School Choice is Improving Prospects for Newark Schoolchildren But It’s Not Doing Much for Weber/Baker’s Analytical Acumen

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In Wednesday’s NJ Spotlight, Mark Weber takes aim at two recent editorials, mine and Michele Mason’s, which cover different aspects of recent public school improvements in Newark, N.J.’s largest school district. Weber also uses the editorial to hype a new report he wrote with Rutgers Professor Bruce Baker (his dissertation advisor), published by the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) called “School District Reform in Newark and Impact of the Newark Education Reforms. The NEPC report by Weber/Baker, in turn, attacks yet another report, this one published in October by The Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard University called “Assessing the Impact of the Newark School Reforms, which I reviewed here.

Keeping track? It’s not that hard. If we were sorting all these analyses into two piles, one pile would be the “there’s more work to do but Newark is rocking it” group,which includes the editorials by Michele and me, as well as the Harvard report which says, “after five years of reform, Newark overall saw statistically significant and educationally meaningful improvements in English [Language Arts (ELA)] achievement growth and no significant change in math achievement growth, above and beyond gains observed by similar students in similar schools throughout New Jersey…62 percent of the gain in achievement growth in English was due to students leaving less effective schools and moving to more effective schools.”

The other pile would be Weber’s editorial and the NEPC report, which is the “charter schools suck and the reforms were useless” group. From Weber’s preview: “Hold off on the parties. While Newark’s students, teachers, staff, and families should be proud of their schools, there is very little evidence that Newark has made meaningful gains in student achievement during this latest ‘reform’ era compared with the rest of the state.”

So, which is it? Are Newark public schoolchildren better off now, after expansion of school choice and the closure of ineffective schools, or has nothing changed in this long-troubled school district?

Editorials are, by definition, opinions. I can tout Newark’s academic improvement. Weber can slam “Newark’s phantom gains.” Both of us should/would freely admit that we have implicit biases. But academic reports are supposed to filter out political agendas (except when they don’t: see here). I think the Weber/Baker report fails that test.

This is a blog post, not a monograph, and I’m unabashedly “reformy,” as Weber puts it. However, in the interest of promoting a little more objectivity and a little less lobbying, here are some fact-based criticisms of Weber’s editorial, with an occasional foray into the Weber/Baker report.

Who funded the reports?

Weber slams the Harvard report because it was funded by a grant from the Chan/Zuckerberg Initiative. (Mark Zuckerberg  jump-started the reforms in Newark with a $100 million donation in 2010, which represents one-tenth of NPS’s annual budget and predated the philanthropic organization created by him and his wife Priscilla Chan.)  But, curiously, Weber neglects to mention that NEPC , which funded his and Baker’s report, is, according to Pete Cook, “a stridently anti-reform think tank at the University of Colorado at Boulder that has received at least $1.5 million from AFT and NEA in the past five years.”  (Also see here.) 

Are Students Learning More?

Not according to Weber, who writes, the researchers found no gains in “value-added” — a measure of student growth — in math test scores between 2010 and 2016, the period of ‘reforms’ in Newark that were supposedly initiated by the Zuckerberg donation.”  And the growth in ELA was “practically small: 0.07 standard deviations, which is, at best, equivalent to a few percentile points.”

The Harvard report concurs that math scores were flat. But the researchers also explain that before the reforms, charter school students were excelling in math at an unsustainable pace of value-added .3. That’s really high; the researchers note that for “for comparison, a .08 difference in value-added is roughly equivalent to being assigned an experienced teacher rather than a novice teacher.” Once you aggregate the scores among all schools — charter, magnet, traditional — the fact that Newark students maintained that benchmark is pretty impressive. Baker and Weber must know this; they’re statisticians, right?

And were the ELA gains “practically small”? From the Harvard report: “[A]chievement 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.

So, was it “small” or “sizeable”? Both are subjective terms. But an annual gain of .07 standard deviation is the difference between taking math with an experienced teacher and taking math with a novice teacher. If .07 is small, then Weber/Baker are (unintentionally) arguing that there’s a “practically small” benefit to students having an experienced teacher instead of a new one. And yet they also argue that “North Star and TEAM/KIPP may be able to offer relatively higher wages because they employ many more inexperienced – and therefore, less expensive – teachers,” which sounds like they think inexperience is a bad thing. Which is it, guys? You can’t have it both ways.

District vs. Charter School Funding

Weber calls foul because “Newark’s biggest charter operators — TEAM/KIPP and North Star/Uncommon Schools — collect millions of extra dollars in philanthropy each year.” The report he co-authored with Baker says that “any meaningful productivity analysis of Newark’s charter sector must include at least some acknowledgment of how philanthropy gives those schools a fiscal advantage over NPS.”

Okay. Let’s go there. Yes, Newark public charter schools are dependent, to varying degrees, on private contributions. That’s because New Jersey charter school law disallows facilities aid to charter schools, one of the flaws of our 22-year-old legislation. When KIPP or Uncommon need a new building, they’re on their own.

Example: Camden, an Abbott district like Newark where facilities costs are borne by the state, needs a new high school building. So the state is paying $133 million for reconstruction costs. When KIPP or Uncommon need a new building, they have to raise the money privately. Yet Weber writes, “Newark’s charters also benefit from tax incentives and facilities funding not available to the public schools.” Huh? Let’s see…$133 million versus a “tax incentive” in order to build a new building. What would you choose? 

The Weber/Baker report says, “Newark charter schools’ enjoy significant resource advantages over NPS.” I’d be spending lots of time on the DOE website pulling out data points but my blogging friend Jeff Bennett (who is agnostic about charter vs. traditional) already did it for me in the comment section of Weber’s column. (Thanks, Jeff!) He writes,

I don’t think that Mark Weber is correct to say that the Newark charter schools have a financial advantage over the Newark City Public Schools. According to the Taxpayer Guide to Education Spending there is only one Newark charter school (New Horizons) that outspends the traditional Newark Public Schools.

Jeff’s calculations are always impeccable and you can look at them yourself. He notes that the annual cost per pupil at NPS is $22,735 and the annual cost per pupil at North Star (Uncommon) is $18,259. But, hey, what’s an extra $4.5K per pupil? (KIPP’s annual cost per pupil is only $1.5K less than NPS.)

You get the picture. Weber/Baker’s claim that Newark charters have a financial advantage over NPS isn’t research but political posturing. At the end of the report, which purportedly is attacking the Harvard premise that “much of the net change in achievement growth in Newark was driven by shifts in enrollment due to school closures, new school openings, and student choice,” they reach way down to the bottom of the barrel and rise clutching extraneous scraps like “Education Law Center settled a lawsuit on behalf of six Newark students that called for improvements in access to special education services” and “in  April of 2014, 77 members of Newark’s clergy released a position statement on One Newark.” What does that have to do with anything? Talk about throwing stuff against the wall and seeing what sticks.

Not much does.

Look, there are no perfect public schools in Newark, whether you’re talking about the traditional, the charters, or the magnets, which, by the way, have competitive admissions and enroll 37 percent of Newark City students yet go unmentioned by Weber/Baker. There are no perfect schools anywhere, and charters have their own challenges, like increasing the number of students with moderate to severe special needs (which both KIPP and Uncommon are doing) and enrolling more ELL students. But assailing data-based research that reports gains among Newark students because it doesn’t align with political biases is specious.

The children in Newark and their families deserve better schools than they’ve historically had. Finally they’re starting to get them. Weber/Baker best get out of the way.

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