More with Less or More with More & Why it Matters!

Posted on October 24, 2011



I did a piece a short while back on TEAM Academy, a Charter school which I thus far admire in Newark, NJ. I admire the school because, while the data I’ve been able to gather from official sources still indicates that TEAM is far from a statistical match with its surroundings, and appears to have greater cohort attrition than I might like to see, I am, at this point, comfortable stating that TEAM Academy is more comparable than others to its surroundings than other Newark Charters.

Allow me to restate why I care about the comparability piece of the puzzle. First, let me say that I do believe that there is (or at least may be) an important role in urban school systems or any school systems for that matter, for schools that aren’t entirely comparable. That’s the case for Magnet schools for example, which have in some rigorous studies been shown to produce positive outcomes for kids who attend. (see: http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.152.385&rep=rep1&type=pdf)

But, when schools like magnet schools show positive outcomes we must recognize them for what they are and not make bold assumptions that those schools can easily be replicated districtwide or nationwide for “all kids” otherwise “trapped” in “failing schools.” Magnet or other selective schools’ success is likely significantly contingent on the student population served. The same goes for some charter schools, a key point of which is that it is foolish to ever lump all charters into one basket as if they represent a single reform strategy. They are a diverse mix of schools. Some serve more comparable populations to surrounding district schools and operate more similarly to open enrollment public schools while others are far more similar to magnet schools in terms of population served and in terms of the curriculum that can then be delivered to that population. When charters are effectively magnet schools (like North Star in Newark) scalability must be viewed differently (in part because the “success” of the school is as likely dependent on the selective student body as it is on any program/services/curriculum provided).

But the debate on scalability of “successful” charters goes beyond just the student population comparability issue. Far too often the rhetoric around successful charters involves the following three part claim:

Claim: Successful charter schools serve the same students, for less money and get better outcomes than traditional public schools.

Rarely if ever are these three components sufficiently validated.  This is especially true of the same students and less money prongs of the argument.  If policymakers accept on faith that pundits are truthful in these claims, policymakers may develop a false confidence as to how easily and how cheaply charter expansion can lead to improved outcomes.  It would behoove policymakers to take a much closer look at all three prongs of the issue, and consider each of these possibilities in Table 1.

Table 1. Framework of Possibilities

Note that this table can be expanded to include those cases of charters that serve non-comparable populations that are more needy than nearby traditional public schools (a focus of many specialized charters)

As I noted in my post regarding TEAM Academy, while the expenditure comparisons (particularly in New Jersey) are complicated they are critically important. And, perhaps my most important statement in that post is that there is no shame in spending more to provide a good education. Charter supporters (or anyone for that matter) should not understate the costs of their additional efforts. Charter supporters should not downplay the importance of class size reduction, teacher salaries, extended learning time in an effort to fit themselves into a category in Table 1 into which they don’t really belong.

Policymakers need to know what works and why it works. If a charter school is really freakin’ successful by spending more money on certain things and/or spending it differently, that’s important to know, even if their overall success is partly contingent on serving a selective population. Simply adopting the rhetoric of serving the same students, for less money and getting better outcomes than traditional public schools is unhelpful when it’s simply not true. Even worse, it’s potentially harmful to promote expansion on such a false premise.

So, here are a few more examples which come from preliminary explorations which are part of a much bigger project to get a handle on charter spending. Note that I began this project over a year ago and released a detailed report on New York City charter spending last year: http://nepc.colorado.edu/publication/NYC-charter-disparities. That report provides important supporting detail for this post regarding making sound comparisons of spending in Charters and traditional public schools in NYC.

Let’s start with a look at Amistad Academy, a well-known high performing charter school in New Haven Connecticut and part of the Achievement First network (www.achievementfirst.org). By usual accounts, Amistad is a high flying charter school. Let me be absolutely clear about this – I’m not crapping on Amistad. To the best of my data-driven understanding, it’s a very good school providing strong academic opportunities for kids in New Haven. But, from a policy standpoint, it’s worth at least cursory exploration of data on the three prongs above.

The following analyses use a mix of data from the National Center for Education Statistics Common Core of Data, from the CTDOE data system (http://sdeportal.ct.gov/Cedar/WEB/ct_report/DTHome.aspx) and from Guidestar (www.guidestar.or). In order to have all data elements lined up to a common fiscal and enrollment year, I’ve focused on school year 2008-09 here.

