Massachusetts and the Charter Cap: Accountability, Balance, and Implications for the Nation

Emil Friedman

EDST 245

Final Policy Paper

Spring 2017

Massachusetts and the Charter Cap: Accountability, Balance, and Implications for the Nation

 

Executive Summary

As the United States continues to grapple with developing a comprehensive education policy that strikes a balance between supporting neighborhood public schools and acknowledging the progress, particularly in low-income and minority communities, made by charter schools, this paper examines the Commonwealth of Massachusetts as a potential example for the nation. While other research has examined Massachusetts’ charter school academic performance and journalists have extensively covered the state’s 2016 charter cap referendum, my report is one of the first to treat Massachusetts as an extended case study upon which a federal policy could be based. After describing the high stakes that characterize school choice debates, I track the purpose of charter schools, defining them both in terms of theory and Massachusetts state law. I then offer a comprehensive profile of Massachusetts’ approach to charter schools, including an analysis of Massachusetts’ charter cap system alongside an examination of various data trends accompanying the policy, including the conclusion that the cap seems to have produced charter schools which appear to be serving Boston’s and other urban areas’ low-income and minority communities particularly well, although this pattern is not necessarily replicated in non-urban schools. I then take a turn towards the political, describing Massachusetts’ 2016 referendum on lifting its charter cap, closing the paper with a discussion of a hypothetical federal charter cap based upon the one found in Massachusetts.

 

Introduction

This paper will attempt to make a largely objective, unbiased assessment of Massachusetts’ charter school landscape. As I open the paper, however, I qualify that the stakes behind this kind of work are perhaps loftier, perhaps more normative, than pure public policy analysis. This – the ways that American students, particularly those who are vulnerable, are educated in publicly-funded schools – matters because it speaks to what this nation can accomplish. Will America embrace one of John Dewey’s core purposes of education, the potential for social mobility[1], by which everyone who works hard can get ahead, or will it retreat to, as President George W. Bush termed, the soft bigotry of low expectations, particularly for high-needs students? Will America remain stubborn in its politically-motivated, interest-group-centered approach to education policy, or will it finally view our nation’s most important job – educating its children – as a mission sacred enough to avoid the partisan fray? Will America be willing to challenge the status quo?

In short, the principles that drive the criteria of this paper, the rubric it takes to Massachusetts, are deeply ideological. This is not merely a discussion of granular policies in a single state. This is a microcosm of the difficult, ultimately student-focused, results-motivated investigation we must take to the nation. The stakes could not be higher.

Background: Charter Schools in Massachusetts

Precise legal definitions of charter schools can be nebulous and vary by state. In Massachusetts, a charter school “is a public school that is governed by a board of trustees and operates independently of any school committee.”[2] Charter schools have significant flexibility in terms of pedagogy, curricula, and budgeting, while being mandated to produce acceptable academic results in exchange for charter renewal. Specific to Massachusetts is a distinction between “Commonwealth” schools and “Horace Mann” schools. Horace Mann schools are required to have their charters approved not only by the state Board of Education, but also by a local school committee and, in some cases, a local teacher’s union, while Commonwealth schools are free from this increased obligation.[3]

One purpose accepted by scholars of charter schools is for them to serve as neighborhood-driven public education laboratories, using their relative freedom from state and national guidelines to experiment pedagogically and ultimately serve as models for district public schools while tailoring instruction to the communities in which they exist.[4],[5] Massachusetts state law codifies this purpose in G.L. c. 71, § 89, which, in part, states that charter schools are to be established “to stimulate the development of innovative programs within public education” and “to provide models for replication in other public schools.”[6]

In the twenty years since the first Massachusetts charter school opened following the passage of the Massachusetts Education Reform Act of 1993, charter schools both nationwide and within Massachusetts have strayed from their original, neighborhood-driven roots and have become increasingly corporatized; statewide, parents of students in charter schools comprise only 14% of charter trustees, with more than double that percentage – 31% – comprised by corporate representatives. A whopping 60% of charter schools have no parent representation on their boards of trustees, and these charter schools tend overwhelmingly to serve low-income, majority Black and Latino communities.[7] Indeed, charter schools in Massachusetts have grown far from their grassroots origin. This increasingly corporatized environment exacerbates the politicization of charter schools in Massachusetts, increases partisanship in education policy debates, and forms a critical lens through which this paper will investigate charter performance.

Massachusetts’ Charter Cap: Definition and Purposes

The tool Massachusetts uses, in part, to counter the corporatization trend – the tool whose effectiveness this paper will address – is known as a charter cap. This cap represents a clearly-defined limit of charter growth in the state, designed to strategically target communities with underperforming district schools and limit charter presence in communities with high-performing district schools. Among other criteria, Massachusetts’ cap limits the number of charter schools approved in a school district with student standardized test performance in the top ten percent statewide to only one per year, mandates that at least two charter schools per year be approved in school districts with student standardized test performance in the bottom ten percent statewide, and restricts Commonwealth charter schools (again, the more “laissez-faire” of the two types of Massachusetts charter school) to communities with populations over 30,000.[8]

The purposes of Massachusetts’ charter cap are several. First, the cap helps ensure that funding for district public schools is stable and reliable. Because students attending charter schools carry with them funding that otherwise would go to their public school district, capping charter schools means that district leaders can predict yearly funding more easily based upon the number of charter schools authorized in their district. Second, the cap is designed to produce favorable academic results for students; by forcing many charter startup groups to apply for only a low number of charter allowances, natural competition forces charter schools in Massachusetts to perform relatively highly; this paper will investigate this purpose further. Third, the exact specifications of the charter cap can serve as a political chess piece: in negotiations with unions and corporate special interests, generally limiting charter schools while allowing for some to exist alongside district public schools nudges Massachusetts’ education landscape towards the middle, politically, rendering it more likely to satisfy competing interests.

