Student Outcomes in Turnaround Charter Schools: A Case Study in Newark

Critics of charter schools often claim that the reason for some of  these independent schools’  superior student growth results from “skimming,” or  admitting higher-achieving kids with more highly-motivated parents.

But what happens when charter schools admit all neighborhood students in the form of a turnaround school, like those in Camden (called “renaissance” schools) or in Philadelphia? Or in Newark, the subject of Leslie Brody’s article today in the Wall St. Journal? In these cases, there are no lotteries (except for empty seats), no skimming, no admissions policies. Instead, the new school enrollment is comprised of exactly the same population of students who attended the school before the turnaround.

Example:  Bragaw Avenue School, one of the worst-performing schools in Newark, was turned over to KIPP. Brody explains, “[w]hen a traditional school such as Bragaw converts to a charter, it is possible to track how the same students fared after a change in management, staff and philosophy.”
So, after one year, how are  Bragaw students, who now attend KIPP Life Academy, growing academically?

Most children from Bragaw started Life Academy in the fall of 2014 nearly a full year behind in math and reading, judging by a widely used test called Measures of Academic Progress. The network said that by spring, students on average had roughly hit grade level in math or surpassed it, depending on the grade. In reading, on average they had almost caught up. 

Parents said their children used to run loose in the hallways and fights among students were common. Now, they say, the school feels safe, disciplined and more rigorous.
Caleb’s mother, Tiara Kelley, said his new teachers were more adept at dealing with her son’s attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. “I want him to be in an environment where they’re not there to get a paycheck only, but they really want to see the kids change and grow and learn,” she said.


Former Bragaw students who started Life Academy in third grade, for example, entered a year ago with an average math score in the 28th percentile nationwide, according to the Measures of Academic Progress. The network said that by spring, their average math score beat 61% of test-takers from all backgrounds.

Clearly students are better off in  Life Academy than in Bragaw. Yet Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, in an effort to walk back reports that he is secretly sympathetic to charters, has mounted a series of attacks against these independent public schools. In a great editorial this weekend in the Star-Ledger, Tom Moran wrote,

Call me crazy, but I suspect Baraka is keeping careful track of the politics of this. He got solid support in his election last year from the teachers union, which loses members as charters expand. And union support is no small thing in a city with low turnout.
“We had several hundred boots in that election,” says the union chief, John Abeigon. “We did mailers. We did phone banks.”

The data is compelling. Before KIPP took over Bragaw, according to the N.J. DOE’s 2012-2013 School Performance Report, 69% of third graders failed basic skills tests in reading and 86% of third graders failed basic skills tests in math. If Mayor Baraka had his way, Caleb and his classmates would  lose that academic advantage. Instead, they now attend a public school that provides them with the tools to succeed.

How can one maintain moral authority while lobbying against Ms. Kelley’s right to choose a better school for Caleb, especially since the current talking point — charter expansion in Newark is fiscally comprising district schools — was discarded by Superintendent Chris Cerf, who told Moran that “the fundamental problem in our budget has nothing to do with charters.”

You’d have to ask the Newark Teachers Union, which is stalwartly calling for a charter school moratorium across the state. Or Education Law Center, protecting its Abbott turf at the expense of effective education. Or Save Our Schools-NJ, another big supporter of  abandoning efforts to provide adequate services to Caleb.

Or, better, read Dmitri Mehlhorn’s response to one of N.J.’s premier charter-haters, Mark Weber. In a “dialogue” between the two, Dmitri writes,

[G]overnment agencies work best when they put citizen choice ahead of bureaucratic monopoly. This is the lesson from the Nordic countries that were celebrated in the recent Democratic presidential debate, which have introduced competition into government agencies. For example, Sweden offers vouchers to enable parent choice, and local scholars there have shown that as independent schools gained scale, the entire system (independent and traditional) saw performance improve. The benefits of flexibility consistently outweigh the costs of duplicative overhead. 

Ultimately, however, this theory is not as important as the parents of color, segregated residentially in urban areas, who seek choice. Their voices should arbitrate whether the evidence for charters is “good enough.” If we have to wait for teachers’ union officials, and the politicians beholden to them, to decide that charter results are “better enough” to justify further expansion? Well, as Upton Sinclair explained, those families will be waiting a long time. 

The Kelleys don’t have to wait anymore. That’s news to celebrate, not protest.

What do you think?

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