THE BLOG
11/07/2016 05:49 am ET Updated Nov 08, 2017

Shilling For Charter Schools

In an opinion essay on Sunday, New York Times columnist David Leonhardt continued the newspaper's campaign "shilling" for charter schools. Leonhardt, is certainly not an expert on public education. As a boy he attended the prestigious and expensive Horace Mann School in Riverdale, New York and then went to Yale. The article, which pretended to be a scientific report based on the latest data, was bad reporting and an embarrassment for both the author and the newspaper. Unfortunately, the Times, which is constantly shilling for charter schools, does not seem to care.

Leonhardt opened with a touching anecdote about an African American family from Boston. "Alanna Clark still remembers the stress of third-grade reading time." Her mother sought learning support from her school without "success." We learn Alanna's older sister passed through school until, unprepared, she entered a community college where she dropped out. But wonder of wonder, Alanna won a charter school lottery and " today is a poised, soft-spoken 10th grader at a charter school called Match."

Next Leonhardt switches gears to explain how "social scientists have quietly spent years analyzing the outcomes of students who attend charter schools" and have discovered that while "many charter schools fail to live up to their promise," "one type," schools like Boston Match, repeatedly show "impressive results."

Leonhardt must have been sleeping the past dozen years if he missed the exaggerated claims made by the parade of consults, experts, and researchers working for charter school groups. Not only does the New York Times continually hype charter schools and parade out any data that seems to support them, but the charter crowd has powerful support from hedge fund financiers, so-called philanthropists, and politicians like New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo and even President Barack Obama.

Now wide awake, Leonhardt interviewed the principal of Match to learn that the school is successful because it has "high expectations" for students and offers "high support." He concludes that Match and similar charter schools are great because of that mantra, "High expectations, high support." However Leonhardt should have done a google search. "High expectations, high support" seems to be the mantra of virtually every charter school in the United States, including the "many charter schools [that] fail to live up to their promise."

The "high expectations, high support" formula means devoting more resources to classroom teaching and less to almost everything else. Students are in class more hours. Schools set high standards and try to instill students with confidence in them. They also invest in helping teachers become better at teaching. But of course, what Leonhardt discovered has nothing to do with charter schools. This is about a community and a society investing in the education of its children.

Leonhardt next reports on the "rigorous" studies and scientific data that support what he found at Match. The "latest batch" of evidence was produced by professors at prestigious universities that have "tracked thousands of charter-school applicants, through high school and beyond, in Boston, where most charters fit the 'high expectations, high support' model."

But when I looked at the study by the professors at the prestigious universities, their conclusions were much more tentative than those suggested by Leonhardt.

1. Charter schools are often test prep academies rather than places were students learn.
"Charter schools may be particularly likely to 'teach to the test,' since they are at risk of closure if their students score poorly." In addition, "Charter students have somewhat higher baseline test scores than other Boston students," which means they scored better on the tests before they went to the charter schools.

2. Charter school student test scores may be skewed by cheating.
"Although encouraging, gains on state-mandated standardized tests provide an inconclusive gauge of the benefits of charter attendance. Like other American public schools, charters are evaluated in part by the performance of their students on these tests. A growing literature suggests that educators respond strategically to the incentive to boost test scores . . . The potentially distortionary effect of test-based accountability may be especially large in the charter sector, where schools whose students do poorly on state assessments can be closed. In our Massachusetts setting, for example, 14 out of 96 charters granted through 2013 have been lost. Charter schools would appear to have a particularly strong incentive to teach to the test, at the expense, perhaps, of a focus on the development of skills with a longer-term payoff."

3. Charter school success may be because they weed out poor academic performers and potentially disruptive students and ship them back to traditional public schools.
"A defining feature of Massachusetts' successful urban charter schools appears to be adherence to No Excuses pedagogy, an approach to urban education described in a book of the same name (Thernstrom and Thernstrom 2003). No Excuses schools emphasize discipline and comportment, traditional reading and math skills, extended instruction time, and selective teacher hiring." The distinguished researchers added, "it is worth noting that our results apply to charter lottery applicants, a group that may differ from nonapplicants." In other words, charter schools start out pulling better performing students from more organized families that can complete the application process.

4. Charter school "success" claims are exaggerated.
"Charter attendance has no clear effect on high school graduation, though charter students take slightly longer to complete their degrees. Charter attendance also has no statistically significant effect on the overall likelihood of college enrollment."

After misrepresenting the results of the scientific studies, Leonhardt cites "two recent analyses of multiple studies" that "concluded that charters do not hurt outcomes at other schools -- and may even help improve them, by creating competition." But he doesn't say who did these analyses or where they were published. However if you hit on the link you come to a website, Education Next, that promotes charter schools, opposes teacher unions, promotes testing, and advocates for free market solutions to education. It is hardly an unbiased source, or even a source that I suspect Leonhardt would agree with on most issues.

At the end of his column, Leonhardt asks, "So why isn't there a national consensus to create more of these schools?" He answers, "Because the politics of education are messy."

But in the next line he concedes that it is not just about messy politics. Leonhardt acknowledges, "no school can cure poverty on its own." But more than that, despite "high expectations, high support" Match is not a miracle after all. "Only about 55 percent of students go on to graduate from a four-year college."

Suspiciously, this op-ed piece was published days before Massachusetts is scheduled to vote on a binding referendum that would lift the state cap on charter schools, currently set at 120. The referendum is being pushed by a business-backed coalition that is spending tens of millions of dollars on the campaign. Much of the money comes from out-of-state groups, including the Walmart Foundation, about $700,000, and something called Education Reform Now Advocacy (ERNA), whose Board of Directors has close ties to Wall Street financiers. According to filings with the state agency that monitors election spending, ERNA contributed over half a million dollars to Great Schools Massachusetts, the group pushing for passage of the charter referendum. Two other hedge-fund-connected organizations, Families for Excellent Schools and Families for Excellent Schools Advocacy kicked in more than $6 million in combined donations.

On Friday a judge in Uganda ruled in support of the Ministry of Education's decision to close a network of private schools supported by the Gates Foundation, Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, and Pearson Education. That story was covered by The Guardian and the BBC, but not the New York Times. Maybe the Times should change its motto from "All the News That's Fit to Print" to "We Shill for Charter Schools."

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