Charter Cap ‘n Gown

That path to college turns out to be exceptionally narrow…

hats‘Tis the season to celebrate our boy and girl graduates, reader. And in Massachusetts, aka *the Achievement State,* what better way to do just that than by raising the cap on excellence itself with a bold vote to hoist the cap on charter schools? Presto! Like that, the path to college and career readiness just got wider, and with nary a union laborer or detail cop in sight. But like a graduation party gone bad, this story too comes with an unwelcome guest: facts. It turns out that the number of students—particularly boys—who actually graduate from Boston’s charter high schools is minuscule. In fact, students at Boston’s six charter high schools are no more likely to graduate than their public school peers. 

Hero-kids-graduationPomp n’ circumstance
If you’re just tuning into the Achievement Network now, consider yourself fortunate. The most recent installment of our seemingly endless reality series, Where Chahter Rhymes with Wicked Smahter, was plump with pomp and rather light on circumstance. There is, for instance, the rather essential and to date, still completely unresolved, question of how to define the *low-performing districts* that will enjoy enhanced access to excellence once the cap is raised. While the affected districts vary wildly depending upon the kind of ruler used, there is one town that never the list shall make: Wellesley, a place so college ready that it is home to its own college. [Note: I submitted a public records request to the Mass. Department of Elementary and Secondary Education this spring about the internal debate on measuring school district performance and officials are even now scouring their email accounts to satisfy my demands. Stay tuned!]

cap and gownCollege ready…or not
At the heart of our great debate about how much greater charter schools are than the long-suffering public schools that they are outperforming by every conceivable measure lies a great assumption: that charters represent the best way to propel urban students through the pipeline of college readiness. Except that the pipeline turns out to be of an exceptionally narrow gauge. Take Match Charter Public School, from which six boys graduated last year. You read that correctly, reader. That number was six. Which is the same number of boys who graduated from Codman Academy Charter Public School in 2013. But that’s still a bigger number than four, the number of boys who graduated from City on a Hill Charter Public School last year. [Shout out to sister edublogger, An Education, for once again providing data expertise.]

cap and gown 2The numbers add up
Now I know what you’re thinking, reader. Those three schools represent only half of the charter high schools in Boston, and half is only equal to 50%. And those numbers would appear much larger if I had added them all together to equal 16, which is a lot considering that close to 60,000 students attend school in Boston. Or I could have mentioned the three schools’ combined six-year graduation rate for boys, which could some day total as many as 32 graduates.

Study? What study?
The point, reader, is that we know, down to our vestigial organs, that charter schools are doing a much better job of preparing the city’s students for college because we are secretly in love with Boston Globe columnist Scot Lehigh and hence hangeth upon his every word. Except that a recent study called Charter Schools and the Road to College Readiness, commissioned by the Boston Foundation and paid for by the New Schools Venture Fund, found that male and female students who attend Boston’s six charter high schools are no more likely to graduate than their public school peers. (See p. 24). Which is not what the researchers were expecting to find, and certainly not what Scot Lehigh was expecting to write about. Which is no doubt why he didn’t. 

academic_cap_mortarboardInvesting in excellence
Speaking of numbers, Boston will see the percentage of school spending that can go to charters rise to 23% under the bill just passed by the House. For the innumerate among you, that equals a lot. Next year, Boston will spend $130 million on charter schools, with the expectation that the schools are piping students directly into a college-and-career ready future. The irony is, of course, that the beleaguered Boston Public Schools are sending more students to college than at any time in the city’s history. Or they were. As the city grapples with the deep budget cuts that operating two separate school systems will entail, the  *extra* programs that help lots of kids in places like Boston get to college and stay there are likely to be the first to go. 

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  1. You, sir, are the very definition of excellence – at least 50% more excellent than most other aspirants. And that’s more than half. I think. Certainly more than half again as much as Scot Lehigh. Well played! For without play we are but cogs in the wheels of progress, stardust, golden.

  2. This sir is a ma’am, kind gentleman! Thank you, Ms. Berkshire, for articulating the concerns of charter expansion in Boston in such a funny, consumable format.

    1. You are more than welcome! I just wish that I didn’t have so much material with which to work…

  3. Match has six graduates? The page you link to has stats from the 2013 cohort. There were 31 kids in that cohort, and the 4-year graduation rate was 74%. I’m a little rusty on 4th grade math, but I’m pretty that 74% of 31 is quite a bit more than 6.

