Like a majority of people in the state, I voted “no” on Question 2 last week, against lifting the cap on charter schools. The referendum question on the ballot was a blunt tool that pitted charters against traditional public schools in a system where the two were always meant to be working together. Campaigners on both sides of the ballot campaign received an outpouring of funds that might have been better directed toward public schools — especially the millions of dollars that poured into the “yes” campaign from out-of-state.
But there was something else that led me to vote “no” last Tuesday: fuzzy data on student retention. Nit-picky as it may sound, campaigners on both sides butted heads over this metric, which says a lot about how kids move through our educational system.
Uncovering data like this is important, because our charter schools were always envisioned as “innovation hubs,” improving the whole school system rather than serving as escape hatches for students in our least-served districts. If statistics don’t paint a clear picture, it’s all the more difficult for schools to share best practices.
Student retention rates make for a good case study. Parsing the data on this metric is difficult, so it falls to the state to choose the right statistics when it evaluates schools. But the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education relies too heavily on a metric it calls “attrition,” which does not paint a full picture of student retention and mobility. It only tallies the percentage of kids who leave a school during the summer months — not during the school year.
And most importantly, it does not seem to account for dwindling enrollment. State data show that as charter school students move from one grade to the next, their class sizes often shrink — sometimes precipitously.
I looked at the handful of charter schools in Boston serving students in grades 9 through 12, excluding those who started offering these grades only recently (like City on a Hill Dudley Square) and those who have an unconventional approach to grade advancement (like Boston Day and Evening Academy). State enrollment data show that the cohort of Boston charter students entering ninth grade in 2012 had shrunk by nearly one-third when they entered 12th grade. The same cohort of students in traditional public schools in the city shrunk by less than one-fifth.
Compare, for example, two schools serving grades 9-12 in Dorchester: Codman Academy Charter Public School and Jeremiah E. Burke High School.
If any school could serve as a great model for our traditional public schools, it’s Codman: a dynamic place with passionate teachers, open-minded administrators and happy students. Look at attrition rates alone, and you’d think Codman did a better job of hanging onto its students over the last four years.
But the enrollment data tell a different story.
At the Burke, a traditional public school, cohorts of students moving from one grade to the next sometimes shrank and sometimes grew. But Codman’s high school classes only shrank. The seniors who graduated last year numbered only 19. Three years earlier, when those students were freshmen, the size of their cohort was 46.
A caveat: If traditional schools keep their class sizes relatively stable as the years pass, they have not necessarily done a good job retaining individual kids. Rather, they typically allow new students to enroll in any grade, so the number of students leaving can be offset by new arrivals. Many charters, on the other hand, do not backfill after the ninth grade.
It should also be noted that if a charter school class shrinks from one year to the next, it doesn’t always mean students are leaving the school. Instead, it might be that students are repeating grades rather than advancing with every passing year.
But being “held back” can be disruptive; it carries a stigma that can ultimately discourage students from sticking with the program. I met one 12th-grader at Codman who said he was told to repeat the ninth grade, along with some of his friends. He loves the school and is now on track to graduate, just one year behind schedule. But a few of his friends left Codman three years ago, rather than repeat a grade. He’s lost track of them since.
So if a charter school boasts that all of its 12th-graders score well on standardized tests, or that all of its graduates are accepted to college, what does that really mean? How many kids are graduating from charters one year late, or two years late, or not at all?
The state needs to find better ways to collect this data— and to share it. If it turns out, for example, that grade repetition is good for our charter students, we can battle the stigma and encourage the practice in traditional public schools.
Apparently, sharing best practices — a key requirement of the 1993 legislation that first allowed charters to operate in Massachusetts — isn’t happening enough. A state audit in 2014 found that “charter schools may not be fulfilling their statutory purpose of stimulating the development of innovative public education programs and providing models for replication in other public schools.” Improving our student retention data is just one way to fix this; we should also make sure that charters are not being too secretive about their teacher contracts, for example, and that administrators on both sides of the divide have venues to link up and compare notes.
So I’m glad Massachusetts decided not to open up the floodgates. Now, we can step back from the inflamed rhetoric that made this the most divisive question on this year’s ballot. We can open up the lines of communication so that charters can work hand-in-hand with traditional public schools, and serve as the models they were always meant to be.
And to do that, we need to make sure that the data we collect paint a clear picture of what’s working, what’s not, and why.
Jacey Fortin is the International Women’s Media Foundation Elizabeth Neuffer Fellow for 2016/17.