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The performance of Denver’s charter schools

Tuesday, December 14th, 2010

The movie Waiting for Superman, and the recent signing of a district and charter compact, has energized an intense debate about the quality of charter schools compared to their traditional school peers. Local opponents of charters have focused much of their criticism by emphasizing a national statistic quoted in Superman which is based on a patchwork, multi-state CREDO study that concluded just one in five charter schools outperform traditional schools.

The question of charter school performance is vital. However this line of critique is largely irrelevant. The overwhelming majority of education policy and practice is not national, but local — charter results in Dayton and Detroit have little to do with school decisions in Denver. And in Denver, the very same CREDO study explicitly stated — and further analysis of more recent performance data confirms — that charter schools are doing far better than their traditional school peers.

Indeed, school districts across Colorado would be well advised to look at Denver’s model with an eye to replicating its success.

It’s helpful to quickly revisit the essentials. A central premise of charter schools is simple: encourage innovation and a variety of school models. Measure outcomes. Expand the good schools, and change or close the bad ones. This basic combination of innovation, evaluation, and adjustment should lead — particularly over time — to more high-quality schools and better outcomes for students.

Denver is a vibrant example of this theory.  Over the past several years a consistent (if fragile) coalition on the Board of Education has established a solid process for encouraging and approving innovative charter proposals. Denver Public Schools (DPS) created a comprehensive annual evaluation system to measure school quality. And both forged the collective political will to close charters that do poorly.

Denver’s charters now display numerous models, including Expeditionary Learning, dual-language immersion, and entrepreneurship. These innovations have indeed produced a wide variation in quality: on the 2010 School Performance Framework, three of the top five schools were charters – and so were two of the bottom five.

However the best charter schools are expanding to serve more students, while the worst are being reconfigured and face closure. And in the aggregate, charter schools in Denver are now doing far better than their traditional peers on both quantitative academic criteria and qualitative metrics.

In Denver, we have a rare and somewhat unique ability to make comparisons based on two local frameworks for measuring school quality: the Colorado Growth Model (which measures the academic growth in individual students from year to year), and DPS’s School Performance Framework (which derives academic data from the growth model but also includes non-academic measures such as student engagement and parent satisfaction). Using these frameworks should provide considerable insight into the performance of Denver’s charter schools. And what they show us is a significant different in school quality.

On the growth model, adjusted based on the number of tested students in each school, Denver’s charter schools outperformed their traditional peers in academic growth by 15 percent, with an aggregate median growth percentile of 61.3 versus 53.4 (median growth across Colorado is 50). Charter schools scored higher at every school level, and in all subjects, with a single exception. The gains were stronger in the secondary grades (particularly in math and writing) with differences of up to 30 percent.

Denver’s School Performance Framework (SPF), similarly adjusted for school size, also showed a similar 15 percent gap in academic growth among charter and traditional schools – and both schools served equal percentages of students in poverty. However, charter schools excelled even further on the SPF’s non-academic metrics, with astounding differences in measures of student engagement (43 percent higher), parent satisfaction (27 percent), and re-enrollment (16 percent) (see data section below). These gains extended across all grade levels.

The final statistic — a school’s re-enrollment percentage — is particularly interesting.  Among the many unproven claims against charter schools is that they filter out low-performing students.  It turns out that charters have a far better track record of retaining kids.

Here is a full summary of the charter and district data from both frameworks.

Even their strongest proponents agree that charter schools are not a panacea for all of public education, and there are many external and societal factors impacting schools that also badly need our attention. More research should continue to look at the similarities and differences — but the direction here is clear. Across a growing body of evidence and several years of data, the performance of Denver’s charter schools surpasses their traditional peers. Superman is not coming to Denver, but the charter schools here are doing very, very well.