    1. If you go back and reread what I wrote (or read for the first time), you’ll note that I said that Match graduated six boys last year. Eleven boys made it to senior year, of which 54.5% graduated in four years. I’ll let you do the math yourself even though you are *a little rusty on 4th grade math.*

    2. Whoops, gotcha. But you’re wrong to claim that 11 boys made it to senior year — this is a 4-year cohort graduation rate, which means that 11 boys started 9th grade. Out of those 11, 6 graduated on time and the other 5 were still in school. No drop outs. That’s what your link says.

      So is the point that Match didn’t have many 9th graders 4 years ago?

  4. It also seems pretty weird to link to the TBF study and pull out the one possibly null finding, while failing to mention no fewer seven positive findings. To quote the study:

    “Our new findings suggest that the achievement gains
    generated by Boston’s high-performing charter high
    schools are remarkably persistent. While the students
    who were randomly offered a seat at these high schools
    graduate at about the same rate as those not offered
    a seat, lottery estimates show that charter enrollment
    produces gains on Advanced Placement (AP) tests and
    the SAT. Charter attendance roughly doubles the likelihood
    that a student sits for an AP exam and increases
    the share of students who pass AP Calculus. Charter
    attendance does not increase the likelihood of taking
    the SAT, but it does boost scores, especially in math.
    Charter school attendance also increases the pass rate
    on the exam required for high school graduation in
    Massachusetts, with especially large effects on the
    likelihood of qualifying for a state-sponsored college
    scholarship. Other estimates suggest that charter attendance
    may increase college enrollment, but the number
    of charter applicants old enough to be in college is still
    too small for this result to be conclusive. By contrast,
    our results show that charter attendance induces a clear
    shift from two-year to four-year colleges, with gains
    most pronounced at four-year public institutions in

    1. As a regular reader of the Boston Globe I am well aware of the findings you cite above as they are cited regularly, including by a designated columnist whose job it is to produce one column after another citing such gains. And yet I have never seen mentioned anywhere the finding that charter school students are no more likely to graduate from high school than their public school peers. That seemed worth mentioning. Thanks for reading!

      1. Well, it would be pretty amazing if charter schools in Boston not only raised standards so high (doubling AP classes, improving SAT math scores, improving high school exit exam scores) BUT ALSO got more kids to make it to graduation with those higher standards.

        As it is, it’s really cool (from the perspective of someone who cares more about kids than about turf protection) that charter schools even have the same graduation rate. Given that they’re pushing kids to achieve so much more, I’d intuitively be worried that they might inadvertently increase the dropout rate, but they’re not doing that. Good job.

        1. I think it’s great that you care more about kids than about *turf protection.* In fact, if you’d include a real email address I’d happily take you up on an offer to visit any charter with which you’re associated. I don’t think it benefits kids–or anyone for that matter–to pretend that these schools are working miracles and are a solution to the poverty that is chewing up kids in Boston, or anywhere else. Our best charters in Boston may be tops when it comes to the state standardized tests, but their SAT scores are abysmal. And even if you focus on nothing but the positives in the New Schools Venture Fund study that I cite, there’s still this cold-water study from MIT researchers that found that our top performing charters have almost no impact at all on fluid reasoning skills. As for your question about the number of boys who started at Match in 9th grade vs the number who finished, the state doesn’t break down the initial cohort by gender, but that cohort started with 72 kids. For there to have only been 11 boys in that group would have been, I’m sure you’ll admit, a lottery miracle. (You can flip back through the last few years and see that while the number of boys varies, the number of girls is always substantially higher–and so is their graduation rate.) Btw: my email is and my name is Jennifer if you want to invite me to a school.

  5. In your comments (criticisms) of Codman Academy, might it be useful to point out that
    a. The school has a total of 149 students in 2012-13, and 190 students this year when it expanded from grades 9-12 to grades 1-2 and along with grades 9-12?
    b. The school graduated a total of 23 students (14 young women and 9 young men)
    c. Codman has 26% students with special needs. That compares with Boston Latin School, 1% special ed; Boston Latin Academy, 2% special education and our third exam school, O’Bryant, 3% special education) How do you feel about those percentages of students with special needs at elite, quasi private “exam” schools?
    d. Three African American graduates of the high school, now college graduates, have returned to Codman to teach.
    Here are a few of the honors that Codman has won:
    * 2014 U.S. News & World Report Bronze Medal, Best High Schools
    * 2012 EPIC Charter School for student growth in academic achievement
    * Commonwealth Award, state’s highest honor in Arts & Culture, for our innovative Huntington Theatre partnership
    * Mayor’s Innovation Award in Health for partnership with Codman Square Health Center
    * Gold Wellness Award, first in the state for wellness by the Mass. Departments of Health and Elementary and Secondary Education.
    This info comes from the director of the school, Meg Campbell.

