Department Of Two Things Are True At Once – Charter Schools & Skimming

There is an ongoing debate about public charter schools and skimming that goes something like this:

“Studies such as CREDO and other high-quality analyses show that charter schools in some cities are substantially outpacing other public schools.”

“Well of course they are, they’re skimming the most motivated families. It’s not the schools.”

This back and forth is usually reported in the media as two distinct takes on the same issue. In fact, both these things are true at the same time.

Let’s start with the “skimming.” Most charter schools don’t skim their students (in fact they’re not allowed to, it’s traditional public magnets and theme schools that are able to use selective admissions standards) and many charters focus on the lowest-income students. But, there are certainly cases where signals are sent, especially in regard to special education students, and many charters have distinct themes or norms that do not appeal to all parents. (As charter schools grow in many cities addressing issues like special education will become unavoidable. We don’t expect each public school to educate every student, districts do this by aggregating resources, but we should expect the charter sector as a whole to equitably serve the most challenging students once that sector reaches a certain size). Some students also struggle once they enroll in a specific charter.

But more to the point, in an environment where assigned schools and choice schools operate side-by-side it’s not surprising that it’s more motivated parents exercising choice right now. So the schools are not “skimming” but there is almost certainly some selection effect.

But that’s where it gets interesting. Because there are more parents who want to enroll their students in charters than there are seats available researchers have been able to compare students to applied to over-subscribed charters and didn’t get in through the random admissions lottery with those who did get a seat. In other words, the scarcity of seats in the most in-demand charters creates a natural experimental and control group of students. And the results show that even among these students, with similarly motivated parents and only the luck of the draw separating them, high-performing charter schools outperform. Other research, for instance the methods used by CREDO, bolster this finding. So the good schools are doing something that matters – in some cases a lot –  on top of any advantage they might gain from the students who come their way.

So put plainly, yes selection and skimming matters, but despite that, the evidence shows that some charters have a substantial positive effect that is something educators and policymakers should seek to learn about and replicate rather than dismiss out of hand based on a misunderstanding of what’s happening.

What makes for a good sector of charter schools? Fordham is hosting a forum on different ideas about that.

Update: Below commenter David B. makes an important point about how generalizable the results from over-subscribed (and often “no excuses”) charters are. He’s right and there is a lot to learn about the broader implications. But unfortunately, rather than a thoughtful conversation about how to improve customization within public education and figure out how to provide better options for all students, the charter debate has turned into a team sport where each side just has a rooting interest.

9 Replies to “Department Of Two Things Are True At Once – Charter Schools & Skimming”

  1. The flipside of those lottery studies, though, is that they only tell you the causal effects of charter schools on the population of students like those that applied. Those findings don’t automatically apply to the population of students who didn’t apply, meaning that we can’t infer that charter schools would have similar effects if we start having different populations of students attend charter schools.

  2. Many of us are not opposed to charter schools (I sent my own sons to parochial, magnet and private schools) but rather to the misinformation that surround these schools. Take for example, this situation:

    A group of motivated parents apply for charter school admission for their children. Because there are not enough slots, the names are entered into a lottery. Some children are admitted to the charter school, where all students have motivated parents. The “control” group goes back to the chaotic public school that must take and keep all children. Which students do you think will do better in school? Why?

    If we truly want to help children we must start with the truth. It’s there for all to see.

  3. Interesting thread, Andy. One other point here on those lottery studies, to follow up David B’s point and your response: We also need to think carefully not only about the individual students to whom we might generalize those lottery study results, but also to the schools themselves. In other words, one reason why a charter school might need to hold a lottery in the first place is that it is a good, perhaps even great, school. But what about the charters that don’t need to hold lotteries because they don’t have many students applying to get in?

    In other words, I think lottery studies can be used to tell us something about the universe of charters for which there is a need to have a lottery. But those studies might not tell us much about the likely performance of students at undersubscribed charters that don’t hold lotteries.

    These ideas feed into a larger point that you (and others) have correctly made about the charter sector: Like traditional public schools, there is a huge amount of variability across charters. That’s an important idea that we all should remember when we have these discussions.

  4. Paul –

    I think that’s a good point and the variability is big. But, what we see in some of these analyses is that you have entire sectors of charters outperforming – on average – for instance in NYC, NJ, MA, Los Angeles, etc…the other public schools there. There are low-performing charters in these places, yes, but the overall performance of the sectors is noteworthy. Debating why is what the current Fordham discussion is about.

  5. In the 1990s’ my son was in a magnet program for “gifted” high school students. These students took most of their classes together but were occasionally integrated into the general population for other subjects. My son took speech with the “regular” students.