By the Numbers: Charter School Landscape Under Massachusetts’ Cap

Beyond the policy on paper, Massachusetts’ cap has produced a significantly stratified charter school landscape by a variety of metrics. Here, I present and discuss trends in Massachusetts charter schools, reported by Massachusetts’ Department of Education, current as of the 2016-2017 school year.[9]

(Figure 1)

Charter schools in Massachusetts do not tend towards any particular grade level and instead are somewhat equally distributed across elementary, middle, and high school levels (Figure 1). This suggests, but does not confirm, a significant feature of Massachusetts’ charter system: there seems to be consistency in that students would tend to enter the charter system and stay in the charter system for their entire schooling instead of moving between the charter system and neighborhood public schools. An interesting further study of the health of Massachusetts’ charter system would investigate the retention rates of Massachusetts charter schools in contrast with their district public school counterparts.

(Figure 2)

Another important measure of charter school equity is the distribution of student populations served. Massachusetts charter schools tend to serve populations that are, in general, more socioeconomically vulnerable than the state as a whole, save for special education (Figure 2). It is important to add, however, that Massachusetts charter schools’ not serving a representative portion of special education students is a common trend nationwide. In contrast, serving other groups of vulnerable students as equitably as Massachusetts charter schools seem to do is not a norm; some charter schools, particularly in cities, participating in “creaming,” or selecting deliberately for higher-achieving, lower-needs students.[10] Creaming does not appear to be a widespread trend in Massachusetts, which is a fair indicator that the state’s charter system is being run responsibly in terms of access and original purpose.

(Figure 3)

Alongside an examination of populations served should come an examination of charter demand. Although an exact demographic breakdown of waitlisted students is unavailable, about a quantity equivalent to three-fourths of current charter school students are on a waitlist (Figure 3). This is a critical figure because Massachusetts’ charter cap, by definition, limits the number of students enrolled in charter schools. This premise would form a basis of a 2016 referendum on lifting the charter cap, discussed later in this paper.

(Figure 4)

In line with the socioeconomic trends described by Figure 2, Massachusetts’ charter schools tend to serve a disproportionately minority population, with only half the state average of white students attending charter schools. Charter schools overall serve about one-third white students, one-third Hispanic students, and one-third Black students (Figure 4).

(Figure 5)

Explaining the demographic trends indicated in Figures 2 and 4 is the breakdown of charter schools in Massachusetts by community type. Charter schools tend overwhelmingly to be in urban areas – Boston and other cities – aligning with the typical trend that lower-income and minority populations tend also to be concentrated in cities (Figure 5). This makes sense in terms of the text of Massachusetts’ charter cap law itself, which, as discussed in the Definition section, places an emphasis on lower-performing school districts (tending towards cities, not suburbs) and higher population districts, with Commonwealth charter schools prohibited in communities with fewer than 30,000 residents.[11]

(Figure 6)

A key statistic provided by the state Department of Education complicates the trend found in Figure 3: while state charter schools overall have a lengthy waitlist, not every charter school is at capacity, because the total number of students attending charter schools is lower than the total maximum enrollment allowed under charters authorized by the cap (Figure 6). This suggests that charter demand is concentrated in certain areas and relaxed in others.

In fact, charter demand is concentrated strongly in Boston: out of the 32,600 students on charter waitlists, a full 10,300 reside in Boston, even though Boston is already the highest-spending district in Massachusetts on charter schools, at 14% of the total district budget. On the other hand, Amherst, which is richer and whiter than Boston alongside a relatively high-performing district, has a charter waitlist under 100.[12]

In broader terms, we can conclude that charter schools in Massachusetts overwhelmingly serve lower-income, minority populations. In terms of the cap, demand for greater enrollment is heavily concentrated in cities, especially Boston. This would set the stage for the political landscape characterizing the 2016 referendum.

By the Numbers: A Brief Overview of Massachusetts Charter School Performance

One of the key goals of a charter cap is that limiting charters will force charter schools, while competing for authorization slots, to develop a high-quality school plan that would translate to excellent academic results for students. In practice, however, examining Massachusetts charter schools tells two stories.

The first is a story of urban charter schools, and the story has a happy ending. Urban charter high schools overall saw a standardized test improvement per year of 0.39 standard deviations in math and 0.27 in English, showing the legitimate progress that urban charter schools are making, particularly for the vulnerable students that urban schools serve. Similar statistics are found at the elementary and middle school levels.[13]

We find a completely different story in non-urban charter schools, where enrollment demand is much lower than that in urban areas. Unlike their urban counterparts, non-urban charter high schools overall saw a standardized test decrease per year of -0.30 in math and -0.05 in English. Similar statistics are found at the elementary and middle school level.[14] Broadly speaking, then, non-urban charter schools actually tended to hurt students, not help them.

