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Whence Comes Success in NYC Schools?

Note: Daniel Lautzenheiser, program manager in education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, is guest posting this week.

This week I've looked at two of the most popular K-12 issues--teacher quality and school accountability. My plan was to conclude today with a third--what lessons, if any, can public education learn from other sectors. I'll touch on that very briefly, but wanted to take the roundabout way in light of a slew of comments on yesterday's laudatory post on the importance of shutting down bad schools and allowing good ones to expand. In response, a number of commenters (both on the blog and here in the office) harped on the fact that we don't know exactly why Democracy Prep did so much better than ACE. A few comments alluded to potential differences in class sizes, per pupil spending, and the like as probable contributing factors.

Of course, it's possible that one school was in the throes of opulence while another was languishing behind. But given that the story contained two public schools, in the same neighborhood, in the same building, a reasonable conclusion--knowing nothing else--would be to assume that any differences were likely trivial. It seems foolish to dismiss this stark of a contrast in student performance (recall, Democracy Prep received an "A" rating on the chancellor's annual Progress Reports while ACE moved from a "C" to a "D" to an "F" in consecutive years). That said, the critics are correct in that potential differences, if true, would matter. So, what do we have here? I'll run through four quickly.

-Per pupil spending. This first one is difficult to gauge because of some unique data reporting policies from the New York City Department of Education (DOE). (Although it's hard to be too critical of DOE, given the sheer volume of information they collect and publicly report on their webpage.) Most zoned public schools report expenditures via annual School Based Expenditure Reports, so it was easy to pull ACE's per pupil numbers. But charter school expenditures aren't reported this way. Rather, each charter school is required to submit annual financial audits and reports and open their doors to annual site visits from DOE staff. Here's a list of Democracy Prep's past audits, which includes per pupil expenditures. A comparison shows that Democracy Prep spends less per pupil than ACE did:

2006-2007: Democracy Prep: $12,691; ACE: $17,232
2007-2008: Democracy Prep: $13,858; ACE: $15,735
2008-2009: Democracy Prep: $15,328; ACE: $15,742
2009-2010: Democracy Prep: unknown; ACE: $18,824
*Democracy Prep's 2009-2010 numbers are unknown due to a broken link on DOE's webpage. ACE's dramatic increase in per pupil spending is likely due to the significant enrollment drop that year from 254 students to 194 students.

-Class sizes: Like per pupil spending, this one is difficult. Again, thanks to DOE's excellent data reporting for zoned public schools, it was easy to track down ACE's figures:

2006-2007: not available
2007-2008: 26.3
2008-2009: 19
2009-2010: 17.5

Unfortunately, there is nothing similar, to my knowledge, for charter schools. In part this makes sense, given that part of the beauty of charter schools is flexibility around class structure; for example, Democracy Prep's founder teaches a lecture course with 60 students, but they also offer much smaller tutoring classes with just a few students at time. The original charter for Democracy Prep set their typical general education classes in the range of 27 to 29 students, and looking at average class sizes for District 5 middle schools in 2009-2010 suggests ACE was well below the average (which was 24.5 students). These are imperfect measurements, but it seems likely that Democracy Prep's classes certainly weren't smaller, and in all likelihood were larger, than ACE's.

-Student make-up. Were the students who attended Democracy Prep in some way different from those who went to ACE? The chancellor's progress reports includes a component called "peer index," which is "used to sort schools on the basis of students' academic and demographic background, for purposes of creating peer groups." A lower peer index indicates a higher need population. In the 2007-2008 and 2008-2009 school years, Democracy Prep and ACE were comparable--Democracy Prep had a 3.02 and ACE a 2.94. The last year, 2009-2010, ACE's enrollment dropped after the city threatened to close the school; the remaining students were likely those who were hardest to educate, and the peer index confirms: ACE dropped to a 2.25. Likewise, Democracy Prep's peer index dropped to a 2.71 that year. That said, while both peer indexes dropped in 2009-2010, Democracy Prep improved their performance on the chancellor's Progress Report (indeed, they were the top middle school in New York City) while ACE continued to fall from a "D" to an "F" rating--and that with increased per pupil spending and smaller classes. (See yesterday's chancellor's Progress Reports chart below.)

Chancellor's Progress Reports:

  ACE Democracy Prep
  Score Letter Enrollment Score Letter Enrollment
2007-2008 43.4 C 221 91.7 A 197
2008-2009 35.7 D 254 99.8 A 325
2009-2010 13.7 F 194 100 A 326
*In 2010-2011, ACE's enrollment dropped to 129 while Democracy Prep Charter increased to 340

-Culture: Democracy Prep's status as a charter school grants it a few distinct advantages. The school operates on a longer school day. Teachers are on call until 9:00pm to answer student's questions. They can offer higher starting salaries for teachers. They can also recruit and replace teachers more easily without tenure and by limiting contracts to one-year, performance-based agreements. Marcus Winters documents some of this in a good City Journal piece two summers ago. The most recent DOE audit highlights others, including "High expectations of students are leading to high levels of progress, behavior and attendance," "Parents and caregivers receive very regular and detailed information on the performance and progress of their children," and "The quality of teaching and learning is good so that the majority of students, including special education students, make commendable progress in their work." For more discerning readers, Harvard's Will Dobbie and Roland Fryer's recent in-depth study on New York City charter schools provides further evidence on why certain charters are higher performing than both zoned public schools and other charters.

The upshot of all this is it's unlikely Democracy Prep had any initial advantages in terms of funding, class sizes, or student make-up over ACE, and that success was likely down to the culture of the school.

For some critics, of course, this won't be good enough, particularly those beholden to the view that ideas such as data-driven decision making, economic analyses of student performance, a school that did away with tenure and offers teachers one-year contracts, or even charter schools themselves constitutes a threat to "public education." Far better, instead, to understand that while these ideas aren't in and of themselves cure-alls--data can be used in an inappropriate manner, the means by which we evaluate teachers can be heavy-handed, and there can be bad charter schools--they represent a new and potentially transformative way of thinking about schooling. And that's a good thing.

--Daniel Lautzenheiser

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