Here’s What Matt Barnum Gets Wrong About Education Reform in Newark

Maybe it’s because I’m at the New Jersey Charter School Association annual conference and last evening heard Norm Atkins, founder of Uncommon Schools, remark that during Newark’s most recent open enrollment cycle half of all Newark kindergarten parents ranked Uncommon as their first choice and listened to his partner Jamey Verrilli describe school choice as a quest for educational justice. Maybe because I just spent the lunch hour listening to charter school teachers eagerly compare notes on professional development sessions like “Inspiring Enthusiasm for Mathematics” and “From Compliance to Excellence: going Beyond Special Education Regulations to Harness Student Potential.” Maybe it’s because earlier this week I thoroughly read the recently-released study from Harvard University’s Center for Education Policy Research that delves into Newark’s citywide improvements in student outcomes, as well as a separate paper that confirms the study’s conclusions.

For whatever reason, I’m stunned by Matt Barnum’s article in Chalkbeat on the Harvard report. He’s a journalist who is supposed to report objective facts  but either he was on a really tight deadline and just skimmed the report or he is deliberately slanting his coverage. So, from one committed public education advocate to another, here’s a few friendly corrections.

Matt writes,

[The Harvard report] finds that by 2016, Newark students were making greater gains on English tests than they were in 2011. But the results are not uniformly positive. It finds no impact in math. And in both subjects, the reforms seem to have come with a cost: student achievement declined substantially in the first three years of the changes.

Here’s what Matt leaves out. The researchers indeed concur that the first few years of reform were “tumultuous”; after all, big changes (especially when presided over by a temperamental change-agent [Cami Anderson] at odds with an equally temperamental mayor [Ras Baraka], who won his campaign by turning it into a referendum on Anderson’s personality), rarely progress without a hitch.

But three years after the advent of those reforms — closing failing schools, raising standards, expanding successful charters, offering parents choices beyond their neighborhood school —  the researchers find that “achievement growth improved by .14 standard deviations over the next two years, so that by the spring of the 2015–2016 academic year, Newark students were gaining roughly .07 standard deviations more per year than in the baseline years. In English, the Newark advantage in achievement growth relative to the rest of the state was sizeable in 2016, equivalent to the impact of being assigned to an experienced versus novice teacher.”

Sounds pretty positive to me.

Matt writes, “the results are not uniformly positive. It finds no impact in math.”

He must have missed the part of the report where the researchers explain the math scores. Newark’s math achievement growth, they write, “was significantly above the state in the two baseline years, largely because of the high rate of achievement growth witnessed by students in the charter sector. On net, by the end of five years, there was no statistically significant change in math achievement growth in Newark relative to similar schools in New Jersey.”

Translation: Newark’s charter school students were killing it in math, way beyond students in district schools across the state and, frankly, at an unsustainable pace, a value-added .3.  As long-failing schools were closed and charters expanded enrollment, all public school students — charter and traditional — started improving their math growth and proficiency scores. While all kids improved, they didn’t meet the rapid pace set by the smaller cohort of  original charter school students. The fact that math growth scores remain flat is a testament to the success of the reforms generated by educational leadership, higher standards, improved professional development, and parent demand for  overall school improvement.

Matt writes, “the latest study found that charters continued to do better than the district, but the gap has essentially been cut in half.” What a sourpuss! Here’s another way of writing the same sentence: “The latest study found that district schools are doing so much better that their students are starting to attain academic growth previously seen only in the charter sector.”

Matt is correct when he writes that “charter schools serve different students than the district. Newark’s charter students are more likely to be African-American and female, and less likely to have a disability or limited proficiency in English.” That’s true and the charter sector recognizes these disparities. There’s work to do in New Jersey’s charter community. It’s starting to happen in Newark as KIPP and Uncommon (who together serve the greatest number of Newark public school students) have both started programs for children with multiple disabilities.

Matt considers the role of the parents opting out of new state standardized tests and says “ it’s not entirely clear if those changes skewed the findings.”

Here’s what the report actually says:

In both Newark and the rest of New Jersey, there was little relationship between the change in average student growth and the change in the proportion of students with missing scores at the school level. (If anything, the schools with the largest increases in the proportion of students with missing test scores saw declines in achievement growth.) Thus, we did not find evidence that the gains in 2014–2015 were caused by the proportion of students opting out.

Matt writes, “charters’ effectiveness has decreased since 2011. It’s not clear why, but three times as many students attend charter schools in Newark now compared to 2010. That influx of new students and accompanying growing pains may be part of the explanation.”

Actually, that’s the whole explanation. Before the reforms, parents who wanted their children in charter schools had to enroll in lotteries. Now, because of the implementation of a universal enrollment system, Newark parents rank their choices for their children and the district assigns students based on an algorithm. That’s why Newark charters now educate one out of every three students. That’s why Uncommon and KIPP are expanding their campuses in attempts to add seats to satisfy parent demand. That’s why charters are starting programs for children with moderate to severe disabilities.

The Harvard report  results are unambiguous: all Newark students, whether they attend charter or traditional schools, have access to better schools.  That’s what Matt gets wrong.





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