The New York Times has a front page piece on charter schools in Detroit that is so factually mistaken, misleading, and tendentious that it requires a response. The heart of the piece is the claim that Detroit has experienced a dramatic increase in charter schools, but those new schools are no better or often worse than the traditional public schools. As the article puts it: “But half the charters perform only as well, or worse than, Detroit’s traditional public schools.” Expanding options without increasing quality, the article asserts, is just creating chaos without benefit.
If inferior test score gains by charter schools is the heart of the piece, you would think that the article would present evidence supporting that claim. It does provide some sad anecdotes, but the plural of anecdote is not data. It also mentions the low level of academic achievement in Detroit schools, including its charters, but the level of performance does not distinguish between the difficulties that children bring to school and the success or failure of schools to improve student performance. Many Detroit kids have a lot of problems that hinder their progress in school. We shouldn’t condemn schools for trying to help kids who face those challenges. If we are going to judge schools it should be based on their record of improving outcomes for students. Even modest improvements should be lauded in the face of serious challenges.
The closest the NYT comes to citing any evidence on the “value added” of Detroit charters is to mention an evaluation of a few charter schools run by one charter management organization:
The Leona Group, the Arizona-based for-profit operator that runs it, also runs some of the worst-performing schools in Detroit. Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes, considered the gold standard of measurement by charter school supporters across the country, found that students in the company’s schools grew less academically than students in the neighboring traditional public schools.
Astoundingly, the reporter doesn’t bother to share what those same Stanford researchers found about all charter schools in Detroit. They concluded that students enrolled in Detroit charter schools were significantly outpacing a demographically similar set of matched students who remained in traditional Detroit public schools. And they found that Detroit charters contributed to test score growth even more than charters elsewhere in Michigan:
Charter students in the city of Detroit (27% of the state’s charter students), are performing even better than their peers in the rest of the state, on average gaining nearly three months achievement for each year they attend charter schools.
And on the specific claim the article makes that “half the charters perform only as well, or worse than, Detroit’s traditional public schools” this is what the Stanford study has to say: “In reading, 47 percent of charter schools perform significantly better than their traditional public school market, which is more positive than the 35% for Michigan charter schools as a whole. In math, 47 percent of Detroit charter schools perform significantly better than their local peers, the same proportion as for the charters as a whole statewide.” The study found that only 1% of Detroit’s charters performs significantly worse than the traditional public schools in reading and only 7% in math. (See Table 7 on p. 44) To claim that half the charters perform the same or worse than traditional public schools is a grotesque distortion of the study’s findings.
Look, I don’t accept the Stanford CREDO study as “the gold standard” in charter evaluations. But if the reporter cites that research to demonstrate that one charter management organization has sub-par performance, it is journalistic malpractice not to mention the positive overall results. And those positive overall results contradict the very foundation of the entire article.
Besides a few anecdotes and a mis-reporting of the CREDO study, the article mostly consists of scary words like “chaos” and “glut.” Imagine if the article were about phone providers instead of schools. Would anyone find it persuasive to wring one’s hands over the glut of phone companies after Ma Bell was broken up, causing “chaos” in the telephone market? I understand there are differences between phones and schools, but reporting should be based on evidence of outcomes rather than just invoking scary words.
This same NYT reporter, Kate Zernike, committed a similar hatchet job on Paul Peterson’s voucher research back in 2000. Never mind that the positive findings she challenged were later vindicated by research showing significant increases for voucher students on high school graduation and college attendance rates. It appears that one of the perks of being a NYT reporter is that you don’t have to get the facts right, you are free to slam policies that their liberal readers tend to dislike, and you never have to say you’re sorry when you’re shown to be in error.
— Jay P. Greene
Last updated June 29, 2016