districts having been moving students from proficiency to advanced and beyond only to exacerbate the opportunity gap.

NCLB has shined a bright light on the woeful under-education of lower performing students. The requirement for the disaggregation of data by demographics has been game changing. However, public schools in urban and rural areas with high percentages of students of color are still failing and failing high potential students most of all. Wyner, Bridgeland, and Diiulio (2007) have referred to this discrepancy as the "Achievement Trap," by which fewer and fewer low-income students of color stay in the high-achieving category during their educational life. Additionally, fewer low-income students are reclassified later on in their education from low or midrange achievers to high achievers.

The achievement trap has become an unintended effect of high-stakes testing under NCLB. Schools serving lower income students of color have become so determined to avoid program improvement status that they work tirelessly to move lower achieving students toward proficiency (an important goal). Nonetheless, few resources are targeted at students who have already achieved proficiency on academic content standards; no time is spent advancing those students or providing them with the skills needed to be literate and prepared for college and career. This under-preparedness is most stark in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math where the highest paid, fastest growing jobs in the U.S. require a STEM degree.

Students coming from under-resourced schools often have no access to the college-track coursework from which higher-income students benefit. As the proportion of disadvantaged students increases, the number of Advanced Placement (AP) classes offered decreases. The relationship was particularly strong for math and science: The probability of a school not offering any math or science AP courses increases by more than 10 percent if the school primarily serves disadvantaged students (Betts, Rueben, and Danenberg 2000). Furthermore, for those schools that do offer AP classes, "African Americans and Hispanics are grossly under-represented in [the] classes" (Furry and Hecsh 2001).

Low-income students of color are twice as likely as their higher-income peers to be in classes with novice teachers (Ascher and Fruchter 2001), with higher rates of uncertified teachers, or teachers leading classes outside their areas of expertise (Akiba, LeTendre, and Scribner 2007). Two-thirds of high socio-economic status (SES) students had math teachers who were fully certified, with backgrounds in mathematics and three or more years of teaching experience; whereas only 53.2 percent of low-SES students - a 14.4 percent gap - had access to the most experienced math instructors (Akiba, LeTendre, and Scribner 2007).

According to Dissecting the Data, California is emblematic of this where:
• In 2009, only 4 percent of Latino and African-American students demonstrated college readiness on the EAP math assessment.
• Only 0.02 percent of all STEM undergraduates at UC are African-American
• Latino students account for only 17 percent of the STEM majors at UC and CSU
• Just 11 percent of the UC Engineering undergraduates were Latino and a mere 2% were African-American.
• A total of 65 African-American UC undergraduates majored in Mathematics in 2009.
• 14 percent of all CSU Computer Science undergraduates were Latino, less than half of the number of White Computer Science undergraduates.

This is not about educating the talented 10th -- we are not even educating the talented one-tenth. So when critics complain to me that we (charters and college-access nonprofits) are "creaming" the best African American and Latino students, the students who would have gone to college without us, my only retort is "So what?" It's patently not true that all or even most of these students would have gone on to college as generations of data have proven. The students of KIPP, YES Prep, ICEF Public Schools, or Aspire would have gone to college at the rates and the quality of schools they are attending without these charter networks. Secondly, even if these students would have gained acceptance to a second tier university, should they not be entitled to have the opportunity to compete at any university? Or, if they do get into a top-flight university, is it ok for them to get weeded out of a STEM major? CNN recently reported on the hostile environment for students (particularly students of color) in Engineering Departments.

If U.S. corporations are serious about diversifying their workforce and using homegrown talent to do so, focusing on the highest potential students in our urban and rural communities is the quickest strategy to get there. The traditional public school system is struggling with the choice of who to devote limited funds towards helping -- lower achieving or higher achieving students -- and the higher achieving students are always losing out. If charters and college-access nonprofits are truly attracting only the best students, shouldn't traditional districts then be able to focus on what they've already been doing for the past decade?

Besides, what's so bad about creaming? Isn't that how we get butter?