Charter Schools Uncovered

What we learned through our own analysis about the skewed comparisons between our schools and the local charters by Thomas Fowler-Finn

In this era of unforgiving accountability and test scores with high-stakes implications, important lessons can be learned from charter school marketing.

Scrutiny of the regular public schools has never been more sharp-edged. Charter school proponents are becoming increasingly aggressive in promoting themselves as a viable alternative for students — just as a mounting body of research provides little evidence that charter schools, as a whole, are more effective or provide a better education.

Charter school advocates often point to single charter schools, often small ones, to compare to an entire school district. This strategy has been used in my area, Cambridge, Mass., and I’ve spent considerable time researching the charters’ claims and the comparisons.

Several lessons have been learned from the analysis. These findings are generalizable and reveal the highly focused, if not clever marketing strategies of charter schools and their proponents.

Limited Attractions
At the top of the list of charter school marketing techniques is a focus on isolated statistics or variables such as test scores, often applied out of context, as the selling point for choosing a school. In the charter school’s struggles to draw enough students to stay solvent and/or prosper, the narrower the focus on a single program or outcome, the greater the economic return.

Once the charter school’s program focus is chosen and pursued, little money and scant facility space are devoted to other areas such as the arts, physical well-being and development, wider course options and extracurricular opportunities. Neither do most charters invest in retaining educators over the long term or in facilities to support a comprehensive education.

A charter school may advertise extensively about student test scores only, an unusual mentoring program or focus on a singular aspect of the school. When the school does this, it often serves as a telling sign that it offers little else and doesn’t want to talk about it.

Not one charter school I’ve seen comes close to the comprehensive intellectual stimulation and programming offered by strong public school systems. The public often does not realize this. For example, the course offerings and extracurriculars at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, the public high school in Cambridge, Mass., are incomparable and marketable. They include courses in world languages and culture, the arts, advanced academic course options, and extracurriculars and varsity sports. In fact, we only recently realized the significant advantage we had in promoting the quality of our facilities. We had taken for granted the value to parents and the public of our dance studio, TV studio, gymnasium, playing fields, cafeterias, auditoriums, art rooms, music rooms and biotech lab. A community survey revealed the pulling power of our facilities today, a surprise to us until we recognized the lack of such facilities in charter schools.

Countering Claims
We have been taken by surprise in other comparative aspects as well. After completing comprehensive investigations of charter schools in our area, I believe legitimate and fair comparisons to the public schools are rarely made by charter school proponents in their sales pitches.

In Cambridge, Mass., we have analyzed the comparisons based upon income and racial/ethnic subgroups, selection criteria for enrollment, student contracts and/or requirements for entrance, promotion to the next grade, evaluations offered to us by former students and evaluations offered by former employees.

One school in our area that has received national attention is the Media and Technology Charter High School, or MATCH, located nearby in Boston. While this school emphasizes the use of technology in the classroom, its mission statement announces the goals of the school to send every student to a four-year college, and developing the traits of courage, discipline and perseverance. It was named one of the top 100 high schools in America by U.S. News & World Report last fall. It has been drawing the interest of some of our parents. The school boasts a marvelous record of high test scores by the entire student body, including low-income students and racial/ethnic subgroups. All students continue on at four-year colleges. MATCH statistics outpace our high school in that regard even though in 2006 Cambridge sent 10 percent of its graduates to Ivy League colleges.

But upon a closer look into the claims of the MATCH school, I concluded the school is a good program for a small group of young people and certainly not a good model for public schools here or elsewhere to replicate. The graduating class of 2006, according to the state department of education, was 18 students; the freshman class in 2002 began as 79 students. The senior class of 2007 had 20 students, though 49 had entered as freshmen. The survival rate over four years is extraordinarily low.

The charter school’s dropout rate is enormous (24 percent last year, according to the state education website), the graduation rate was 60 percent, and many other students return to the school systems from which they came as they find they cannot survive the grueling system of contracts, demerits, formal conduct rules and performance expectations. Failure to do homework, low grades, as well as “wasting time” and “poor posture,” and other infractions are tallied in an ongoing account of demerits until it is clear to many students they cannot be successful.

The school’s 2007 Code of Conduct states in bold letters, “Even slight misbehavior at MATCH leads to consequences … continued or serious misbehavior [either cultural or academic] means that MATCH is not the right fit for that particular student, and that one of the 24 other public high schools in Boston would probably be better.” Then at some point MATCH may hold a conference with the student and parents to suggest a different placement, and the enrollment continues to decline grade by grade.The course options and extracurriculars at MATCH are, by their own admission, “extremely limited” compared to those offered in a comprehensive high school, and their staff turnover is enormous. This school boasts of a significant tutoring program and Saturday sessions, but it is evident to me this component did not prevent a horrifying student attrition rate. MATCH may take pride in the “rigor” of its program, but in my view it is “survival of the fittest” for the sake of the school’s own reputation, and this is done at the expense of leaving many children behind for others to teach.

