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A Response to the National Education Policy Center

By / 7.28.2016

When I saw that the University of Colorado-Boulder’s National Education Policy Center had published an 11-page review of my recent Progressive Policy Institute report, A 21st Century School System in the Mile High City, I was flattered. Then I read Professor Terrenda White’s work and was flabbergasted.

Professor White contends that “the only data presented are in the form of simple charts.” Later: “The reader is led to conclude the efficacy of all manner of reforms based on eyeballing what is basically a scatterplot.”

This is probably the oddest criticism I have ever seen, because it is so obviously false. Here is a short list of the data presented in the report:

  • The percentage of students in Denver and Colorado scoring proficient or advanced on state standardized tests, 2009-2014, overall and broken down by race.
  • The percentile ranking of Denver schools vs. all Colorado schools on state standardized tests, 2013-2015, based on the percentage of students scoring proficient or above.
  • Dropout rates and graduation rates from 2005-06 to 2014-15.
  • Denver ACT scores vs. the state and nation, 2007-15.
  • Increases in the number of students taking and passing Advanced Placement courses.
  • College enrollment rates in Denver and Colorado.
  • The percentage of college enrollees from Denver Public Schools (DPS) required to take remedial classes, 2010-2013.
  • The achievement gap between low-income and non-low-income students and between white and African American and Latino students.
  • A 2014 study by Alexander Ooms, published by the Donnell-Kay Foundation, presenting school performance data through 2013, which concluded that the district’s “success in creating quality schools—as well as serving low-income students within those schools—resides overwhelmingly with charters.”
  • My analysis of 2014 school performance scores, which revealed little change in Ooms’ conclusions.
  • A study of test scores from 2010 through 2014, by economists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Duke University, which found that Denver’s charters produced “remarkably large gains in math,” large gains in writing, and smaller but statistically significant gains in reading, compared to DPS operated schools.

Odder still, Professor White acknowledges the MIT-Duke study on p. 5, which of course contradicts her repeated statements that the report’s only data is in the scatterplots. (These compared charter, traditional, and innovation schools in Denver based on two factors: percentage of low-income students and standardized test scores in 2015. They showed that charters generally outperformed DPS-operated schools with students of similar income levels at the middle- and high-school level but not in elementary schools.)

Then there’s her criticism of my recommendation that DPS open more charters: “Replication of charter schools that use a narrow set of practices, moreover, suggests limited options for parents seeking diverse curricular and pedagogical choices.” Did Professor White miss my recommendation that DPS “begin to recruit outstanding charter networks from outside Colorado”? Or does she think that all charter schools “use a narrow set of practices”?

One of Professor White’s central criticisms was that “causality cannot be determined, and the report did not attempt to isolate the effect of a multitude of reforms—including charters, performance pay, and a new performance framework—from larger complex forces shaping student demographics in the city.”

First, it is impossible to isolate the exact impact of specific initiatives, given how many reforms Denver has implemented over the last decade. But the report does compare the impact of charter and DPS-operated schools, using multiple sources of data (as indicated above). It also makes demographic comparisons between charter and traditional schools: by 2014-15, “charters served 3 percentage points more low-income students (those who qualify for free and reduced-price lunches) and 10 percentage points more English language learners.” Then it introduces the scatterplots to provide more fine-grained demographic comparisons.

In a related point, White writes, “The report does not address whether the expansion of charter schools has exacerbated racial segregation, but this is a vital question in light of trends in other cities.” Her footnote cites a study done on New York State, which has absolutely no bearing on Denver. The city has seen a decrease in integration since the courts ended mandatory busing in 1995, but not because of charters. Indeed, the largest charter network works hard to make sure its schools are well integrated by race and income, reserving 40 percent or more of the seats for low-income students. Alexander Ooms took a look at racial and economic segregation in 2012 and found that the district’s own selective schools were the biggest offenders. His conclusion: “So is there a type of school within DPS that is systematically contributing to segregation within our public school system? You bet. But they are not charter schools, and they are not a secret. They are selective admissions schools—including many of the most popular programs in the district—and they are hiding in plain sight.”

Finally, Professor White asserts that I downplayed “the role of outside forces and moneyed groups that influenced the nature of reforms.” Did she read this sentence? “In 2013, Democrats for Education Reform and its allies raised significant money and recruited as candidates a former lieutenant governor, another former city council president, and a former chairman of Denver’s Democratic Party.” How about this one? “The reformers won in part because they had more money and in part because their approach has yielded results.”

She also criticizes me for downplaying “the vulnerability of current reforms to future protests due to embittered stakeholders and local actors concerned about the influence of outside interest groups….” But her footnote cites only one source, a blog by an embittered former board member who hates the superintendent and current board, criticizes everything they do, and has little credibility. As the report notes, reformers won a 6-1 majority in 2013 and a 7-0 majority in 2015. There is opposition, but it is poorly organized and has been wildly unsuccessful in recent years.

Sadly, Professor White did not write a scholarly review, she wrote anti-charter propaganda—something we see all too frequently these days. It’s no surprise that the NEPC is funded in part by the nation’s largest teachers union, the National Education Association.

Rather than publishing distortions aimed at discrediting charter schools, I would invite NEPC scholars to do some research to better understand just what is driving improvement in Denver’s public schools. Why, for instance, are all 12 of the secondary schools with the highest academic growth rates charters? There is surely some fascinating “causality” to be unearthed there!