From a policy standpoint, this disparity raises a key problem with the way Massachusetts’ charter cap currently works. While it does already show favoritism to urban charter schools, not non-urban, from a purely performance-based point of view, Massachusetts’ balance still is off; if the state designed the policy exclusively to maximize academic gains, it would raise the cap in urban areas and lower the cap in non-urban areas. Regardless, it would be inaccurate to state that charter schools at large in Massachusetts positively serve all students; some do and some clearly do not.

The Statistics Become a Debate: Massachusetts’ 2016 Charter Cap Referendum

Massachusetts voters had a say in the charter cap debate when they were offered a referendum in the 2016 election, voting on a proposal that would increase the yearly charter quota by twelve schools.[15] Within that proposal was a stipulation that priority to charter authorization would be given to school districts in the lowest 25% of the state, and the growth in charter school enrollment could not exceed one percent of statewide total enrollment.[16] These stipulations seem reasonably based on the evidence and conclusions drawn earlier in this paper.

Since the ballot initiative was introduced in 2015, the political forces in favor of the cap raise were steady and loud. Beth Anderson, chairwoman of the board of the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association, cited the over 30,000 students on waiting lists in her initial statement, stating that “these families deserve better.”[17] In a state where Anderson had political allies in the governorship and Department of Education under Republicans Governor Charlie Baker and Secretary of Education Jim Peyser, this sentiment was naturally echoed by Massachusetts’ executive branch. Republicans in the state legislature generally fell in line with this position as well.

The political landscape was far more complicated on the Democratic side.[18] Most significantly, the Massachusetts Democratic Party – the state branch of the national party – and many members of state legislature’s Democratic caucus found themselves on opposite sides, with the former advocating against the raise and the latter showing support.[19] In fact, a dramatically visual representation of this split was found at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia during the summer of 2016, where Democrats for Education Reform and top pro-raise leaders Senator Michael Rodrigues and Representative Frank Moran hosted several official pro-charter breakfasts, much to the dismay of party leadership itself.[20] The optics of this spectacle, particularly for a nationally-fractured Democratic party, were hardly ideal.

Unsurprisingly, the partial Democratic opposition to the pro-raise movement was bolstered by state teacher unions as well as the national arm of the American Federation of Teachers.[21] In terms of tactics, the pro-raise and anti-raise sides different significantly. The pro-raise side outraised the anti-raise side, accepting sizable donations from Michael Bloomberg and investors in Massachusetts.[22] Money also flowed in from super-PAC-like “dark money” groups like “Strong Economy for Growth” and “Education Reform Now Advocacy.” Much of the over $25 million spent by this side was used for statewide television advertisements.[23] In contrast, the anti-raise side raised most of its funds from unions, but found political capital in the form of powerful endorsements by U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren[24] and Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh.[25] The side also drew upon its vast group of teacher supporters, mobilizing them to phone-bank and canvass by the hundreds of thousands.[26]

Ultimately, the referendum to raise Massachusetts’ charter cap was voted down, 62-38%.[27] Once more data is available, an interesting research project would be an analysis of how effective different political tactics were for this referendum, especially because the side that lost still had more funding than the winning side. It would also be interesting to investigate what knowledge the electorate had of the relative performance of the charter cap in terms of progress for vulnerable, urban students, a reality that potentially was lost amid fierce union opposition campaigns.

Looking Forward: A Federal Charter Cap and the Potential for a New National Education Policy

Even though Massachusetts’ 2016 referendum saw national attention, charter caps and quotas are currently a state legislative issue. As the nation continues its sequence of modern comprehensive education policies – first No Child Left Behind, then Race to the Top, then the Every Child Succeeds Act – the potential to get closer to a solution to national school choice debates would be found in a national charter cap. Although speculative at this point, a federal charter cap could include a plan for determining charter authorization based upon city populations, performance of neighborhood school districts, and other metrics like those that Massachusetts’ cap uses.

Precedent for a federal policy as far-reaching as this proposal is found in the way education policies are “enforced” at the federal level: as gauges for funding. Just as Race to the Top used federal funding as a carrot for states to follow, a potential charter cap could also include federal funding in exchange for compliance. At the same time, a comprehensive federal policy that meaningfully incorporates charter schools is likely to find fierce federal union opposition. Similarly, charter management organizations and their powerful government affairs offices would be just as likely to lobby for more flexible and generous authorization allowances to charter schools. Like other comprehensive legislation efforts, such an endeavor would require patience, compromise, and stamina.

Conclusion

No matter the granular details of a potential federal cap, evidence from Massachusetts that a charter cap can help vulnerable students in urban communities is compelling enough to warrant a closer look at an education policy that, yes, includes charter schools while carefully reconciling those charters with their neighborhood public school counterparts, especially in non-urban communities. Both politically and in terms of constitutionality, such a policy would require significant, likely bipartisan cooperation. However, motivated by the principles that fueled both Massachusetts’ cap and this paper – making tangible progress in public education, particularly for lower-income and minority American students – a renewed national focus on education policy should be a priority of the country.

Acknowledgements

I am very thankful that Harvard (the Yale of Massachusetts) has a variety of high-quality academic reports on its state’s public education system; they proved helpful to my own research. I am also thankful to Professor Debs and her course readings; their balance helped me strip some of my own politics out of my analysis in this paper in acknowledging the good that some charter schools are doing. I am finally thankful to my Keurig, which has been making a lot of coffee lately.

