Rocky Start for ProPublica “Alternative Schools” Series

Pretty much everybody loves ProPublica, the nonprofit outfit dedicated to high-quality journalism. And they really should. The outlet generally does great work — including its education coverage.

But even the best journalists and newsrooms make mistakes sometimes, and the latest ProPublica story on the spread of low-quality alternative schools may be an example.

Crossed fingers that ProPublica can tighten things up with subsequent stories in this series, though the initial indications aren’t very good.

As happens all too often in these situations, the editor and reporter behind the story are defending their work rather than reflecting on it.

In the piece, headlined ‘Alternative’ Education: Using Charter Schools to Hide Dropouts and Game the System, ProPublica reporter Heather Vogell describes how traditional schools and districts are pushing kids into low-cost, low-quality alternative programs in order to hide dropouts from the public and boost test scores and graduation rates.

What she finds is pretty damning.

According to the nonprofit news outlet, there’s “a sprawling system of ‘alternative’ schools made up of roughly a half million of the nation’s most vulnerable students.” Nearly 2,000 school districts operate alternative schools for students with disciplinary or academic problems. More than 80 districts including Newark, Orlando, and Los Angeles, have increased their published graduation rates by at least a percentage point in recent years while sending more students to alternative programs, ProPublica has found.

That’s interesting and important information.

Sunshine High School in Orlando is located in Oakhill Village, a strip mall on Old Winter Garden Road.

The only problem is that the ProPublica story focuses on Sunshine High School (pictured above), which draws many of its students from nearby Olympia HS, a traditional public school in Orlando. And Sunshine High School – a charter school run by a for-profit company – isn’t really typical of the national picture.

In fact, the vast majority of alternative programs — 87 percent — are run by traditional school districts not charters, according to U.S. Department of Education data provided by the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools. You wouldn’t know that from the ProPublica story, however. The story package – complete with searchable databases and fancy maps – never tells readers that there were 6,187 alternative public schools in 2014-15, just 813 of which are charters.

Making matters worse, the nut graph – the section of the story that attempts to give an overview and explains the significance of what’s being described – also fails to clarify the situation:

“Alternative schools have long served as placements for students who violated disciplinary codes. But since the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 refashioned the yardstick for judging schools, alternative education has taken on another role: A silent release valve for high schools like Olympia that are straining under the pressure of accountability reform. As a result, alternative schools at times become warehouses where regular schools stow poor performers to avoid being held accountable. Traditional high schools in many states are free to use alternative programs to rid themselves of weak students whose test scores, truancy and risk of dropping out threaten their standing, a ProPublica survey of state policies found.”

Where do charter alternatives like Sunshine High School fit in? The reader has no idea.

At least two observers have already raised questions about the ProPublica piece. According to longtime education writer Maureen Kelleher, now at the Education Post, the ProPublica story is misleading and ahistorical in focusing on charter schools and claiming that No Child Left Behind is the culprit behind the growth in low-quality alternative school programs. According to NJ Left Behind’s Laura Waters, the ProPublica story reveals “an agenda that seeks villains and heroes” rather than finding a messy truth.

Both Kelleher and Waters have worked for Education Post, a generally pro-charter nonprofit that helped fund The Grade in its first year (2015-2016). However, they are not alone in expressing concerns.

Asked about the piece, Barbara Fedders, a University of North Carolina professor who focuses much of her work on these programs and is quoted in the ProPublica story, said she was happy to see the issue getting some much-needed attention but wished it had given a clearer, broader view.

“I don’t think they misrepresented [the issue of alternative programs],” said Fedders, who has likened alternative schools to “soft” jail. “I just think they didn’t lay out the whole landscape,” Fedders said in a telephone interview. “It kind of came across as the problem is the charterization . . . But I don’t think [the problem with alternative schools] is necessarily a charter school thing.”

Unfortunately, the ProPublica reporter and editor involved in producing the piece are defending  the decision to take the angle they did, citing a spike in alternative school enrollments in Orlando and the disproportionate representation of charter providers in the alternative school space. The publication pointed out that other parts of the piece that focus on the broader problem of alternative programs.

On Twitter, reporter Vogell noted that charter schools might be a niche element of the alternative school world but that “doesn’t mean we shouldn’t write about this case.”

Asked about the charter-focused headline and storyline, Vogell explained that “The lead example of the broader problem is very much about charters, so [the] headline is apt.”  And then, later, added “because we do such a deep dive into this location, it is unavoidable for the [headline] to be accurate and reflect the story. . .  Orlando charters are not just an anecdote.”

Her editor, Daniel Golden, backs her up. “Orlando is a charter school program,” said Golden in a telephone interview. But “clearly we’re talking about more than charter schools.” He noted that “this is not a series principally about charter schools. This is about alternative schools.”

Asked about the fact that only 13 percent of alternative programs are charter-run, Golden noted that charters only make up 6 percent of schools nationwide. “I guess it would have strengthened the story to have said that charter schools are overrepresented among alternative schools.

* * *

Charter schools have no shortage of problems. And they are certainly part of the alternative schools story. But making them the centerpiece of the very first story – and failing to clarify their role – creates confusion that may last throughout the ProPublica series.

This isn’t the first time a news outlet has tried to come at a tough education issue through a charter school lens. Sometimes it works. All too often it doesn’t. This ProPublica story is a vivid example of how focusing on the role of charters can confuse readers and distract from a much larger and even more troubling issue.

— Alexander Russo

This first appeared on Alexander Russo’s blog, The Grade, hosted by PDK International. The Grade provides independent analysis of media coverage of education news. 

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