    Might this information provide a fuller picture of what’s happening at the school?

  6. 1. I’ve never lived in Boston or had any connection to any charter school there. Nice try, though.

    2. The page you linked to has 4-year Cohort Graduation Rates. Massachusetts’ official page ( says, “The rate tracks a cohort of students from 9th grade through high school.” If you think they’re calculating that cohort rate incorrectly, have at them, but that’s what they say they’re doing — tracking a cohort from 9th grade and seeing how many graduate.

    3. You say, “I don’t think it benefits kids–or anyone for that matter–to pretend that these schools are working miracles and are a solution to the poverty that is chewing up kids in Boston, or anywhere else.”

    No one said anything about miracles or solutions to poverty. But these schools are making at least modest improvements in multiple ways, and anyone who would pretend such improvements don’t exist, or just mock them at every opportunity, obviously has some motive other than caring about these children’s lives.

    1. Right. Sort of like how TFA and all of the charter operators pretend that every public school is failing every student–that there are no success stories in public schools.

      Charters are cherry-pickers who still can’t compete and, as with Common Core, the public is waking up and taking notice.

      If I were part of a charter school, I’d be saving more than I was spending. Just saying….

      Americans want neighborhood schools. Not testing, not charters.

      1. The number of families, predominantly inner city “people of color” who are sending their youngsters to charters, continues to grow. You may not want these schools but parents of millions of students do.
        For what it’s worth, I’ve visited hundreds of district & charters. There are great examples of both. I’ve never heard a charter leader say “all public schools are failing.”

        Here’s a column about a new book in which classroom teachers from all over the country, disrict & charter, speak about what keeps them going. It’s called “Teaching with Heart”. I think it’s a terrific book.

    2. WT,
      Actually charter schools have created a two-tiered system in Boston to the detriment of all children. Graduating in 4 years is important, that is why Massachusetts Department of Education (MADOE) has made it a criterion of a school’s AYP (Adequate yearly Progress). Charter high schools in Boston have a dismal 4-year graduation rate:

      – Academy of the Pacific Rim started out in 2009 with 49 freshmen graduated 25 students in 2013 = 51% 4-year Graduation Rate
      – Boston Collegiate Charter started out in 2009 with 50 freshmen graduated 23 seniors in 2013 = 44.23% 4-year Graduation Rate
      – Boston Preparatory Charter started out in 2009 with 56 freshmen graduated 36 seniors in 2013 = 64.2% 4-year Graduation Rate
      – City on a Hill Charter started out in 2009 with 130 freshmen graduated 31 seniors in 2013 = 23.84% 4-year Graduation Rate
      – Codman Academy Charter started out in 2009 with 53 freshmen graduated 19 seniors in 2013 = 35% 4-year Graduation Rate
      – Match Charter started out in 2009 with 72 freshmen graduated 23 seniors in 2013 = 31.9% 4-year Graduation Rate

      MADOE understands that there are not only societal costs to grade retention, but long term monetary and emotional costs to a student who has to repeat a year or two in high school. Massachusetts School Psychologists Association notes, ”retained children have more problematic social and emotional function, more conduct problems, lower self-images and negative images about school.”

      Think about it, why can’t a charter school with a longer day, longer school year, and cherry picked population of students, able to graduate a student, who has passed MCAS, in 4 years with their class? Why can’t charters retain and graduate African American young men on time? Boston charter schools do not backfill students, but with charters school 50+% attrition of students that they started with, and not graduating the students they keep, on time, the “overwhelming evidence” appears to be that, after churning out students they don’t want, charter schools are forward filling students.

      When you consider that charters will still receive the $15,227. “tuition” and the “non-tuition” funds for the students, they keep for those additional years, you can understand why they might be holding 12th grade students hostage. Again, if a 12th grade student has not been academically successful in a charter school that offers all those additional daily hours, and days of education a year, why hasn’t that student been tested for special needs and given the support services to be able to complete high school in 4 years and graduate with their class?

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