Endnotes

[1] John Dewey, “Democracy and Educational Administration,” School and Society 45 (April 3, 1937); 457-67.

[2] “Questions and Answers About Charter Schools,” Massachusetts Department of Education, accessed April 23, 2017, http://www.doe.mass.edu/charter/new/2015-2016QandA.pdf.

[3] “Questions and Answers About Charter Schools”

[4] Michael Fabricant and Michelle Fine, Charter Schools and the Corporate Makeover of Public Education (New York: Teachers College Press), 18.

[5] Chester E. Finn, Jr. and Bruno V. Manno, “A Progress Report on Charter Schools,” National Affairs, 2015.

[6] “Section 89,” The General Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, accessed April 23, 2017, https://malegislature.gov/Laws/GeneralLaws/PartI/TitleXII/Chapter71/Section89.

[7] Leigh Dingerson, “Whose Schools? An Examination of Charter Schools Governance in Massachusetts,” Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University, 2016, accessed April 23, 2017, http://www.annenberginstitute.org/sites/default/files/product/859/files/WhoseSchoolsRevised.pdf.

[8] “Questions and Answers About Charter Schools”

[9] “Massachusetts Charter School Fact Sheet,” Massachusetts Department of Education, accessed April 23, 2017, http://www.doe.mass.edu/charter/factsheet.pdf.

[10] Kate Taylor, “At a Success Academy Charter School, Singling Out Pupils Who Have ‘Got to Go’,” New York Times, October 29, 2015, accessed April 30, 2017, http://nyti.ms/1kdOsXW.

[11] “Questions and Answers About Charter Schools”

[12] Thomas Kane, “Let the Numbers Have Their Say: Evidence on Massachusetts’ Charter Schools,” Harvard Graduate School of Education, 2016, accessed April 26, 2017, https://cepr.harvard.edu/files/cepr/files/evidence-ma-charter-schools.pdf.

[13] Kane, “Let the Numbers Have Their Say: Evidence on Massachusetts’ Charter Schools”

[14] Kane, “Let the Numbers Have Their Say: Evidence on Massachusetts’ Charter Schools”

[15] Kimberly Hefling, “Democrats feud over charter schools in Massachusetts,” Politico, November 7, 2017, accessed April 30, 2017, http://www.politico.com/story/2016/11/democrats-divided-on-mass-charter-school-expansion-230888.

[16] Shira Schoenberg, “Ballot initiative would grow charter schools in Massachusetts,” MassLive, August 7, 2015, accessed April 27, 2017, http://www.masslive.com/politics/index.ssf/2015/08/ballot_initiative_would_grow_c.html.

[17] Schoenberg, “Ballot initiative would grow charter schools in Massachusetts”

[18] Nina Rees, “Lift the Cap on Charter Growth,” U.S. News, September 6, 2016, accessed April 30, 2017, https://www.usnews.com/opinion/articles/2016-09-06/lift-the-artificial-limit-on-charter-schools-in-massachusetts.

[19] Shira Schoenberg, “30 Massachusetts mayors oppose raising charter school cap: Why?” MassLife, October 26, 2016, accessed April 30, 2017, http://www.masslive.com/politics/index.ssf/2016/10/mayors_oppose_raising_charter.html.

[20] Andy Metzger, “Mass. Democrats Vote to Oppose Charter School Question,” WBUR, August 17, 2016, accessed April 27, 2017, http://www.wbur.org/edify/2016/08/17/mass-democrats-charter-school.

[21] Alan Singer, “Massachusetts Is Ground Zero In Battle Over Charter Schools,” Huffington Post, October 13, 2016, accessed April 30, 2017, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/alan-singer/massachusetts-is-ground-z_b_12467160.html.

[22] Valerie Strauss, “An extraordinary battle over charter schools is consuming this state,” Washington Post, November 7, 2016, accessed April 30, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2016/11/07/an-extraordinary-battle-over-charter-schools-is-consuming-this-state/?utm_term=.0fa16e8b6063.

[23] Paul Heroux, “Don’t Raise The Massachusetts Charter Cap Just Yet,” Huffington Post, October 15, 2016, accessed April 30, 2017, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/paul-heroux/dont-raise-the-massachuse_b_12502860.html.

[24] Joan Vannochi, “Warren weighs in on charter schools,” Boston Globe, November 1, 2016, accessed April 30, 2017, https://www.bostonglobe.com/opinion/2016/09/28/warren-weighs-charter-schools/dCWSjDFl69FgziCPo3HCkO/story.html.

[25] Valerie Strauss, “Elizabeth Warren comes out against raising cap on charter schools in Massachusetts,” Washington Post, September 27, 2016, accessed April 30, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2016/09/27/elizabeth-warren-comes-out-against-raising-cap-on-charter-schools-in-massachusetts/?utm_term=.3efed9e6e5f2.

[26] David Scharfenberg, “Mass. voters reject ballot question on charter schools,” Boston Globe, November 8, 2016, accessed April 27, 2017, https://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2016/11/08/charter/v34OA3vMI8dRABDsFc4JuM/story.html.

[27] Scharfenberg, “Mass. voters reject ballot question on charter schools”

 

Bibliography

Dewey, John. “Democracy and Educational Administration.” School and Society: 457-67. 1937.