Figure 1. Amistad % Free Lunch compared to New Haven Schools

Figure 2. Map of Amistad % Free Lunch compared to Surround Schools


NOTE: I’m informed (see comment below) that the school location for Amistad is not correct. Note that the school location is based on the latitude and longitude as provided in the NCES Common Core of Data (www.nces.ed.gov/ccd/bat). As I suspected might be the case, the CCD Lat/Lon indicates the location of the Central Office of Achievement First (403 James Street). Amistad is located over in the area indicated, near many high poverty traditional public schools. (130 Edgewood Avenue New Haven, CT 06511)

So, Figure 1 and Figure 2 show quite decisively that Amistad is not serving a population which is comparable to surroundings in terms of % qualified for free lunch. Amistad also reports 0% LEP/ELL [no data] while the district reports 12.6% (http://sdeportal.ct.gov/Cedar/WEB/ct_report/EllDTViewer.aspx)

Now, let’s take a look at Amistad’s per pupil spending compared to New Haven public schools. Note that it’s generally not a great idea to try to compare against the district as a whole. If we are comparing Amistad’s performance to elementary and middle schools in New Haven, we should be comparing Amistad’s spending to elementary and middle schools. I’ll provide examples for KIPP charter schools in NYC and Houston at the end of this post.

One must also figure out what components are “in” and what components of spending are “out “ when making a host district comparison to charter spending. For example, host districts are responsible for transportation of children to charters in CT. So, that spending should be removed from host district spending. Note that Amistad logically reports no expenditures on transportation in CTDOE spending reports. http://sdeportal.ct.gov/Cedar/WEB/ct_report/FinanceDTViewer.aspx

Further, host districts are responsible for costs of all resident children with disabilities, and it is difficult to discern whether any of these costs (other than the regular education costs of those students) show up in the charter expenditures. Amistad reports no percentage of spending on special education in CTDOE reports (reporting its total general expenditure figure instead). It is most likely that a large share if not all of the district special education spending should be excluded from the district spending figure. http://sdeportal.ct.gov/Cedar/WEB/ct_report/FinanceDTViewer.aspx

Finally, Amistad is part of a national network which might be considered analogous to its “district,” and expenditures by that national organization should be included. I’ve played it very conservative by only prorating the “administrative” expenses (www.guidestar.org) of Achievement First Inc. across all students in the network, for an additional $218 per pupil. (www.achievementfirst.org)

Figure 3. Per pupil Spending in Amistad Academy and New Haven

Data Sources: New Haven City & Amistad CTDOE http://sdeportal.ct.gov/Cedar/WEB/ct_report/FinanceDTViewer.aspx Amistad Academy IRS 990 from www.guidestar.org (Total expenditures =  $9,575,340, enrollment = 641 in 2008-09)

[1] Host districts are responsible for transportation costs for in district students enrolled in charters.

[2] 18.08% of New Haven Public Schools total expense is on special education.  Amistad reported total expenditures as special educ. expenditures & 0% to special education in 2008-09. See: http://sdeportal.ct.gov/Cedar/WEB/ct_report/FinanceDTViewer.aspx

[3] Achievement First Administrative Expense in subsequent year (guidestar.org) $1.125 million with cumulative enrollment 2010-11 of approximately 5,150 (tallied from achievementfirst.org)

So, Figure 3 shows that Amistad academy at the very least spends comparable to New Haven district wide spending after excluding transportation, and spends quite a bit more than New Haven district per pupil if we exclude all of New Haven’s special education spending. Even if we excluded only a portion of New Haven’s special education spending (likely more appropriate), Amistad’s spending would be quite a bit higher than New Haven Public Schools.  Again, there should be no shame in trying to spend more to provide a good school. Rather, it’s arguably quite noble.

I’m not a big fan of relying exclusively on aggregate spending figures. Rather, I prefer to dig under the hood a bit to see how those dollars are leveraged. This is especially important if we really want to figure out how to replicate the successes of a school like Amistad, albeit with a very different population.

Figure 4 shows the class sizes by grade level in Amistad and New Haven public schools based on CTDOE data from 2008-09.  Amistad appears to have leverage money for smaller class sizes in the lower grades, a choice which arguably makes sense given the existing research on the effects of class size reduction. Overall, Amistad has lower class sizes than the district at the same grade level. And that costs money.

Figure 4. Class Size by Grade Level

Now, on to teacher salaries. In my previous post on TEAM Academy in Newark, NJ, I found that TEAM had scaled up teacher salaries on the front end of experience and paid much higher salaries than Newark Public Schools (no easy accomplishment), for new to mid-career teachers, putting TEAM in a pretty good position for local recruitment and retention. Figure 5 shows that Amistad has done much the same. To construct Figure 5 I used 6 years of data on individual classroom teachers in Connecticut and estimated a teacher salary model as a function of experience, degree level and year of the data. I estimated separate models for New Haven schools and for Amistad, and used those models to impute the implicit teacher salary schedule.

