Full picture on charters needed
Ohanian Comment: When asked, "What is your favorite book, Superintendent Carstarphen replied, The Velveteen Rabbit and The Giving Tree, definitely not my cup of tea, but so it goes.
More to the point here, unlike editorial boards such as the one at the New York Times, this one does its homework. Kudos.
Here are links to Ed Fuller's blogs and an AAS article citing his research on IDEA.
by Editorial Board
We would hope that Austin school board members, as trustees of what essentially is a billion-dollar enterprise, would welcome all information that could help shed light on whether IDEA Public Schools is a good fit for the East Austin community.
So it is curious that some trustees and Superintendent Meria Carstarphen are taking the approach that data highlighting the negatives of hiring IDEA is skewed because they believe the messenger, Penn State University researcher Ed Fuller, is biased. Fuller, a former researcher for the University of Texas, has, over the years, produced research critical of both charter schools and traditional public schools.
Last week, he released data that found that IDEA's success for teaching low-performing students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds was overstated.
At the very least, the district has a duty to hire an independent researcher to assess Fuller's data so that trustees have the pros and cons before making a decision regarding IDEA Public Schools. Given the amount of public dollars and resources that Carstarphen is proposing to divert to IDEA Public Schools to run one or several in-district charter schools, that is the prudent thing to do.
"He made no pretense about his purpose and it wasn't to be objective," Carstarphen said about Fuller's study.
"I was a statistician, too. I can make that data talk in different ways, but the thing that I know is (Fuller) is using old data; he used data with small cell sizes," she said. "I don't deny the way he analyzed it got him to that end, but it's nowhere near the whole picture."
That is true. Fuller's data does not provide the whole picture. But neither does IDEA's data that offers only a glowing assessment of its schools and programs in South Texas.
Carstarphen has built her case for IDEA on that data and it is impressive: This year, the Texas Education Agency ranked the IDEA district with 12 charter schools "exemplary," the equivalent of an "A," on the state report card; IDEA figures show that 100 percent of its graduates have enrolled in a four-year college or university; and 91.8 percent of IDEA's class of 2009 completed high school in four years.
But not all schools in the IDEA district are ranked exemplary, something IDEA is not touting in its figures to the Austin district.
This year, the school's elementary campus in Donna dropped to "recognized," the equivalent of a "B." By comparison, several East Austin elementary schools received the same or higher grades, including Govalle, Sanchez, Metz and Zavala, which all were ranked recognized. Those schools are in the attendance zone that would be affected by an IDEA charter school. Graham Elementary in Northeast Austin was ranked exemplary, higher than IDEA's Donna campus.
That has raised questions about why IDEA is more qualified than the Austin district to run an elementary school when its students are not performing any better than their peers at Austin campuses.
Fuller's figures show other potential problems worth considering, including that IDEA starts with a student body that has fewer low-performing and economically disadvantaged students than traditional public schools.
Fuller's study is part of a broader body of research on high-performing charter schools in Texas and was funded by the Texas Business and Education Coalition and the Texas American Federation of Teachers of which Education Austin is an affiliate.
The most troubling finding in the study involves IDEA's attrition rates and how that would affect regular public schools; 35 percent of IDEA ninth-graders withdraw by 11th grade, so 65 percent of students graduate. It's that shedding effect that creates a student body at IDEA that is higher performing than those of traditional public schools. But that also creates an additional burden on public schools, which enroll students whom IDEA sheds. So in the case of Govalle, what would be the impact on the school if it must absorb more students who are the most challenging to educate?
That is a legitimate consideration. Studies by other researchers have found similar trends among high performing charters, so Fuller's research should be viewed in that context.
Taking a critical look at the pros and cons of IDEA or other programs for Austin schools yields a better decision than one made narrowly with just positive findings. It's curious that school officials must debate that point at all.