Dingerson, Leigh. “Whose Schools? An Examination of Charter Schools Governance in Massachusetts.” Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University, 2016. Accessed April 23, 2017. http://www.annenberginstitute.org/sites/default/files/product/859/files/WhoseSchoolsRevised.pdf.

Fabricant, Michael, and Michelle Fine. Charter Schools and the Corporate Makeover of Public Education. New York: Teachers College Press. 2012.

Finn, Chester E., and Bruno V. Manno. “A Progress Report on Charter Schools.” National Affairs, 2015.

Hefling, Kimberly. “Democrats feud over charter schools in Massachusetts.” Politico, November 7, 2016. Accessed April 30, 2017. http://www.politico.com/story/2016/11/democrats-divided-on-mass-charter-school-expansion-230888.

Heroux, Paul. “Don’t Raise The Massachusetts Charter Cap Just Yet.” Huffington Post, October 15, 2016. Accessed April 30, 2017. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/paul-heroux/dont-raise-the-massachuse_b_12502860.html.

Kane, Thomas. “Let the Numbers Have Their Say: Evidence on Massachusetts’ Charter Schools.” Harvard Graduate School of Education, 2016. Accessed April 26, 2017. https://cepr.harvard.edu/files/cepr/files/evidence-ma-charter-schools.pdf.

Massachusetts Department of Education. “Massachusetts Charter School Fact Sheet.” Accessed April 23, 2017. http://www.doe.mass.edu/charter/factsheet.pdf.

Massachusetts Department of Education. “Questions and Answers About Charter Schools.” Accessed April 23, 2017. http://www.doe.mass.edu/charter/new/2015-2016QandA.pdf.

Metzger, Andy. “Mass. Democrats Vote to Oppose Charter School Question.” WBUR, August 17, 2017. Accessed April 27, 2017. http://www.wbur.org/edify/2016/08/17/mass-democrats-charter-school.

Rees, Nina. “Lift the Cap on Charter Growth.” U.S. News, September 6, 2016. Accessed April 30, 2017. https://www.usnews.com/opinion/articles/2016-09-06/lift-the-artificial-limit-on-charter-schools-in-massachusetts.

Scharfenberg, David. “Mass. voters reject ballot question on charter schools.” Boston Globe, November 8, 2016. Accessed April 27, 2017. https://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2016/11/08/charter/v34OA3vMI8dRABDsFc4JuM/story.html.

Schoenberg, Shira. “Ballot initiative would grow charter schools in Massachusetts.” MassLife, August 7, 2015. Accessed April 27, 2017. http://www.masslive.com/politics/index.ssf/2015/08/ballot_initiative_would_grow_c.html.

Schoenberg, Shira. “30 Massachusetts mayors oppose raising charter school cap: Why?” Mass Life, October 26, 2016. Accessed April 30, 2017. http://www.masslive.com/politics/index.ssf/2016/10/mayors_oppose_raising_charter.html.

Singer, Alan. “Massachusetts Is Ground Zero In Battle Over Charter Schools.” Huffington Post, October 13, 2016. Accessed April 30, 2017. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/alan-singer/massachusetts-is-ground-z_b_12467160.html.

Strauss, Valerie. “An extraordinary battle over charter schools is consuming this state.” Washington Post, November 7, 2016. Accessed April 30, 2017. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2016/11/07/an-extraordinary-battle-over-charter-schools-is-consuming-this-state/?utm_term=.0fa16e8b6063.

Strauss, Valerie. “Elizabeth Warren comes out against raising cap on charter schools in Massachusetts.” Washington Post, September 27, 2016. Accessed April 30, 2017. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2016/09/27/elizabeth-warren-comes-out-against-raising-cap-on-charter-schools-in-massachusetts/?utm_term=.3efed9e6e5f2.

Taylor, Kate. “At a Success Academy Charter School, Singling Out Pupils Who Have ‘Got to Go’.” New York Times, October 29, 2015. Accessed April 30, 2017. http://nyti.ms/1kdOsXW.

The General Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. “Section 89.” Accessed April 23, 2017. https://malegislature.gov/Laws/GeneralLaws/PartI/TitleXII/Chapter71/Section89.

Vennochi, Joan. “Warren weighs in on charter schools.” Boston Globe, November 1, 2016. Accessed April 30, 2017. https://www.bostonglobe.com/opinion/2016/09/28/warren-weighs-charter-schools/dCWSjDFl69FgziCPo3HCkO/story.html.

 

 

 

Rocketship Schools: Taking Steps Towards Closing the Achievement Gap

Rocketship Schools: Taking Steps Towards Closing the Achievement Gap

Layla Treuhaft-Ali, Emil Friedman, Lindsay Efflant, Jake Fender

1) Introduction

Similar to other rapidly-growing charter management organizations (CMOs), Rocketship is a relatively new player in the education space, primarily targeting lower-income, minority students in urban areas. The main pedagogical innovation that distinguishes Rocketship is the use of “blended learning”: students participate in whole-group instruction, small group lessons, and spend 80-100 minutes each day in a “Learning Lab” where they practice skills on computers and work with tutors. Rocketship leaders claim that this strategy allows them to personalize education to meet each child’s unique needs, but Rocketship still faces criticism that this method is impersonal and relies too heavily on screen time.

