Are You Being Served?

How do Hillary Clinton’s *hardest-to-teach* students fare at Boston charter schools?

Reader: Hillary Clinton recently said something that made a lot of adult interests who put kids first really mad. In brief (because what she said was actually very brief), HRC said that most charter schools *don’t take the hardest-to-teach kids, or if they do they don’t keep them.* Which resulted in a flurry of sternly-worded rejoinders, like this one, this one and this one, none of which responded to HRC’s actual very brief words. Which gave me a wacky idea. What if we looked at some actual data? 

¿Cómo se dice *hardest-to-teach*?
In Massachusetts, *hardest-to-teach* often translates into *students-who-don’t-yet-speak-English,* of whom we happen to mayflowerhave a great many. You see, ever since the Mayflower touched down at Plimoth Rock, groaning with Thanksgiving *fixins,* the Bay State and its cities have served as a gateway for wave upon wave of immigrants who come here to enjoy, among other attractions, our friendly driving customs. In fact, at last count there were 84 different languages spoken in the Boston Public Schools. EIGHTY FOUR. Long-time readers of this page know that the underrepresentation of said students in our academies of excellence and innovation has long been a long-time theme on this page, beginning with *¡Pssst: Los Escuelos Charteros Have a Secret!* But a recent study shows that I’ve been substantially underrepresenting this underrepresentation.

Who is Being Served?
The study, conducted by the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, digs deep into state data collected between 2009 and 2014 in order to answer the question *Who is Being Served?* The study turned up serious disparities between charters and their sending districts when it comes to students with disabilities (a subject for another post), but it’s to those ELL numbers in Boston specifically that we turn our attention today. So just *Who is Being Served?* Not the students who speak those 84 languages, apparently. To the data points!

  • Over the last four years of the study, about 30% of students attending the Boston Public Schools were still learning English—about 17,000 students.
  • Approximately 1900 English language learners attended Boston charter schools.
  • Of those 1900, about 800 or 40% attended a single school, MATCH Community Day Charter School.
  • The other 1100 students attend one of the remaining 18 charter schools in Boston.
  •  This does not add up to very many students

What do you mean they’re all in a single school?
If this detail strikes you as odd, I’m guessing that you don’t  live in a state good luck languageswhere voters voted to ban bilingual education resulting in a failed *sink or swim* policy in which students have a year to learn English. Unless, that is, said students attend a school that has been specifically set up to teach them English, thanks to a waiver from state officials. Like MATCH Community Day Charter School, which together with a school in Lawrence, accounts for much of the much-touted growth in ELL enrollment in recent years.

Who’s counting?
But who’s counting? Well, the folks who did the study, actually. They note that the case of the underrepresented *hard-to-teach* students reveals the danger of representing data through percentages rather than actual numbers. That’s because the actual number of these students enrolled in Boston’s charters is so small. 

In looking at the percentages for the last two academic years, it would appear that Boston charter schools have about one-third the number of ELLs as the Boston Public Schools. In fact, when the actual number of students is compared, charters educate just four percent of the ELLs enrolled in the Boston Public Schools.

Zero, zilch, nil, naught
You can tally up the actual numbers of students who are still learning English and who attend charter schools in Massachusetts here and replicate this experiment at home. Note that zilchpercentages that appear with a *.* in front of them will not add up to very much! And now it’s time to pay a quick call on a charter school that figures prominently in the study: Boston Collegiate Charter, which has long boasted of being tops in the Commonwealth based upon state tests. Which are apparently not being taking by this particular group of hard-to-teach students. Between 2010 and 2014, zero English language learners at Boston Collegiate took the MCAS exam. Here’s the same data point again, but bigger.

Between 2010 and 2014, zero English language learners at Boston Collegiate took the MCAS exam.

Best practices
Obvi, this slight omission gets pointed out on the regular in the local press, especially since we are in the midst of a heated debate about whether to raise the cap on the percentage of funding that can be diverted from schools that serve kids who speak 84 different languages to schools whose *best practices* appear to include not serving them. Actually, it never gets pointed out. Here’s the Boston Globe reporting on a charter lobby press release about a bold plan to increase the number of hard-to-serve students, including English language learners, four years after the state passed a law requiring them to do just that. I’ll let Boston Collegiate Executive Director Shannah Varon have the last word, just like the Globe did.

