DeVos and Detroit’s Charter Schools

by Ramesh Ponnuru

Douglas Harris, writing in the New York Times, says that Betsy DeVos, Trump’s nominee to be Education Secretary, “is partly responsible for what even charter [school] advocates acknowledge is the biggest school reform disaster in the country.” Her mistake: “She devised Detroit’s system to run like the Wild West. It’s hardly a surprise that the system, which has almost no oversight, has failed.”

That sounds pretty bad. Here’s Harris’s evidence:

Detroit is not only the lowest in [a] group of lowest-performing districts on the math and reading scores, it is the lowest by far. One well-regarded study found that Detroit’s charter schools performed at about the same dismal level as its traditional public schools. The situation is so bad that national philanthropists interested in school reform refuse to work in Detroit.

Sentence one does not tell us much. Maybe Detroit started out in a bad place–surely that’s true–and hasn’t improved in the relative rankings; that’s compatible with the DeVos-backed reforms having done some good. We’d have to know more about those national philanthropists and their judgment to know what to think of sentence three. Sentence two gets us further, but it makes the reforms sound disappointing rather than disastrous. 

Follow the link to that “well-regarded study,” and the results of Detroit’s charter schools do not sound nearly as helpful to Harris’s case as he suggests. Some quotes from it:

“[C]harter students in Michigan gain an additional two months of learning in reading and math over their TPS [traditional public school] counterparts. The charter students in Detroit gain over three months per year more than their counterparts at traditional public schools.”

“In both reading and math, Black students in Detroit charter schools have significantly larger growth compared to Black students in Detroit TPS.”

“Hispanic charter students in Detroit show significantly better outcomes in math compared to their Hispanic TPS counterparts in Detroit.”

Or look at the study’s chart 7 (p. 44). It shows 47 percent of Detroit charter schools significantly outperforming traditional public schools on reading and 49 percent of charters significantly outperforming traditionals on math. One percent of charters are significantly underperforming on reading and 7 percent on math. For the rest, there’s no significant difference. That sounds pretty good, doesn’t it?

The study’s conclusion section opens this way:

Based on the findings presented here, the typical student in Michigan charter schools gains more learning in a year than his TPS counterparts, amounting to about two months of additional gains in reading and math. These positive patterns are even more pronounced in Detroit, where historically student academic performance has been poor. These outcomes are consistent with the result that charter schools have significantly better results than TPS for minority students who are in poverty.

Some disaster.

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