Early data points are promising: Rocketship schools have low suspension and expulsion rates, and high academic growth scores. Although some CMOs have been criticized for self-selecting students unrepresentative of the overall communities in which they live (Frankenberg and Siegel-Hawley 2013), Rocketship generally still serves populations similar to its surrounding public school districts. By exploring, amid some criticism, various techniques in terms of pedagogy, discipline, and community engagement that a typical public school would be unable to pursue, Rocketship shows promising steps in becoming a responsible CMO that could play a healthy role alongside traditional public schools in urban centers.

Demographics, Achievement, and Discipline Methodology

We selected six schools for data investigation using a random number generator. We obtained federal, state, and district information on demographics, discipline, and achievement using the databases offered by the National Center for Education Statistics and the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. Although we had some difficulty in some categories because data had not yet been published for recently-opened Rocketship schools, we were able to successfully find most data points needed.

2) History, Pedagogy, and Mission

While the crux of Rocketship’s published mission creating alternative, high-quality education choices for vulnerable students is credited to Father Mateo Sheedy, pastor of San Jose’s Sacred Heart Parish, who in 1999 began questioning the low performance rates of students in his parish, Rocketship began in earnest in 2006, when Father Sheedy’s congregation set off to pursue his mission of improving outcomes for students in San Jose alongside John Danner and Preston Smith. Danner and Smith, both young, energetic, and decidedly entrepreneurial, wanted to bring technology and community engagement to the forefront of the movement they intended to create (Rocketship Schools 2017a). They also, in contrast with founders of most other CMOs, wanted to focus on elementary education, figuring that students exposed to a high-quality education early may do better post-graduation in traditional schools (Ableidinger & Barrett 2013).

Soon after their first school, Rocketship Mateo Sheedy Elementary, opened, its waiting list grew to the point that Danner and Smith knew Rocketship was ripe to expand. During Rocketship’s next ten years, it opened an additional fifteen schools, mostly in San Jose but also with locations in Nashville, Milwaukee, and Washington, D.C. Rocketship originally aimed to serve one million students by 2020, but has since reduced its goal to 25,000 students by 2017 (Bernatek et al. 2012).

Through its mission to “eliminate the achievement gap in our lifetime,” Rocketship targets minority, low-income, urban students in tandem with a particular interest in engaging these students’ parents as well (Rocketship Schools 2017a).

3) School Demographics

We considered an objective data analysis to be important in determining that Rocketship acts as a responsible CMO in serving a broad cross-section of students. For our analysis, we investigated six Rocketship schools: Discovery Prep, Fuerza Community Prep, Si Se Puerde Academy, Spark Academy, Nashville Northeast Elementary, and Southside Community Prep.

(Figure 1)

Confirming Rocketship’s claimed interest in “eliminating the achievement gap in our lifetime,” it is not surprising that its student bodies are typically more disadvantaged than their districts’ overall populations. Based on our data, Rocketship’s student population is high-poverty: more than three-quarters of students are on free or reduced lunch (FRL) at every school. This is especially significant in the San Jose school district, where FRL students are a minority in the district as a whole (Figure 1).

(Figure 2)

Unsurprisingly, high minority populations in Rocketship schools coincide with socioeconomic disadvantage. Overall, 95% of Rocketship students are students of color. In the Bay Area and Milwaukee schools, student bodies are majority Hispanic; Nashville Northeast Elementary was the only school with a large African-American population (Figure 2). This seems in line with Rocketship’s responsibly serving the communities in which it has schools.

(Figure 3)

Perhaps starker than socioeconomic and racial representation, in Rocketship schools across every region, English Language Learners are represented at between two and four times the rate of their representation in the district overall (Figure 3). One reason for this may be Rocketship’s “blended learning” strategy: students spend about two hours a day in a “learning lab” where they work individually with tutors, small teams of their peers, and online programs. This “personalized learning” time may be especially beneficial for English Language Learners, who can use the time to build language skills or work on academic content at their own speed.

(Figure 4)

Unlike the other three categories we analyzed, special education students are underrepresented at Rocketship schools, especially at Fuerza Community Prep in San Jose and Southside Community Prep in Milwaukee (Figure 4). This is somewhat surprising, since it seems that Rocketship’s individualized learning model would be well-adapted to working with students with special needs. However, limited resources may account for this discrepancy, raising questions with respect to Rocketship’s role in a public school district and offering one counter-narrative to Rocketship’s otherwise fairly-equitable, fairly-responsible nature (National Center for Education Statistics).

4) Student Achievement

In conjunction with its largely-vulnerable student body, Rocketship shows great interest in its low attrition rates; last year, 90% of Rocketeers chose to stay with Rocketship despite each having a district spot available to them. In terms of assessment, Rocketship uses standardized tests, such as Northwest Evaluation Association’s Measured Academic Progress test (NWEA MAP), in the fall, winter, and the spring, to determine both how their students’ proficiency matches up to that of students from similar socioeconomic backgrounds in district schools, and also to measure how their students’ performance is changing over time (Rocketship Schools 2017b).

Comparison to public school counterparts

Rocketship students do quite well compared to their counterparts in the public school system. In the 2015-2016 school year, Rocketship students overall outperformed their counterparts at impressive rates: in the third grade, 83% of math scores and 59% of language arts scores were above public school counterparts, in the fourth grade, 100% of math scores and 88% of language arts scores were above (public school counterparts), and in the fifth grade, 100% of math scores and 60% of language arts scores were above those of the students’ public school counterparts (Kamenetz 2016). In general, Rocketship saw standardized test scores parallel to or slightly higher than those of their schools’ states overall as well (National Center for Education Statistics 2016).