    When my husband and I went to Back-to-School Night, we could hardly fit into the classrooms because they were packed with almost all parents, mothers and fathers. But when we visited the Speech class, only one other set of parents were there. We recognized these parents from the “Gifted” program.

    I have used the word “gifted” in quotes because it was obvious to me that these were the rich kids of the community. I recognized local doctors, lawyers, educators and business people. Not a single parent of a “regular” (mainly poor minority) showed up for the speech class.

    We have known for a very long time that the academic achievement of a child correlates closely with the education and social standing of the parents. So if the students of a charter school do better than the students in the nearby public school, it’s likely because those students have parents who are more involved in their children’s education. They might also be slightly higher on the socioeconomic scale. The fact that parents choose the charter school is a very significant variable. Also significant is the fact that all the other children have parents who chose the school as well.

    We have long known how to improve a school (preschool to college). All you need to do is change just one significant variable (as in parent involvement). The problem we face is this: How do we provide a decent education for those students whose parents DON’T choose a school with a select student population? How do we help these students?

  6. The selection effect argument is based on the assumption that only parents who choose a charter school are making a choice, and that parents who enroll their students in traditional public schools are necessarily doing so by default. In Florida, only 7% of students are enrolled in charter schools, but more than 40% of students are in the school of their choice ( I assume that there are a fair number of families who, like mine, explored a variety of options, including local charter schools, and selected the traditional public school as the best option. I think the selection effect assumption requires some empirical analysis.

  7. Well, there is a very simple way to find out what each person believes:

    For your child, did you look at different districts and schools to find out what was best for your child? Did you buy a house in the community that has the “best” (most affluent) schools? Did you get an extra job to pay for the right house in the right community or for that private or parochial school?

    When looking at a school, did you look for one that has high-achieving students with educated parents? If so, you’re not alone. That’s what most of us do. Now, how can we spread some of that good stuff to our less fortunate children? That’s the problem we face in our country. Placing one per cent of the children in charters while the rest languish in crowded, underfunded public schools has resulted in the marginalization of the poor and disabled in other countries. We don’t need that here.

    One more point: Are your own children in posh suburban public or private schools while you advocate for KIPP for other people’s children? If so, you need to ask yourself why. Please support high-quality public education for everyone.

  8. “Skimming” is a term open to interpretation. Sure, many Charter schools are not allowed to “skim”, they have to enroll the same populations of students as public schools. However, after a student gets into a charter system, there is a great deal of evidence that shows many charters have processes in place that allow them to weed out kids that they deem problematic. This “no excuses” model, over time, creates a cohort of students that are higher achieving (if you believe standardized test scores are accurate measurements of achievement). Your students with serious behavior disorders and psychological problems are sent back to the traditional public system. In addition, a large portion of the charters cannot provide the full range of services for students with special needs. Not necessarily blaming the charter school for this, but the fact is that charters simply do not have the funding in most cases to take the range of kids with disabilities as public schools do. Charters also have a much lower percentage of kids that speak English as a second language. In the end, if we define skimming only as a school rejecting kids we can say that many charters do not skim. However, if we look at the systems used by charters to, OVER TIME, create cohorts of kids that are selectively higher achieving than what public schools must take, I think in that respect there is a lot to criticize about charters schools.

  9. When parents see research (whether conducted erroneously or not) that purports that charter schools outperform public schools, and in response opt to take their students out of the public schools in order to attend these charters, it is because of their interest in their child, not because of their interest in the betterment of the education system as a whole. They are opting to meet their needs in short-term, individualistic way. While they are not to be blamed for wanting “the best” for their child, it is hard to see that educators – who hopefully work in the system in the name of all students – are so invested in tearing down public schools in the name of more segregated charter systems. Promoting charters does not speak to a long-view of building a more just, equitable, and educated society.

    Charter schools are skimming resources (teachers, family hours, money and time) away from the regular public education system. Imagine how much more could be accomplished in the name of all students (and for our society at large) if we added all those resources that charters schools have taken away back into a united public-school system.

    As educators, we are responsible for keeping the long view – even when parents are more myopic about the benefits of quality / non-segregated education for all. Replicating schools and systems that continue to promote the practices of separating the haves and have-nots is not in the best interest of education or society. This is why we are seeing an ever-shrinking middle class, where the rich are getting richer and the poor are finding it harder and harder to get the goods and services needed to make it in the world today.

    We would all be better off if families who can would invest their time, energy, and resource into the system that teaches and supports all students (even those from families that cannot). This would would stop the fracturing of an education system that is ultimately more inefficient because it competes with itself (think about the inefficiencies of public charters in public schools), is more segregated (think about parents who have time to volunteer and who “know how” to research and apply to charters vs. those who do not), and that through cycles and growth generate a self-fulfilling prophesy that regular public schools are just not as good.

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