Do “No Excuses” Charter Schools Work?
The data is encouraging. So why are some MPS leaders resistant?
In an April 2015 column entitled, Can there be an excuse to block a Milwaukee ‘no excuses’ school?, Alan Borsuk wrote about the Milwaukee School Board’s rejection, on a 4 to 4 vote, of a charter school application. The proposed school, called Milwaukee Excellence, fit the model of the so-called “no excuses” school, based on the idea that a combination of high expectations and a high level of support can help overcome the effects of poverty.
A recent report on Boston’s charter high schools describes the underlying approach:
No Excuses schools emphasize discipline and comportment, traditional reading and math skills, extended instruction time, and selective teacher hiring. Massachusetts’ No Excuses charters also make heavy use of Teach for America (TFA) corps members and alumni and provide extensive and ongoing feedback to teachers.
Don’t want excuses about why things aren’t going better on Milwaukee’s education scene? Well, meet the people who don’t want schools that demand no excuses. …
Borsuk then went on to paraphrase the objections of three board members:
Board member Larry Miller said the proposed school wouldn’t serve the full needs of students and had too many disciplinary rules. Terry Falk said the proposal drew too much on a school in the Boston area that had a high suspension rate. …
Tatiana Joseph said it concerns her that some teachers likely will come from Teach for America, which works to put college graduates into high-needs classrooms for two years.
In a later article, Jabril Faraj of the Neighborhood New Service expanded on the opponents’ objections, quoting Miller as saying, “The whole idea of regimented, special discipline for African-American children doesn’t work for me.” Faraj then went on to quote Marva Herndon of Schools and Communities United: “When I looked at their plan it was very, very restrictive and prison-like.”
Faraj went on to quote Herndon questioning the ability of the school to make up for the children’s previous education. “Those kids can’t read when they get them. Now, you’re magically going to have them prepared for college?”
Herndon and Gail Hicks, a former special education teacher, said it’s not that simple. They said the real issue is a lack of structure in the central city community, stemming from high unemployment. Without jobs, said Hicks, parents won’t have the resources to send their children to college anyway.
In a later interview with WUWM, Faraj summarized both sides:
What I heard from opponents of this plan was that this type of school would not be considered in a Whitefish Bay, in a Shorewood, and that the real issues were symptoms stemming from poverty and lack of employment in the city. The proponents are saying this is something we need given those conditions.
Borsuk noted that two of the four board members voting for the charter were about to leave the board, suggesting its prognosis was dim. Yet the following July, the board approved the proposal by a 7-2 vote. The included the three members Borsuk singled out as criticizing the original proposed. Why the switch?
A recent analysis (summarized in a column published in the New York Times) of the results from No Excuses charter high schools in Boston took advantage of the fact that these schools have more applicants than capacity and must hold a lottery to determine who gets in. The study, whose authors are at Columbia University, the University of Michigan, MIT, and the University of California, compared the outcomes of students accepted to those rejected by the lottery. Students who were accepted but dropped out were included among those accepted.
The researchers found large and statistically significant increases in a number of measures for students in the charter schools. For example, the chart below shows the increased likelihood (in orange) that charter applicants would earn scores at a level deemed “Proficient” or “Advanced” on the state test.
A larger percentage earned scores that made them eligible for a state scholarship; as a result more of the charter students attended 4-year colleges (principally the University of Massachusetts, Boston).
About twice the percentage of students in the charter schools took at least one advanced placement exam as students in regular schools, as shown in the chart below. Those who did earned higher scores on average.
The researchers found a number of other measures indicating that students in the charter high schools were doing better than those in traditional public schools.
They also examined the charges made by opponents of the No Excuses model. For example, one claim is that the better performance is due to weaker students being encouraged to drop out. Yet they find that attrition for weak students is more pronounced in the traditional public sector.
As part of their proposal for MPS improvement, MPS Superintendent Darienne Driver and School Board president Mark Sain suggested that MPS become the sole chartering authority in the city. With the present legislature, such a proposal is a long shot, at best. Making MPS the sole chartering authorizer would be good for MPS finances since students at schools it authorizes are included in the MPS count, in contrast to those authorized by the Common Council or UW-Milwaukee. However, the school board’s record of decision-making by ideology rather than results makes it even more unlikely that MPS will be given a monopoly on chartering.
I suggest several morals to this story.
- MPS and its board should resist the temptation to make decisions based on ideology or their personal comfort with the underlying model. Instead they should look at the research.
- At a time when the state legislature is particularly eager to second-guess decisions made in Milwaukee, the School Board (and other public bodies, such as the County Board) should avoid giving them ammunition.
- The widespread belief that a single model fits the needs of all children should die a painful death. One strength of charter schools is that no child is forced to attend a particular school. Students, their families and their teachers are all volunteers. If they disagreed with the model, they are free to go elsewhere.
The worst thing that could happen to the No Excuses model is that its success in Boston and other cities lead to a mandate that all schools follow the model. It is much better to give people options.