Subtle Cheating by Charter Schools Through Attrition

Renaissance TFA veteran and author Gary Rubinstein doesn’t pull any punches in calling out the manner in which the nation’s charter schools cheat:

There are much more subtle ways to fraudulently raise test scores than tampering with student test papers.  One that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is the practice by many charter schools of improving their test scores through attrition.  Up until recently, these charters have not been very upfront about this factor contributing to their success.  With everything that these charters have at stake in preserving their reputations and their rich funders, I can understand why they might try to conceal what they’re doing.  Of course they have the right to portray their business in the most favorable light possible.  That’s what most businesses do.  The reason that I’ve become so involved in uncovering the truth behind these successes is that these ruses have tricked politicians into believing that one of the big solutions in fixing education is to expand the influence of charter schools.  Only states that agree to lift caps on charters were even eligible to apply to Obama’s Race To The Top initiative.

Emphasis mine.

But do policymakers even care? While republican pols bemoan union money flowing into the coffers of Democrats (and little good its done) the flow of private money into the reelection campaigns of republicans all over the country in all levels. Make no mistake, the vast majority of charter schools are private schools where the bottom line rules. Charter school understand that a bottom line is not only maintained but pushes tha margin into the black with good test scores. More from Rubinstein:

……there is a large attrition rate at many of these schools.  Some, I recently learned, have low attrition, but that is because the numerous students they lose are ‘replaced’ with other students — students, I suspect, who are ‘better’ in some way than the ones who left.

Up until very recently, most charter schools simply denied their attrition problem.  I was frustrated by this because I ‘knew’ they were lying, just as a woman can ‘know’ that her husband is cheating on her.  As I investigated several schools, I got the proof I needed.  But, to take the cheating husband analogy a bit further.  Getting ‘proof’ wasn’t enough for me.  I wanted the charters to admit what they’ve done.

I’ve gotten at least five examples of people at charters acknowledging their attrition over the last few months.  The most notable is KIPP’s own report card where, after saying that a school with high test scores and high attrition is not a great school, then admits that their attrition rate is 40% over four years (though they mask this number with some clever math.)  Then in this article from a Florida newspaper a charter superintendent verifies their high attrition.  In this New York Times article which was just published, an example of how charters counsel out kids is discussed.

I think that the ‘party line’ for charters, in the wake of all the evidence which is fairly easy to attain on the state websites is no longer to try to hide or deny their attrition.  Instead, as you see in these articles, they have found a way to rationalize their attrition — to explain that it is a good thing!

Well, now.

And Rubinstein concludes by asserting that it would be simple to show that wide-spread attrition by charter school is underway. Getting rid of kids who are unlikely to test well is hardly the brave way to put your reputation as a good school on the line. But then again if profit is the dominant motivation, its predictably a route any school would take. We’re quickly moving to this new world now. If schools are better served by not having kids from poor families in their building, the reform movement’s “no excuses” mantra isn’t intellectually defensible. Do those driving market-based solutions even care?

About Bob Sikes

A long time ago and a planet far, far away I was an athletic trainer for the New York Mets. I was blessed to be part of the now legendary 1986 World Series Championship. My late father told me that I'd one day be thankful I had that degree in teaching from Florida State University. He was right and I became twice blesses to become a teacher in the late 1990's. After dabbling with writing about the Mets and then politics, I settled on education.
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