Particularly impressive is a ranking of top-performing Bay Area schools, where Rocketship locations are most concentrated, for low-income Latino students in mathematics. In the report, of the eighteen schools listed, six of them belong to the Rocketship network (Innovate Public Schools 2016).

Student growth

Tracking 1,300 students’ achievement on the NWEA MAP test from the fall of 2012 to the spring of 2016 shows that the percentage of students performing at or above grade level in math went from 34 to 62% (a 28% increase), and that the percentage of students performing at or above grade level in reading went from 25 to 56% (a 31% increase). These figures are significant because they show how a student’s contact with a Rocketship school is changing their achievement from what it would have been had the student remained in a district school. The average first year growth, as measured by students’ tracked performance on the MAP test, is 1.53 years of growth in mathematics and 1.39 years of growth in reading (Rocketship Schools 2016a). We view this as a strong indicator that Rocketship is responsibly serving its communities.

5) Discipline

Perhaps in line with its interest in academic growth, Rocketship claims to be dedicated to keeping students in class; their 2015-2016 Year in Review report has an entire subheading entitled, literally, “Keeping Kids in Class,” and the good news is that Rocketship largely seem to be doing that. In the 2015-2016 school year, they had a 2.6% suspension rate, and in each school we analyzed, the school’s suspension rate, both in total and disaggregated by race, was lower than its district counterpart, and in many cases was zero (Department of Education: Office of Civil Rights 2016). In addition, no school in Rocketship’s entire history has ever expelled a student (Rocketship Schools 2016a). Interestingly, Rocketship offers very little literature regarding disciplinary practices on its official website, raising questions with respect to transparency.

(Figure 5)

The one Rocketship school we examined, Southside Community Prep, whose suspension rate was higher than zero shows clearly a difference between its rates and those of its surrounding district (Figure 5).

6) Media and Marketing

Unsurprisingly, given its demographics, Rocketship marketing items themselves take a social-justice-oriented look at education, discussing often “achievement gaps” and “low-income students,” with branding similar to that of a technology start-up. Most multimedia features minority students, and the website is available in 100 languages, suggesting that Rocketship makes few attempts to subtly select for wealthier, whiter students (Rocketship Schools 2017a).

In this typical marketing video, for example, Rocketship emphasizes its personalized learning techniques and rapid growth model as a strategy for rapidly ending the achievement gap, particularly among low-income and minority students (Rocketship Schools 2013).

Major media coverage of Rocketship schools includes a segment on “Learning Matters,” part of PBS NewsHour produced by Education Week. Although the segment offered considerable praise, in terms of criticism, the segment argues that the Learning Labs don’t work, and shows shots of students looking disengaged from their computer learning activities (PBS NewsHour 2013).

NPR also covered Rocketship in a more negative light this year in a widely-read profile. Its report accuses Rocketship of maintaining far too low a staff-student ratio: at one Rocketship school, six full-time teachers served 630 students. Aides filled in the gaps: individualized tutors reported monitoring between sixty and ninety students alone during Learning Lab time. The article also criticizes Rocketship for having young children spend between 80 and 100 minutes in front of a computer each day, requiring several hours of silent time (called “Zone Zero”) each day, and refusing to let children go to the bathroom such that even older children wet themselves. Finally, the article suggests that Rocketship is too focused on test scores, to the point where teachers have students retake standardized tests in order to boost scores (Kamenetz 2016). It is fair to note, however, that these criticisms of Rocketship are common critiques of charter schools and CMOs in general as well.

7) Accountability and Oversight

In line with its “achievement gap”-oriented marketing narrative, Rocketship’s main method of accountability consists of measuring its students against those at other schools, mainly according to growth rather than proficiency. Rocketship graduates have been projected, according to NWEA MAP math and reading tests, to be equivalent to one year of growth ahead of their peers at other schools. Rocketship schools in California have been ranked in the top 10% in the state in math and ELA performance, while Rocketship Milwaukee is ranked number one in math and language arts performance, and Rocketship Nashville is in the top two in the city among all 73 public elementary schools (Rocketship Schools 2017b).

Additionally, Rocketship Schools uphold teacher and test-score accountability standards but are especially unique due to the importance they place on parental involvement. Rocketship Schools mandate that every family devote at least eighty hours of volunteering time per year to their child’s classroom. It is common to find parent volunteers working alongside teachers during classroom activities and field trips (Ableidinger & Barrett 2013).

Data with respect to funding between individual districts and Rocketship is not publicly available, and while Rocketship hasn’t yet encountered significant financial scandals, transparency still is limited.

8) Funding and Budget

Unlike its particular arrangements with individual district, Rocketship is transparent with overall funding sources. The Rocketship Schools budget is broken down as follows: 80% state funding, 11% federal funding, 8% philanthropy, and 1% “other local revenue.” Rocketship’s website lists the top 32 donors from 2015-2016 ranked by level of donation: $5,000 and above (11 donors), $25,000 and above (5 donors), $100,000 and above (11 donors), $500,000 and above (2 donors), and $1,000,000 and above (3 donors) (Rocketship Schools 2016b).