Extra Credit: The Data

If one wants to dig into the details, here is a larger discussion of the data:

CREDO Study: The 16-state CREDO study, which looked at five years of data ending in 2007-08, and to which charter detractors regularly refer, has received its share of criticism over its methodology.  I don’t know it if it useful to revisit that debate, but what is inexcusable is that the same people who cite this study for evidence against Denver’s expansion of charters completely ignore its local conclusions.  The CREDO study, which used only charter schools in Denver for its statewide comparison, explicitly found and concluded that these schools performed “significantly better” than their peers (see their own press release). To argue the whole of the study while not acknowledging the most relevant part is patently absurd, even for partisan political hacks.

Colorado Growth Model: Using this 2010 data, I did a weighted average based on the number of students in each school who took the CSAP. The growth model splits grade levels neatly into K-5, 6-8, and 9-12 – so if a school is a 6-12 program, the growth model counts it as two different schools (a 6-8 middle and a 9-12 high school).  A similar division happens with K-8 schools. This allows for a more precise comparison by grade.  Under this formula, Denver has 135 district schools and 26 charters (which comprise 12% of students of all students taking the CSAP).

Remarkably, charter schools did better on academic growth in every subject and school level, with the single exception of elementary school math. Aggregated across all 161 schools, charters received higher median growth percentile (MGP) scores in reading (+4.8), in writing (+9.4) and in math (+9.3) for an average difference of +7.8 points, or almost 15% higher:

Breaking it down by grade levels, in the elementary school grades (charter students composed 9.3% of tested students), charters did slightly better on average (+1.4); better in reading (+1.1) and writing (5.7) and worse on math (-2.6).

In middle school grades, (14.8% charter students) the differences in median growth percentiles were stark: reading (+7.9), writing (+12.1), and math (+15.5), or a double-digit average of 11.8 points better.  This is a percentage improvement of between 15% and 30%. The district’s lowest scores were in the middle school grades, suggesting that the renaissance in Denver’s middle school years is primarily driven by charter schools.

High school scores (8.7% charter students) were also positive: reading (+1.0), writing (+7.2) and math (+10.1), or an average of +6.1 points or 11% improvement.

School Performance Framework: Note first that this is based on 2010 SPF data (which covers the 2009-2010 school year), which is different than the recent 2010 count day data listed at EdNews.  The 2010 SPF lists 18 charter schools and 114 district schools. Using this data, I again adjusted scores based on enrollment (so that each school provides a weighted average in its category). I did not include alternative schools in either group.

Across the entire city, district schools enrolled 67,203 students in 2009-2010, while charters had 6,105 (or 8% of the total). The percentage of students in poverty is very close: 73% to 72% FRL. However, in the aggregate on the SPF, charter schools did considerably better on growth (+8 points); status (+13), reenrollment (+13), student engagement (+17), and parent satisfaction (+12).

But to look even closer, Denver has 68 traditional (K-5) elementary schools and just one charter elementary school, which makes any comparison for K-5 meaningless. What happens if we subtract all 69 of these elementary schools and look again at the aggregate SPF metrics? You get this:

Without elementary schools, the relative performance of charters improves even further.  The percentage of students enrolled in charter schools rises to 14%, and the percentage of FRL students is the same (71%). However charter schools receive higher marks across the board — on quantitative academic criteria (+13 growth, +16 status), on re-enrollment (+15), as well as on the qualitative aspects of student engagement and parent satisfaction (+21 each).  These are remarkable and meaningful differences, and as close to a viable district-wide comparison as I think we can get.

What happens if we continue to drill down into specific school grades, comparing K-8 schools, 6-8 middle schools, 6-12 schools, and 9-12 high schools? Well, of the eight academic criteria, charter schools outperform district schools in seven. Charters also do better in every measured level in both student engagement and parent satisfaction. I won’t cover all levels (you can see the full results in the link above); however let’s look at one particular segment: middle schools.

There are 12 district middle schools, and 5 charters (I included KIPP SP, which is listed as K-8 but only offers grades 5-8). The 14% of middle school students in charters provide a reasonable volume for comparison.  What are the results?

