What is California telling us about what parents want from public education?

I sit on the board of the California Charter School Association (CCSA), which is one of most effective charter associations in the nation.

Their data team put this slide together.

It’s a little complicated, but it’s very informative.

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To build the chart, CCSA looked at schools that are serving the same type of demographics and then compares their test scores.

A school that outperforms similar schools, gets a higher score (8-10 is really good); a school that underperforms similar schools, gets a lower school (1-3 is pretty bad).

This methodology – absolute test scores controlled for demographics – is imperfect, but it’s the best methodology you can use given California does not publicly report student growth scores.

Charter schools serving students in poverty outperform district schools on state tests 

43% of charter schools with higher concentrations of poverty outperform similar schools.

In California, if you are a low-income Hispanic or African-American child, you are more likely get a better education (as measured by test scores and parent demand) if you attend a charter school.

This is good news for the educators and families who are working together to create better educational outcomes in at-risk communities.

If parents are demanding schools with good test score impacts, the government’s response should be obvious: let more of these schools open.

Charter schools serving middle class students underperform district schools on state tests 

But not all charter schools are outperforming their peers on tests scores.

47% of charter schools serving middle class students perform worse than similar schools. And only 26% perform better.

So perhaps California should close some of these charter schools that serve middle class families? Research covered in this post shows that schools with negative test impacts tend not to have large positive life outcome impacts.

But here’s the odd thing: presumably, middle class families have a decent amount of information at hand when making school choices. It takes all of two minutes to scan Zillow or Great Schools to get a quick read on the absolute test score performance of any school in the state.

So why are all these relatively well resourced families sending their children to lower-performing charter schools as measured by state tests?

I’m not sure. It would be interesting to focus group and poll them to learn more.

And with regards to closure, while I surely disagree with middle class Californians on many policy issues, I’m not sure that I think I know enough about their children to close schools that have modest negative test impacts but high enrollment demand.

Charter schools don’t exist unless parents want their children to attend them 

One of the best features of charter schools is that they don’t exist unless parents choose them. No one is assigned to a charter school.

So what are we to make of this data where families in living in poverty are choosing schools with positive test scores impacts and middle class families are choosing schools with negative test score impacts?

I think the starting point should be to assume that families, on average, are in a better position to make an informed choice than government is.

Remember, government’s default assignment algorithm is to look at your family’s address and then assign your child to the nearest school. It’s not very nuanced!

My guess is that parent choice will outperform geographic assignment when it comes to finding great fits between kids and schools.

But I do think we should be open to the idea that parents, sometimes en masse, can make mistakes. And, at times, this can warrant government intervention.

Sometimes performance might be an indicator, such as when families keep sending their children to high schools with below 40% graduation rates and /or schools with extremely negative value-add scores. If less than half the kids are graduating, and those that do are barely literate, government should step in.

Sometimes lack of alignment with our nation’s professed values might be an indicator: certain public schools have at times been captured by groups, sometimes religious, that do not teach basic democratic values.

In these cases of significant performance or culture malfeasance, government should consider intervention, ideally by handing over management of the school to a non-profit organization that can achieve better results.

I don’t know enough about individual school performance to know if what’s happening in California with middle class families equates to education malfeasance, but I’m a bit skeptical.

My hunch is that once absolute test score levels surpass a certain floor (as they tend to in middle class schools), families just care a lot about other factors.

Even if I might make a different choice, I don’t know that the situation warrants government intervention.

When government should not intervene 

While it’s difficult to decide when government should intervene, it’s still pretty clear to me when government should not intervene.

When schools have both high demand and high test score impacts with students living in poverty, government should not prevent these schools from serving more students!

California should follow this common sense policy.

Unfortunately, too many school districts do not.

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4 thoughts on “What is California telling us about what parents want from public education?

  1. Jordan

    Hi Neerav. If 43% high FRL charters are outperforming traditional counterparts, doesn’t that mean 57% high FRL traditionals are outperforming charter counterparts? The flipside of the other numbers you mention (the middle class schools) also would seem to favor traditionals. These all would suggest that, on the whole, the trads are the better bet, right? (Just clarifying. Either way, I do not think policy decisions should rest on these percentages.)

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  2. Joanne Jacobs

    In high-poverty areas, competent parents look for alternatives to low-performing district-run schools. In middle-class areas, parents tend to look for alternatives when their child is doing poorly. The local school may be doing well with the average student, but it’s not serving the needs/interests of their child. And maybe the charter won’t do all that well either, at least as measured by test scores. That’s my theory.

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  3. David Osborne

    Hello Neerav. We often see the same thing with national and state CREDO data. Here’s my hypothesis: Many middle class parents are not looking for a school with higher test scores. They’re looking for a school that will engage their children. When you look at charters in suburbia they are often Montessori or project-based or STEM or performing arts or some other alternative to the cookie-cutter model. My guess is that those schools don’t care much about test scores and don’t prep their students for them. They care more about engaging students and turning them into lifelong learners. It would be fun to see someone study this, perhaps with surveys of parents?

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