Report calls Boston charter schools "dropout factories"
The state’s largest teachers union released a report today documenting very high attrition rates and low enrollment of high-need students in Commonwealth charter schools in Boston. The report warns that expanding the number of charter schools without addressing these enrollment practices threatens to separate students based on language proficiency, special education status and poverty.
The report documents that enrollment in Boston’s charter high schools falls precipitously over the years. Fewer than half of the students enrolled in charter high schools as freshmen are still enrolled as seniors. This attrition pattern can be captured by snapshot of any single year. In 2008, for example, there were only two seniors for every five freshmen in the charter schools, while there were four seniors for every five freshmen in the Boston Public Schools.
"Far too many charter schools have established enrollment and exclusion practices that have winnowed out students with greater needs," said Kathleen Skinner, director of the Massachusetts Teachers Association’s Center for Education Policy and Practice. Skinner authored the report, Charter School Success or Selective Out-Migration of Low-Achievers? "By law, public schools are supposed to serve all students in the Commonwealth. In practice, charter schools do not fulfill that mission. We need to face this reality as the Legislature and the public begin debating whether to increase the number of charter schools in this state."
The report focuses on Boston’s charter schools because they have been the subject of recent studies that claimed to find they were doing a better job educating students than the Boston Public Schools. Recent national studies, by contrast, continue to find that most charter schools perform the same or worse than comparable district schools.
"This report shines a light on the shocking loss of students in most Boston charter schools between the year of initial enrollment and the final year," said MTA President Anne Wass. "Students who are not meeting a school’s academic and behavior standards are being sent back to district schools or to the streets, and then exaggerated claims of success are being made based on the small number of students who remain.
"U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan recently described as ‘dropout factories’ schools where two out of five of their freshmen are not enrolled at the start of their senior year," Wass continued. "By that standard, Boston’s charter high schools are among the worst ‘dropout factories’ in the state."
One way to look at the high school attrition rate is to compare the number of students enrolled in grades 9 and 12 in a given year. In Boston’s five charter high schools in 2008, there were only two seniors enrolled for every five freshmen -- a reduction of 57 percent. By contrast, the senior class in BPS high schools that year was four-fifths the size of the freshman class -- a reduction of just 19 percent.
Looking at it another way, how many students leave Boston’s charter high and middle-high schools from the year they enroll (generally grade 9, but earlier in some schools) until the start of their senior year? Again, the loss is dramatic.
For example, the MATCH school is often cited as a success story since the school claims that 99 percent of its graduates are accepted at four-year colleges. However, that is 99 percent of a greatly diminished pool of students. For the class of 2009, 72 students were enrolled in grade nine but only 34 were enrolled by grade 12, a loss of more than half of MATCH’s students.
The report also provides new details on the major differences in student characteristics. It has been reported previously that charter schools enroll fewer special needs, English language learner and low-income students than their sending districts. This report breaks down the data further, showing that the special needs students enrolled in charters have far fewer disabilities and that their low-income students are less poor.
ELL: ELL students comprise one in five BPS students -- 19 percent -- but only one in 50 (2 percent) in Boston charter schools.
SPED: Twenty percent of BPS students have special learning needs compared to 15 percent in the charters. More significant, however, is that the charter school students on Individual Education Plans have milder special needs.
Special needs students are classified by levels: full inclusion (mostly educated in the general education classroom), partial inclusion (in the middle), and substantially separate (mainly or exclusively taught outside the general education classroom). Students with the most severe needs are placed out of district.
Nine out of 10 (91 percent) of the special needs students in Boston’s charter schools are full inclusion compared to only one-third (33 percent) of BPS students. Nearly half (48 percent) of BPS SPED students are either taught in substantially separate classrooms or placed out of district, compared to only 3 percent in the charter schools.
Type of School % Full Inclusion % Partial Inclusion % Substantially Separate % Out of District
BOS 33 19 41 7
Boston Charters 91 6 3 0
FRPL: Charter schools claim they serve nearly the same number of low-income students as the BPS system: 71 percent versus 74 percent. But a closer look reveals that they serve fewer very low-income students.
The family income limits to qualify for a free lunch are significantly lower than those for a reduced-price lunch. Two-thirds (65 percent) of BPS students qualify for a free lunch while only half (52 percent) of Boston’s charter school students do.
Type of School % Reduced Lunch % Free lunch
BPS 9 65
Boston Charters 18 52
Wass said that charter schools were first established to be laboratories of experimentation. "Over time," she said, "they have changed into something else -- essentially a state-managed system of publicly funded private schools." She noted that many are opened by the state over the objections of the local residents and taxpayers who must fund them.
"If we are to have charter schools paid for with public dollars, they should serve all students," said Wass. "They should be accountable to their communities. And they should be funded in a way that does not hurt the quality of education provided to students who remain in the district schools."
Report: CHARTER SCHOOL SUCCESS OR SELECTIVE OUT-MIGRATION OF LOW-ACHIEVERS? Effects of Enrollment Management on Student Achievement