Finley: Data busts ‘charters no better’ myth

Nolan Finley
The Detroit News

Part of the recent education narrative in Detroit is that charter schools perform no better than traditional public schools.

It’s an assertion repeated last week by Nikolai Vitti, the new superintendent of the Detroit Public Schools Community District. And it was taken as fact during discussions last year on how to create a new governing system for the city’s schools.

And it’s wrong. A myth. A bogus claim unsupported by statistical evidence.

In reality, the most recent data affirm that charter schools in Detroit outperform their traditional public school counterparts in nearly every category. And not by a little. By many measures, the charters are doing twice as well.

That’s a fact. But here’s another: Neither charters nor traditional public schools are succeeding. Across the board, both fall short of statewide averages school performance.

Working with newly released data from the Michigan Department of Education, statisticians Eric Anderson and Walter Cook of the Skillman Foundation compiled the performance of all schools in Detroit. Here’s what they found:

■Just 12.3 percent of DPSCD students in grades 3-8 earned a proficient rating on the 2017 M-Step reading test, compared to 23.6 percent of charter students. The statewide average was 47.3 percent.

■Eight percent of traditional public school students in grades 3-8 were proficient in math, compared to 13.5 percent of those attending charters. The statewide average was 37.2 percent.

■When it comes to critical third grade reading achievement, 9.8 percent of DPSCD students were proficient, compared to 21.3 percent of charter students and 46 percent of students statewide.

■High school graduation rates for the 2015-16 school year were 78.2 percent for traditional public school students, 89.9 percent for charter students and 79.7 percent statewide.

■The one area where district schools do better than charters is on the 11th grade SAT test, which is used to determine college readiness. DPSCD students scored an 890, charters scored an average 856 and statewide students, 974.

■But in actual college enrollment, just 31.3 percent of 2016 public school graduates started college the following fall, compared to 47.5 percent of charter students and 61.5 percent of all Michigan students.

That last measure is critical if you subscribe to the theory that high schools should prepare their students for college or career training. A student who starts ninth grade in a Detroit charter school has a 68 percent greater chance of enrolling in college the fall after graduation than those in district-run public schools.

By college enrollment standards, four of the top five schools in Detroit and five of the top 10 are charters, when the percentage of students who enroll in college six months after graduation is combined with the average after two years.

Renaissance High, a traditional public school, and Edison Public School Academy, a charter, are nearly equal, at just below 98 percent. They’re followed by Jalen Rose Leadership Academy (94.2 percent); University Prep Science and Math (94.1), and University Prep (92.3), all charters.

Cass Tech, long considered the Detroit district’s elite high school, ranks 8th. Though Cass’ two-year rate is an impressive 98.3 percent, its six month average lags at 80.4 percent.

Charter school critics default to the false claim that if charters do better, it’s because they are more selective in their enrollment, taking in more affluent students and fewer with special needs.

That’s not true, either. Edison (3.3 percent), for example, has three times as many students with disabilities as does Renaissance (1.1 percent). At Jalen Rose, 13.6 percent of students have disabilities.

Similarly, two-thirds of Edison students are economically disadvantaged, compared to 43.5 percent at Renaissance. Across the line, the top charters range from 65 percent to 100 percent of their students who are considered economically disadvantaged, compared to an average of roughly 65 percent for the five best public high schools.

There are good schools in Detroit, both public and private, that are doing very well at preparing their students for a successful future.

But as a whole, both charters and traditional public schools are failing their students.

Still, distorting reality doesn’t help either get better. And the reality, based on hard data, is that charters are substantially outperforming district-run counterparts in Detroit.

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HEADINGS: Rank / School / Type / % Economically Disadvantaged (2-year average) / % Students With Disabilities (2-Year Average)

1 / Renaissance Selective / (Exam) / 43.5% / 1.1%

2 / Edison Public School / (Academy/Charter) / 67.0% / 3.3%

3 / Jalen Rose Leadership / (Academy/Charter) / 84.6% / 13.6%

4 / University Prep Science & Math / (Charter) / 65.1% / 7.4%

5 / University Prep / (Charter) / 72.6% / 9.8%

6 / Benjamin Carson / (Selective/Application) / 63.1% / 8.0%

7 / Davis Aerospace / (Selective/Application) / 63.5% / 12.9%

8 / Cass Tech / (Selective/Exam) / 52.6% / 1.2%

9 / Communication and Media Arts / (Selective/Application) / 62.2% /3.6%

10 / Frontier International Academy / (Charter) / 99.7% / 3.8%

DPSCD + EAA / / 74.9% / 16.8%

Statewide / / 46.6% / 12.8%

HEADINGS: Student Group / DPSCD / Charters / Statewide Average

% proficient, 2017 M-STEP reading (grade 3-8) / 12.3% / 23.6% /47.3%

% proficient, 2017 M-STEP math (grade 3-8) / 8.0% / 13.5% / 37.2%

% proficient, 2017 M-STEP 3rd grade reading / 9.8% / 21.3% / 46.0%

Average SAT score 11th grade / 890 / 856 / 974

2015-16 High school graduation rate / 78.2% / 89.9% / 79.7%

2015-16 College enrollment rate / 31.3% / 47.5% / 61.5%

Source: Eric Anderson and Walter Cook, October, 2017