The Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University (CREDO) has almost completed its City Studies Project with the aim “to provide the public with periodic reports of academic performance for public K-12 schools in selected cities across the United State.” Eleven urban school districts are included (and the only one not posted yet is Oakland).
One of those cities is Camden, New Jersey and yesterday CREDO released its findings, which indicate both good news for the district — particularly those who attend the city’s hybrid renaissance schools.
First, a little bit about CREDO’s methodology. The goal is to examine student academic growth in each of these cities, broken down by type of school and student group, i.e., students in traditional public schools (TPS), students in renaissance or charter schools, Black students, Hispanic students, economically-disadvantaged students, students with disabilities, etc.
“Our analyses compare the academic performance of these various student groups in the city to average statewide academic performance,” explain the researchers. “We also compare the performance of charter school students to the performance of similar TPS students within the city. We control for student characteristics when making those comparisons.”
Here’s a little historical context. In 2012 the NJ Department of Education created a list of 75 “priority schools,” the lowest-performing five percent of Title I schools in the state. Of those 75, 23 were Camden traditional schools; only three Camden district schools were not on the list. Much has happened since then including a state takeover and the appointment of Paymon Rouhanifard as superintendent (Katrina McCombs has taken his place) as well as the creation of renaissance schools, or district/charter hybrids, that accept all students within their respective catchment areas. Other reforms include closings of the worst schools, implementation of a universal enrollment system, a series of instructional and administrative upgrades, and ongoing community outreach.
CREDO’s results for Camden, which look at one-year learning gains from year to year, are benchmarked against the state average growth, and differences in growth among students who attend public charter schools, renaissance schools and traditional schools. Overall, according to a press release, Camden students show “significant improvements in math proficiency… as well as other gains relative to the state average for certain demographics.”
From the report:
In both reading and math, Camden charter school students made stronger gains in 2014-15 and grew similarly in 2015-16 and 2016-17 compared to the state average. Students attending Camden TPS underperformed the state in reading in all three growth periods. In math, the growth of Camden TPS students was on par with the state average in 2015-16 and weaker than the state average in 2014-15 and 2016-17. Camden Renaissance schools grew similarly to the state average in 2015-16 and outperformed the state in 2016-17 in reading. In math, Camden Renaissance schools made gains similar to the state average in both 2015-16 and 2016-17. Cross-sector comparisons within Camden show that compared to TPS, charter schools made greater gains in reading in 2014-15 and 2016-17 and stronger growth in math in 2014-15. The growth of Camden Renaissance schools is stronger than that of Camden TPS in both subjects in 2016-17.
According to this analysis, then, student growth in both charter and renaissance schools is greater than in Camden district schools. In particular, the researchers found that Camden Black and Hispanic students who attend charter schools “post significantly stronger growth in reading and similar gains in math compared to TPS students of the same race.” Also, “Camden black and Hispanic students in Renaissance schools outperform TPS peers of the same race in both subjects.”
However, students in traditional schools are showing some remarkable gains as well, particularly in math. While the gains don’t match students in charter and renaissance schools, the tide is apparently lifting all boats.
Camden Mayor Francisco Moran noted, “[t]he District’s commitment to equitably serving all students is yielding real results. They are proving that you can provide more high quality choices for families and improve outcomes for students who have traditionally been most underserved.”
Or as Neerav Kingsland puts it in “Good News for Camden’s Children,“
Camden’s city level effects are large.
In just two years, scores are up ~.15 standard deviations in math and ~.05 standard deviations in reading (compared to similar schools across the state).
To put this in context, over five years, New Orleans achieved a .4 standard deviation effect. These city effects were the largest the researchers had seen. Camden may achieve similar results. The math results are on track to mirror the gains seen in New Orleans.
It’s pretty incredible to see students learning so much more so quickly. Effects this large are a good signal that students are getting smarter in literacy and numeracy.
A few things jump out at me, especially given the recent attention to Newark, New Jersey’s other city with a large number of charter schools. As I’ve written elsewhere (see here and here), a new study sponsored by the New Jersey Children’s Foundation found that in Newark, while the academic growth of students in charter schools exceeded that of students in district schools, “citywide — i.e., across both the district and charter school sectors — students are improving their academic growth and proficiency, as well as high school graduation rates.” (It’s important to note that 15,000 Newark students are still trapped in low-performing schools.)
Similarly, this citywide improvement is happining in Camden’s traditional schools, although not as dramatically. Why? What are the differences between Camden and Newark’s educational trajectories (with a reminder that there’s a difference between correlation and causality)?
- Newark is much bigger and it’s growing; current citywide entollment is about 50,000 students, the highest in two decades. Camden’s citywide enrollment is about 15,ooo, a slight shrinkage over the last few years.
- Camden started off in far worse condition than Newark, so maybe the improvements will take a bit more time. Fact: In 2015 two out of five Camden students didn’t graduate from high school and only one in five third-to-eighth graders were at grade level in math and reading. Fact: In 2015 CREDO issued a report on urban charter sectors and found that Newark charter students made greater annual gains in math and reading than their district-school counterparts. The district was second only to Boston in the quality of its charter sector.
- Newark Teachers Union accepted a contract that awards highly-effective teachers willing to teach in the district’s most struggling schools. The Camden Education Association’s contract doesn’t include merit pay and, given the personality of its president Keith Benson (who thinks the collapse of the World Trade Center was a government conspiracy), the union is unlikely to move in that direction.
- Newark’s traditional students are funded (this is all costs using the DOE’s latest data of 2016-2017)) at $22,857 per student. Camden traditional school students are funded (all in) at $31,151 per student. Hmm. I guess money isn’t a panacea for school improvement.
- Newark’s “charter school wars” are no longer, well, warlike. With some exceptions, city residents support charters as an permanent part of the educational landscape. Even Mayor Ras Baraka, once fiercely anti-charter, endorsed a charter supporter in the recent school board elections. While many Camden parents embrace renaissance and charters, there’s a small but loud anti-choice contingent led by CEA’s Keith Benson (whose parents, by the way, sent him to private school).
If our priority is student outcomes, the CREDO results confirm that legislators and education leaders were right to expand Camden’s charter sector through the creation of renaissance schools. And if the State Department of Education’s Commissioner Lamont Repollet and Governor Phil Murphy care more about student growth than the pockets of teacher unions, NJ’s “Charter School Act Review” will come to the same conclusion of parents in Camden, Newark, and other New Jersey cities that have long failed to adequately serve schoolchildren: School choice works.