Exclusionary Tactics
A second charter school in our area also was touted as a model program to be emulated. Interestingly, it was the high school portion of the K-12 charter school, in particular, that was promoted as exemplary. What I found is that our entire elementary school program, all 12 schools and thousands of students, outscores many if not more of the elementary grades of this charter school, although there were ups and downs depending upon the test.

For a while it was difficult to figure out why the charter’s high school scores were better than ours. Members of our administration sought out information from staff and students who had discontinued their involvement with the school, we interviewed the charter school administration at their invitation, and we engaged in a careful analysis of the state database.

We learned a great deal. Our graduating high school classes are approximately 400 students, while this charter school graduates around 60. The charter has few special education students (too few to count as a subgroup) and, by their own admission, those few students are mildly handicapped. They have no English language learners.

But the comparison goes deeper. This charter school uses a placement exam at the high school level. We talked to one high school student who returned to us after a year. She revealed that she and other students had been told they were “not ready” for the next grade and would be “kicked back” one or, in another case, two grade levels upon entrance. We talked to another parent who decided not to enroll her child when she was given the same news. We learned the behavior code has similarities to that at MATCH, and students serve detentions each day after school and on Saturdays if behavior and/or work are not up to standards.

Staff turnover is remarkably high as well. The impact of placement exams is enormous. In my experience, being kicked back a grade level in and of itself serves as an enrollment discourager and a sorting mechanism for those who might not score high in the coming spring on the state tests. A high bar at admissions and harsh retentions force some students to consider leaving early or not enrolling at all and helps to ensure the test scores of more poorly performing elementary school students can be prevented at the middle school and high school levels. Former students of the charter school also told us that to matriculate from 9th grade to 10th grade (the first year of the state graduation qualifying exam), students must not only pass every course but also receive favorable recommendations from all of their teachers to ensure they are ready for 10th grade. Then again, we were told by former students that each day in every class students took sample state test questions. While student assertions may not always be 100 percent accurate, the message they receive is clear.

In Massachusetts, the state test questions are released annually to the public once the tests have been fully scored, thereby allowing public scrutiny of the tests and also yielding material for reuse. Many school systems, including Cambridge, make use of some of this material, combining a selection of those questions with other material in our homemade periodic assessments administered three times a year in language arts and mathematics as an instructional diagnostic tool. However, the exclusive and persistent use of such material portrayed to us by those who have left the charter school is characterized by the leavers as a predominant part of the charter school culture and a narrow curriculum focus.

Lingering Doubts
Our in-depth examination of area charter schools has revealed compelling information. What we’ve learned and made more widely known to others has certainly quieted those inclined to fault the public schools for failing to teach students as well as the charter schools.

Another high school that made the Top 100 schools list this year is Boston Latin, a regular comprehensive school in Boston. I have visited it, and it’s a great school. However, its enrollment is the result of those students who score the highest in the city of Boston on an entrance exam. While charter schools are not the only ones to control enrollment, public school supporters should take a hard look at student demographics and enrollment controls before pronouncing any school better than others. The U.S.News report should be regarded with skepticism.

The extraordinarily diverse student body in our school system gets placed randomly into one of four small learning communities as 9th graders. About 89 percent graduate in four years with a truly comprehensive education. A recent survey of our graduates from the Class of 2005 indicated what these young adults enjoyed most about attending our high school, Cambridge Rindge and Latin: academics, 27.3 percent; athletics, 25.2 percent; arts, 23.8 percent; electives and other reasons, 23.7 percent. These same students overwhelmingly rate the quality of their education from good to excellent (90 percent), with only 2.7 percent indicating the quality was below average.

I believe it is well worthwhile to examine closely the claims made by charter schools. This is not to suggest that the Cambridge Public Schools can’t improve what we do. We have a long way to go to achieve our mission. One charter school in a neighboring suburb does a great job with English language learners, and we are investigating their approach so that we can improve in that area. I’m thankful we continue to fully examine promising local and national models because our school system must do better for children.

I am not convinced charter schools, due to their limited focus, will help as much to advance public education as proponents contend. A strong public school education produces well educated, competent students of diverse background who will contribute as productive citizens in many ways beyond a narrowly marketed focus. A public school education offers a breadth and depth of curricular and extracurricular offerings that charter schools simply cannot match.

Thomas Fowler-Finn is superintendent of Cambridge Public Schools in Cambridge, Mass. E-mail: superintendent@cpsd.us