Sign up for our newsletter
Home » Chalk Talk – Show Us The Data

Show Us The Data

April, 2009

Years ago an influential California state board member (and chairman of a popular movie by mail firm) told me he wanted to do something about all the charter schools that really just didn’t pass the smell test.

I asked him — how many are there? He said, “I don’t know, but too many. I’ve been in some that are really bad.”

Don’t you think you should know the data before you say that?, I asked him. He agreed, but also ended the conversation with telling me we really should take this on nationally.

We did so before that conversation and we have continued to do so after.

Just this month CER once again released its annual report on closed charter schools. While the data on such schools is actually tabulated and reported quarterly on the Center’s Online Charter School Directory, this report quantified – and qualified – the nature of the problem. With intensive research and data to guide our thinking, we offered to the public the results of our analysis: that of the 5,250 schools ever opened, 657 have been closed, for a 12.5 percent rate of what in business terms is called failure. The causes for failure are numerous, but they break down generally across five categories: Academic, District, Facilities, Financial and Mismanagement. In those categories the percentage of each category breaks down as such: 41 percent Financial, 27 percent Mismanagement, 14 percent Academic, 10 percent District, 5 percent Facilities and 3 percent Other.

What the data shows us is that before a school even gets to their 3rd, 4th or 5th year academic review, they are doing so many other things bad that they are forced to close, often voluntarily because they can’t make it.

That’s what businesses do, too. If I open a T-shirt shop, and sell ugly T-shirts, no one has to come tell me that I should close because my T-shirts are ugly. I’m going to have to close when no one is buying them. Similarly, if I was rude to customers, or my store was dirty, it’s likely that I’d rarely get a sale, let alone a return customer.

As pedestrian as it sounds, the same is true for schools. We’ve been saying this for years. But some people just don’t read the literature, or the data. Perhaps feeling they are taking a morally superior attitude, they offer platitudes about charters, as is the case in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, where National Alliance for Public Charter Schools vice president Todd Ziebarth says, “There are too many lousy charter schools out there!”

Holy cow, how do real policy people get away with talking like this? Can’t you find a way to offer data that quantifies the issue?  The layman who reads that article will be forced to make up the scope of the problem. Are there 100? 1000? 10 percent?

A common refrain among my colleagues at conferences is that too many charter schools operating today are not closed for academic reasons (again they rarely give numbers – how this helps solve the issue they are trying to solve is beyond me, but more on that later).

I’ve heard this as well from the leaders of some of the transparently best performing charters. I often ask them as well, which school are you talking about? What numbers are you using? Are you comparing them to you, with your enormously successful program backed by a national parent company with all the bells and whistles or are you comparing them to the numbers they post on their own, from year to year, which their (in some cases rigorous) authorizer believes is more than sufficient to justify their continued operation?

This is not easy stuff to figure out, but as long as one is going to stand up in public and say there are bad charters out there, one is obligated to provide context. And if one cannot provide that context in a sound bite, one should not be talking to the press.

Here’s an idea – let’s talk about some real issues that cause schools to fail. Inequitable and deliberately created funding gaps cause some schools to fail. School board opposition, like the case in Anne Arundel County, causes some schools to fail. Union takeovers, that cause dissension among teachers and staff, cause some schools to fail. And more important than all of those, is the position and capabilities of the authorizer. Lousy authorizers open lousy schools.

The same people today that argue that not enough schools are closing backed an irresponsible move by the state of Ohio years ago to open up authorizing to any non-profit. (Turns out that group became an authorizer in the state, and thankfully, is a damn-good one, but I digress). Many of the groups that stepped up to the plate were not good, and later the legislature had to regulate the distribution of charters, add additional standards and outcome requirements to operate, and slashed funding for some. This fixed what became an enormous problem. It was a problem because the state that created the new authorizing law never properly managed it! The State Board of Education never took the heat, nor did the sponsors or backers of that bill. Even today, Ohio charters have a black eye because a few bad apples were created by a few bad authorizers, and the legislature had to intervene. But rather than talk about that, our friends simply want to offer no context and say there are too many lousy schools out there.

The same occurred in Texas not too long ago, when some charter leaders used similar rhetoric to push for more funding for good schools but not for “bad” schools. I asked for qualifications of these “bad” schools and reviewed the data. Indeed, about 20 percent of the state’s charters at that time had failed to make state benchmarks. But peeling the onion back a little more, it turns out that many were educating the most seriously at-risk students, with little diversity or achievement at their school. It’s not an excuse, only a fact, and the year-to-year value some of these schools provided defied generalizations. To be sure, the Texas Education Department never did a good job of closing schools that were failing. Scrutiny was needed. Reform of that law was needed then, and still is needed today.

I wish my colleagues who want to talk about the need for more accountability would call for the same changes in law that we call for. Strong laws mean strong authorizers. Strong laws mean equitable funding. While they appear to agree, they’ve also counseled state legislators to take what they can get when negotiating on whether to adopt a strong law or not.

Such devil’s bargains lead to bad apples. Such devil’s bargains are the root of why some schools fail.

But let me clear – the vast majority of failures are CLOSED or in the PROCESS of being closed. Find me a conventional public school system where we can say the same!

The charter concept is strong. It will remain strong as long as the federal government doesn’t impose its highly process-oriented oversight and as long as people understand what it takes to create and manage a successful charter law. We know what that looks like.

We are about making schools work for all children. We don’t care what kind of school it is, so long as it works and it is held accountable for working. That takes changes in attitude, laws, standards, curriculum and more. It also takes an honest and sincere effort to understand what is actually going on in more than a handful of schools nationwide. When it comes to charter schools, no one should be permitted to say something hallow without backing it up with facts.

You think too many charter schools are lousy? Show us the data! Name names, post a list, let’s have at it, and get beyond the imperious rhetoric. You are hurting kids when you persist.

(Tune in next time for “how does the Coalition for Student Achievement really believe federal rules will help improve the nation’s schools.”)