The academic differences are remarkable: +23 points on growth, and +18 on status — and charters have 17% more students in poverty.  Charter middle schools also do far better on student engagement. Two of the five charter schools did not have re-enrollment data, and two also did not have parent satisfaction, so I did not do a comparison for either.  But the schools who did report re-enrollment and parent satisfaction were higher than the district school mean. The academic data here is so strong, it makes me question how much of DPS’s recent middle school success is due to the impact of charters.  I suspect it is considerable.

Charter 6-12 schools also had double-digit scores: growth (+25%), status (+19), student engagement (+19), and parent satisfaction (+39). Reenrollment was lower (-13), but this was based primarily on just one school with a particularly low score (and which is being reconfigured).  FRL was comparable with charters at 58% and district schools at 60%.

K-8 schools also showed higher scores across the board for charters: growth (+8), status (+13), reenrollment (+24), student engagement (+13), and parent satisfaction (+17), however they did so with 11% less FRL students.

Where did charter schools fail to outperform district schools? Only in 6-12 high schools — which had the fewest number of charter students at any level and composed just 4% of the total — and in one category.  Charter schools lagged in growth (-10), but were higher in status (+5), and student engagement (+33), and had an FRL population 15 percentage points higher.

That’s the data, which included results from 2002 to 2010.  Of course, the arguments about charter school performance in Denver is, at many levels, based on political calculations and interest groups who have priorities other than the educational outcomes for students.  Those people and groups will continue their protests regardless (in fact, it would not surprise me if they called for a repeal of the metrics themselves). Which, or course, does not change the data: Denver’s charter’s are doing very, very well.

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Rethinking large urban middle schools

Tuesday, October 26th, 2010

Editor’s note: Peter Huidekoper, Jr. is a veteran educator. This is the latest installment of his newsletter, “Another View.”

From Waiting for “Superman”:

After noting that many kids slip from being B students in fifth grade to C students in 6th and then D students in 7thgrade, Geoffrey Canada asks: “Either kids are getting stupider every year, or something is wrong in the education system.”

Here is one way to see how Canada’s point applies to us in Colorado.  Take a look at the declining percentage of African American and Hispanic students from this year’s junior class who scored at the proficient or advanced level, from 2005 to 2010.  Where were they back in fifth grade—prior to middle school—and where were they last spring, as tenth graders? Troubling, agreed?

Declining percentage of minority students scoring proficient or advanced on CSAP – Class of 2012

Black students 2005 – grade 5 2006 – grade 6 2007 – gr. 7 2008 – gr. 8 2009 – gr. 9 2010 – gr. 10
Reading 53 54 47 50 50 48
Writing 42 42 43 36 33 30
Math 43 36 28 26 16 12
Hispanic students 2005 – grade 5 2006 – grade 6 2007 – gr. 7 2008 – gr. 8 2009 – gr. 9 2010 – gr. 10
Reading 46 46 41 45 45 47*
Writing 35 37 39 30 28 24
Math 42 35 28 25 15 12

*This reading score—sadly still under 50%—was the only case where the 10th grade score was better than the 5th grade score, from 46 to 47 over five years. And just to be even more glum, as we know that a number of low-performing African American and Hispanic students drop out as freshmen or sophomores, what if they had stayed to take the test in 10thgrade? The scores for these groups would likely be even lower.  Even more cause for alarm.

The trend for all of Colorado’s students, regardless of race, is almost as disturbing. Especially in math.

Click here to read the full newsletter.

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Will Lake delay change anything? Time will tell

Friday, October 23rd, 2009

DPS  is delaying by one week (to Nov. 30) its decision on what “turnaround strategies” to employ with three chronically low-performing schools — Philips Elementary,Greenlee K-8 and Lake middle.

There hasn’t been a lot of pushback at Greenlee and Philips about possibly major changes at the two schools. At Lake, however, where an International Baccalaureate Middle Years Program is trying to take root, news of possible reconstitution has created a small firestorm, as such issues always seem to do in northwest Denver.

