In a GoLocalProv opinion piece posted on December 3rd, Brian Jencunas cited the results of the recent PARCC exam and other studies showing low performance of Providence's English language learners (ELL) in a call for more of the reform movement's favorite cure-all: charter schools.
"Charter schools are the single most cost-efficient way to help ELL students. A study of the Texas school system, where ELL students are similarly common, showed that charter schools were most effective for ELL students and added the equivalent of 50 more school days. The advantage comes from flexibility and narrowly focused programs, which allow charters to tailor every aspect of their education to the ELL students. For a cash-strapped city like Providence, this is the kind of affordable advantage that the city needs to embrace. Mayor Elorza has been supportive of charters in the past, and continuing this support now that he’s a policymaker will show seriousness about education reform."
As Jencunas touches on several hot button policy issues in this one paragraph, his argument deserves a detailed response.
Starting with his first sentence. While charters have always sounded "cost-efficient" in an abstract, free market kind of way, many Rhode Island communities have learned the hard way that opening up multiple redundant school systems has significant transition costs. In practice, every dollar sent out of the district with a child attending a charter school is not offset by a dollar in cost savings to the district. Not even close. In particular, the idea that the most efficient way to fix a specific issue like ELL performance is to create a whole new school system from scratch is absurd.
The study Jencunas refers to, from the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO), entitled "Charter School Performance in Texas," is worth a closer look. It is not, on the whole, a very positive study for charter schools. In Texas, CREDO found that traditional public schools outperformed charters at least slightly in overall average, in all five years studied (2009-2013), in four of six regions studied, three of four geographical settings (urban, suburban, and town), two of three school levels (elementary and high school), for black and Hispanic students overall, and for black students in poverty. They found no difference at all for special education students.
They did find a small positive effect for ELL students in charter schools, equal to 0.07 standard deviations (SD) in reading and 0.03 SD in math. These are fairly small effects. For example, a well regarded review of the effects of various educational interventions by educational researcher John Hattie found that mastery learning had a positive effect size of 0.58 SD, and bilingual programs have an effect size of 0.37 SD. Both of these interventions are being expanded in the Providence School Department, and the data indicates they are more effective than creating more charter schools. They are the choices of serious policymakers.
The track record of Providence's charter schools on the PARCC is not as clear cut as people might assume. The neighborhood school my daughters attend, Reservoir Avenue Elementary (22% ELL, all ELL stats 2014-2015 data from RIDE's Information Works! site), outscored Highlander, our local charter (11% ELL across PK-10) in ELA/Literacy and math.
City-wide, PPSD's William D'Abate (45% ELL), Robert F. Kennedy (10% ELL), and Vartan Gregorian (6% ELL) outscored all Providence-based charter elementary schools on PARCC ELA/Literacy: Highlander (11% ELL), Times2 (8% ELL K-12) and Paul Cuffee (6% ELL K-12).
PPSD's Nathan Bishop and Nathaniel Greene (both 12% ELL) outscored all Providence based charter middle schools in PARCC ELA/Literacy.
At the high school level, the PPSD as a whole (22% ELL PK-12) outscored the following Providence-based charters in PARCC ELA/Literacy: Highlander, Paul Cuffee, the Academy for Career Exploration (5% ELL) and Village Green Virtual Charter (0% ELL).
Based on PARCC results in Providence, there is not much reason to think our well regarded charter sector has a secret formula for improving ELL achievement that is unknown to PPSD teachers and administrators, but given the relatively small number of ELL students they serve, it is hard to say.
Jencunas credits "narrowly focused programs, which allow charters to tailor every aspect of their education to the ELL students" for charters' modest successes in Texas. The CREDO report does not get into reasons, but whether or not this is a valid explanation for Texas, it is not compatible with Rhode Island's charter laws. A Rhode Island charter could probably weight their lottery to encourage admission of ELL students, but they could not create an exclusively ELL charter school.
Moreover, the charter school admissions process, with most students being selected by lottery the winter before starting their first year at the school, and waiting lists established immediately thereafter, makes admission very difficult for students arriving in Providence at a later date, including recent immigrants. Simply put, charters, based on their legal definition, will rarely enroll the ELL students not already in the country nine months before the beginning of kindergarten, fifth grade, or 9th grade, while the PPSD enrolls hundreds of migrant and refugee children straight off the boat, plane or bus, all year and at every grade level.
Fortunately, there is a research-based method of increasing ELL performance which surveys show is popular with PPSD parents and which enjoys broad political support in the city -- dual language immersion, where all students receive instruction in English and a second language, such as Spanish or Mandarin Chinese. That is why the district is expanding program established at the Leviton Dual Language School in Providence to Carl Lauro Elementary next year, and hopefully more schools across the city in coming years.
It is time to expand educational solutions like dual language immersion that bring the city together, instead of those that set us against each other, like charters.