“We work hard to serve those students,” said Shannah Varon, executive director of the Boston Collegiate Charter School.

Except, well, never mind…

Download the entire study here.

Like my work? Your financial support will help me do more of it. 




  1. Jennifer,

    Great article, yet again.

    The one demographic that doesn’t get much play in this thing is…

    … highest education reached by the parents.

    Case-in-point, someone did a study of a KIPP school in South Central. It had a demographic of 75% African-American and 25% Latino.

    Fair enough.

    However, the data about education level of the parents was through the roof, compared to that of the surrounding nearby public schools. It’s was as if they creamed off all the kids whose parents had a Bachelor’s Degree or greater.

    While the kids-learning-English demographic represents one of the… if not THE… hardest demographic to teach, and the demographic that is the hardest test scores (a dubious measure, but that’s another story)… the kids whose parents graduated college represents the easiest demographic to teach, and produced high test scores.

    Also, income level of the parents has a direct correlation with easiest-to-teach kids.

    The application for CITIZENS OF THE WORLD asks parents to indicate:

    — highest level of education

    — language spoken in the home;

    — and income level.

    When I asked them about that, they said, “That’s so we can meet their needs better.”

    I replied, “Yeah, but why do have to ask about that BEFORE they’re accepted? Why is it important for you to know this?”

    The lotteries for charters are not run by a neutral, uninterested third party. Therefore, it’s up to the consciences of the charter people — who run their own lottery — to make sure that every person who applies gets in that rolling barrel, and has an equal shot at winning the lottery. They can exclude anyone based on the questions above, and there’s nothing to stop them.

    Even if you do win the lottery, you may experience what Mrs. Smalley did when she won the lottery for admittance to Eva Moskowitz’ SUCCESS ACADEMY. She had her first encounter with a SUCCESS ACADEMY official, and started to talk about how her child had a Special Needs I.E.P. at her old school… and before she could even finish the sentence, one of Eva’s winged monkeys told her and her child to take a powder, and go back to the public school from whence they came.

    Hey, let’s have Ms. Smalley tell her own story:

  2. Jack,
    Insightful comment – thanks for adding it. Could you source for me the Kipp information that led to this statement:”someone did a study of a KIPP school in South Central. It had a demographic of 75% African-American and 25% Latino.”

    Thank you.

    1. I can’t find it, but I remember it.

      I did find this, about the advantages of having college-educated parents:

      N.Y. TIMES:

      “And yet American higher education is increasingly the preserve of the elite. The sons and daughters of college-educated parents are more than twice as likely to go to college as the children of high school graduates and seven times as likely as those of high school dropouts.

      Only 5 percent of Americans ages 25 to 34 whose parents didn’t finish high school have a college degree. By comparison, the average across 20 rich countries in an analysis by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development is almost 20 percent.

      The problem, of course, doesn’t start in college.

      Earlier this week, Professor Waldfogel and colleagues from Australia, Canada and Britain published a new book titled “Too Many Children Left Behind” (Russell Sage). It traces the story of America’s educational disparities across the life cycle of its children, from the day they enter kindergarten to eighth grade.

      Their story goes sour very early, and it gets worse as it goes along. On the day they start kindergarten, children from families of low socioeconomic status are already more than a year behind the children of college graduates in their grasp of both reading and math.

      And despite the efforts deployed by the American public education system, nine years later the achievement gap, on average, will have widened by somewhere from one-half to two-thirds.

      Even the best performers from disadvantaged backgrounds, who enter kindergarten reading as well as the smartest rich kids, fall behind over the course of their schooling.

      Continue reading the main story

      Continue reading the main story

      The challenges such children face compared to their more fortunate peers are enormous. Children from low socioeconomic backgrounds are seven times more likely to have been born to a teenage mother. Only half live with both parents, compared with 83 percent of the children of college graduates.

      The children of less educated parents suffer higher obesity rates, have more social and emotional problems and are more likely to report poor or fair health. And because they are much poorer, they are less likely to afford private preschool or the many enrichment opportunities — extra lessons, tutors, music and art, elite sports teams — that richer, better-educated parents lavish on their children.

      When they enter the public education system, they are shortchanged again. Eleven-year-olds from the wrong side of the tracks are about one-third more likely to have a novice teacher, according to Professor Waldfogel and her colleagues. They are much more likely to be held back a grade, a surefire way to stunt their development, the researchers say.

Comments are closed.