Is the week’s delay a victory for those fighting to save Lake? Maybe yes, maybe no. It buys time to keep organizing the community. But if some of the IB advocates were hoping that a delay would mean the as-yet unknown new (and possibly more sympathetic) school board would have final say, then the delay of just one week won’t make them happy: The old school board will still take this vote, perhaps as its last official action.

Over at the Save Lake IB blog, reaction was muted. Meanwhile, the recent kerfuffle attracted the interest of 9 News,which produced the report embedded above.

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Some actual data on K-8s vs middle schools

Monday, November 24th, 2008

Given DPS’s emphasis in recent years on K-8 schools, I thought some people might be interested in a piece of research that I learned about when it was presented in the same session as mine at the American Evaluation Conference in this month in Denver. The research team, led by Missouri State Education School Dean David Hough, compared 501 K-8 “elemiddle” schools with 534 (6-8) middle schools. The schools, all public, were located in 49 different districts in 26 states. The K-8 schools in the study were more likely to be located in the inner-city. They enrolled higher percentages of minority and low-income students.

Yet compared to 6-8 schools, K-8 schools:

o       Had slightly higher attendance rates (94% v 92%)

o       Had lower expulsion rates (.2% v. 4.1%)

o       Suspended fewer students (an average of 77 v 139)

o       Were more likely to make Adequate Yearly Progress under No Child Left Behind (56% v 43%)

That data comes from the 2005-06 school year. The research is ongoing with more analyses planned for 2009. Not much rigorous research exists on this topic so I found this study to be both interesting and important, especially since the number of K-8 schools has increased steeply since the passage of No Child Left Behind. The authors of this study project that, by 2010, K-8 schools will actually outnumber 6-8 schools.  For more information on the study, contact David Hough.

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Are K-8s and 6-12s deckchairs on the Titanic?

Thursday, June 26th, 2008

The New York Times recently ran an article about a new trend in middle school reform: out with middle schools. 

Schools from New York City to California (including our Mapleton district) are experimenting with absorbing those middle grades-only schools; they’re being incorporated into a K-8 or a 6-12 structure.  Why, you ask?  Well, the slump in test scores causing us educators so much grief gains massive momentum in these middle years.  The idea behind the reform is that a K-8 structure absorbs some of the rough transition kids feel when they enter into traditional middle schools.  11-14 year-old kids are already bombarded with hormones, social cliques, and emerging adulthood.

In a K-8 structure they can turn to teachers they have grown up with for extra support as they deal with all of these many challenges.  A different philosophy underlies the 6-12 structure: in such schools, educators are thinking, younger students will naturally focus on their futures as they watch older students work hard to get into college.

I feel mixed about the purposes of this reform.  Fewer transitions make sense: I’m all for building community and continuity in kids’ learning lives.  School can be a place of safety and stability, especially for kids growing up in poverty (given that living in poverty can cause family transience). 

Maybe this new vision of middle school would help support safety for student learning – which would be a very good thing.  And yet, switching to this structure isn’t going to change anything unless we’re also addressing bigger issues like best practice, poverty, race, student engagement, bullying, changing demographics and achievement gaps… in these new K-8 or 6-12 schools.

I don’t understand how we can even tell if this kind of reform is ‘working’ or not.  We can and do look at test scores across the country, comparing the scores of these new schools with the scores of traditional middle schools.  If the scores are higher we think ‘working’ and if they remain the same we scratch our heads. 

We can wonder if changing structure will be a cure to falling test scores… and if we do that we are yet again putting a band-aid on this gigantic problem of school reform.  How do we support student academic achievement when their scores begin falling?  How do we support kids to such a degree that their scores do not begin falling in the first place?  And, how can all kids discover that they are leaders in the world of tomorrow?

Focusing on structure alone is an attempt at circumventing our problems, and we can’t avoid them.  However, maybe a supportive middle school structure can give us all the space we need to face and address them.


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