Amistad is paying more on the front end, and far outpacing the district across the first several years of the salary schedule (figures jump around for later years in Amistad due to very few teachers in those categories). And perhaps this allows Amistad to recruit and retain the teachers it wants. More exploration is warranted.

Figure 5. Modeled Teacher Salaries by Degree and Experience Level

So, in summary, what we have here is a high performing school that does not serve the same population, spends more than the local district and chooses to leverage spending toward class size reduction in the early grades and toward competitive early to mid-career teacher salaries. That’s a realistic look at a school that by many accounts is a darn good one.

[but a look I suspect some will still take offense to]

The population differences of the school create serious limitations for determining its scalability. That is, is the performance a function of the students or of the school? That’s hard to tell (even in a rigorous lottery based analysis). Further, the expense of the Amistad model of reduced class size and higher wages on the front end may cause some policymakers to balk. But that expense may be indicative of what’s actually needed, even with a more selective student population.

Perhaps more importantly, even with publicly available macro level data we can gain some insights into how the additional money is leveraged. And it would appear that Amistad is doing things I would consider quite logical, such as early grade class size reduction and paying competitive teacher wages. Those aren’t necessarily the sexy things the “cool kids” might be expecting. And those are both things that cost money. It would be hard to run a school with both reduced class sizes AND competitive wages while spending substantially less. And it is critically important that we recognize this!

Addendum: Making school level spending comparisons in New York City and Houston

Note that a major shortcoming of the Connecticut data above is that they don’t allow for comparison of New Haven schools spending by grade level or individual comparable schools. I have begun large scale analysis of school site expenditure in numerous other contexts. Below are two examples of school site comparison against same grade level schools – including comparable budget components (as well as spelling out in the fine print those aspects which aren’t directly comparable – see FN about KIPP Academy financial reporting – much more detail in my NEPC report).

A1. KIPP Schools in New York City (preliminary analysis)

Like Amistad, and KIPP middle schools in NYC appear to be spending more than NYC public middle schools in the same parts of the city. They are a) not serving comparable populations and b) spending more (even if we spread KIPP Academy spending across all schools and if we exclude KIPP to College spending).

Making the appropriate corrections for facilities access is complicated in Connecticut because facilities expenses are not broken out for the Charters. The CTDOE figures for Amistad and New Haven above contain the same reported components (when transportation & special education are excluded for New Haven), but facilities lease payments may be (are likely) embedded in operating expenses of Amistad (& tend to run around $1,500 per pupil in NJ cities, and over $2,000 per pupil in Manhattan). However, New Haven remains responsible for upkeep and renovation for its facilities as well as any payments on debt that may exist. That is, district facilities are not, as some might argue “free.” So, for example, Amistad spends about $828 per pupil on plant operations and maintenance, while New Haven spends $1,735 per pupil in 2008-09 (a difference of $907). But, on administrative & support services, New Haven spends $1,863 per pupil and Amistad spends $3,585 per pupil (a difference of $1,722). This latter figure likely includes a significant lease payment (or some other peculiar overhead expense), but is partially offset by the differences in operations and maintenance (net difference of $1,722 – $907 = $815, which is smaller than the total expenditure differences reported above, but does close some of the gap). But these back of the napkin approaches only get you so far.

I have greater capacity to correct for these differences in my more detailed NYC data used previously in my NEPC report and used above.

A2: KIPP (and all other charters) in Houston (preliminary analysis)

http://ritter.tea.state.tx.us/perfreport/aeis/2010/DownloadData.html

One can see in the figure above that many of the KIPP schools in Houston are spending well above a) most other charters b) most Houston public schools and c) the Houston district average expenditure. Yes, charters on the whole are a mixed bag. Many are quite low spending. These data likely need much more cleaning and cross-checking. But they are generally accessible through the TEA web site.

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NOTE: All data used in these posts come from official state, federal and IRS documents, in a few cases through respected aggregators of data (guidestar.org).  In a few cases above, I rely on total enrollment counts from the organization web site (Achievement First). Generally, I rely on official data and provide URLs to data sources so that any and all analyses can be checked, replicated, etc.  If you are a representative of a school and believe your data to be “wrong,” I will typically respond by at least checking that I have not made an error in reporting the data. But, if the data are what they are, then I suggest that you go to the source for any corrections. Most of these data are reported by the schools themselves to the state and federal agencies in question. I just report them as they are, and do certainly attempt to reconcile anything that appears out of line – and will make corrections when the correction can be validated.

 

 

 

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