(Figure 6)

According to our analysis using Rocketship’s budget breakdown [1], we can calculate that the bare minimum state funding is $52,800,000, the bare minimum federal funding is $7,260,000, and the bare minimum “other local revenue” funding is $660,000. Perhaps most notable is how large the state funding component is. It is clear, then, that one of Rocketship’s main priorities as it grows ought to be maintaining responsible, mutually-beneficial relationships with states.

The donors listed on Rocketship’s website include mostly individual and collective venture capitalists and non-profit organizations. A fair amount of the donors (most of the nonprofits and a significant number of the individual venture capitalists) seem dedicated to education funding (the individual foundations often had a history of investment in educational ventures), but what was interesting was that some of the collective venture capital organizations (like Baird) don’t seem overly attached to education as a philanthropic end in and of itself (Rocketship Schools 2016b).

9) Staffing

Just as Rocketship is unafraid to accept funding from a diverse array of donors, it is similarly unafraid to source teachers from non-traditional teacher pathways. Indeed, 75% of Rocketship teachers come from Teach for America and about half have less than two years of teaching experience (PBS NewsHour 2013). Because of Teach for America’s generally temporary nature, it is clear that teacher longevity and loyalty is not considered a significant factor in Rocketship’s faculty development. One of the reasons that may account for this is Rocketship’s reliance on Learning Labs with personalized computer learning and untrained staff, meaning that students are already used to seeing variation each day in their teachers and caretakers. It would be fair to assume that the constantly-rotating nature of Rocketship faculty means that students interact with many different staff members during their years in a Rocketship school, and that each school has limited potential for mentorship for new teachers by veteran teachers.

Rocketship offers professional development to new teachers, including mentorship from administrators and more experienced teachers. 50% of a teacher’s salary is tied to students’ test scores (Kamenetz 2016). Teachers are not unionized, but they receive higher pay and benefits than average teachers in their districts. This works because of Rocketship’s Learning Lab model. The “individualized tutors” who mentor Rocketship students during Learning Lab time are hourly employees who are not certified teachers and can be paid at lower rates. This allows Rocketship to hire six fewer full-time teachers per school than they would otherwise, saving the organization $500,000, which is used to increase teacher pay and program funding (Rocketship Schools 2017).

10) Relationship to districts

Relationships with districts vary. Perhaps due to Rocketship’s unorthodox structure, in some Bay Area schools, there is a disconnect between families of Rocketship students and of non-Rocketship public schools and between the district and Rocketship itself. Among parents in the Bay Area, there has been an outcry of frustration that “the local school district has routinely targeted the school, students, and families with discriminatory language and action” (Gil 2017). The Mt. Diablo Unified School District, which contains the Rocketship Futuro Academy, has limited the school’s ability to provide the legally mandated space for serving food, which compromises the 80% of free-and-reduced-lunch students’ ability to receive their meals. Many parents see this, and the district’s reluctance to provide the school other proper physical spaces, as a personal attack (Gil 2017). In tandem, there is little evidence of significant collaboration between Rocketship and surrounding districts in terms of pedagogy and practice.

11) Conclusion

As a CMO, Rocketship operates a fairly sound, well-performing, equitable system. In terms of the purposes of education, Rocketship certainly contributes to the social mobility of lower-income students by typically offering higher academic growth rates than they would otherwise find in their district public schools. It also contributes to democratic equality, with the important exception of disabled students, whose Rocketship enrollment does not parallel surrounding schools. Nonetheless, Rocketship appears to be serving vulnerable students well, responsibly serving its communities with good achievement data to show for it. It would serve Rocketship well to continue to grow at a moderate, responsible pace.

 

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Footnotes

[1] Funding and Budget Methodology

Each figure in the following budget analysis comes from Rocketship’s reporting of its own finances. The approach we used calculates the absolute bare minimum dollar values for each portion of the budget, based on Rocketship’s budget breakdown and its reporting of top donors and the amount categories they fell into.

The following is a calculation of what the absolute bare minimum Rocketship Education budget must be. It involves calculating what the bare minimum philanthropic portion of the budget is (based on the donations listed on the website), and then using that number to calculate the bare minimum total budget (based on the fact that we know that philanthropy comprised 8% of the total budget), and then finally using that estimation of the total budget to disaggregate the bare number of dollars that each portion must be composed of. The calculation is based on two assumptions: first, that a donor in the category “$___ and above” actually only gave the bare minimum to be included in that category, and second, that the donations beneath the levels listed on the website do not significantly impact the philanthropic portion of the budget. Thus, this is inevitably just an exercise to determine what the absolute bare minimum dollar value of each part of the budget is comprised of, and will be distant from the actual budget values, with an error directly related to how false the assumptions (especially the second) happen to be.

So, first, if we calculate the philanthropic portion, we will (based on the assumptions listed earlier) perform the following calculation for each group: number of donors in group * bare minimum needed to be in group, and we will add each of these together. Thus, we get $5,000(*11)+$25,000(*5)

+$100,000(*11)+$500,000(*2)+$1,000,000(*3), which equals $5,280,000. This (the bare minimum of 8% of the total budget) leads us to calculate that the bare minimum of the total budget amounts to $66 million. Then, based on Rocketship’s budget breakdown, we can calculate that the bare minimum state funding is $52,800,000, the bare minimum federal funding is $7,260,000, and the bare minimum “other local revenue” funding is $660,000 (Rocketship Schools 2016b).

 

 

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