Charter Schools that Recruit, Skim, Flunk Out the Weak, and Refuse to ‘Backfill’

In his blog, Gene Glass, co-author of 50 Myths & Lies that Threaten America’s Public Schools, a professor at Arizona State University, and senior researcher at the National Education Policy Center, declares: They Recruit, They Skim, They Flunk Out the Weak… They are Arizona’s Top Charter Schools.

He describes the 20 so-called “best” charter schools as identified by the Phoenix Business Journal: “The 20 ‘best’ charters in Phoenix serve White and Asian children… almost exclusively.  13,452 students go to these charter schools: Asian 17%, Black 2%, Hispanic 11%, and White 66%.  Free Lunch—only Paragon has free lunch students.  ELL—None.  Special Education 4%… There is not a single public district with demographics like these and almost no districts outside of Reservation schools that have 11% or less Hispanic students.  There are thousands of minority students who could do well in these college prep schools—if their parents had the skills to wade through the enrollment process—if they had transportation—if these schools really wanted to recruit them… These schools assure that they only serve successful students… One truly weeps.”

And in a fine new piece for the Albert Shanker Institute, Leo Casey explains exactly how, across the United States in New York City, Eva Moskowitz and her Success Academy Charter Schools engineer the charter chain’s high test scores through a scheme that winnows out students unlikely to post high scores: “Success Academy Charter Schools has made a conscious decision to not fill seats opened up by student attrition in the upper grades of its schools.  And this is a deliberate, network-wide practice…. In New York City, the policy of refusing to fill seats vacated by student attrition is known by the unfortunate construction metaphor of failing to ‘backfill.’ On a number of occasions, Moskowitz has forcefully defended Success Academy’s refusal to ‘backfill’ the upper grades in which students take the state’s standardized exams.  The full effect of this policy to not ‘backfill’ can be seen in the only Success Academy cohort in the data that completed all eight primary school grades: the graduating class of Harlem Success Academy I had 32 students, less than half of the 73 students who started in the cohort eight years prior.”

Casey explains parents can tell which grades are accepting students at Moskowitz’s schools because on its website, Success Academy posts only the grade levels for which each particular school is accepting students, while at the same time the New York City Charter School Center “lists all the grades currently being provided under the school’s charter.”  Casey also provides a series of graphs of enrollment by grade at seven of the Success Academy schools in Harlem and the Bronx and for the network as a whole.  Only Harlem Success Academy I has all eight grades; others are adding grades over the years.  Three of the schools now offer six grades and three others offer only four grades, but in each case, enrollment drops off significantly between second and third grade, the first year in which standardized testing is required and schools are rated by their students’ scores.  Falling enrollment continues as students move into higher grades.  Moskowitz has defended the practice as a way to ensure that her schools can enforce the particular no-excuses culture for which they are known.

Casey notes that punitive discipline and push-outs at Success Academies are one strategy that shapes the charter chain’s student body. (This blog has recently covered punitive discipline and push-outs at Success Academy Schools here, here, and here.) He adds that a policy of refusing to “backfill” also ensures that the schools serve fewer very poor students: “Transience is a central feature of poverty, and the greater the intensity of the poverty in which a student lives, the greater the transience she will experience: Homelessness is the ultimate expression of this reality.  The poorest students are thus significantly overrepresented among school ‘leavers,’ as are students who score poorly on high-stakes standardized exams.  Indeed, the two phenomena are related.”  Casey pushes his analysis further: “In response to criticism that the success Academy Charter Schools ‘cream’ their student populations to boost standardized test scores, Eva Moskowiz has argued that the attrition rates in her schools are lower than the average attrition rate for both NYC district schools and other charter schools.  But the attrition rate is not the fundamental issue here; rather it is the policy choice to not fill the empty seats left by student attrition.  To the extent that leaving students are not replaced with similar students, the student population will have fewer students living in poverty, fewer high needs students, and fewer students who score more poorly on standardized exams.  Other schools may well have higher rates of attrition, but if they ‘backfill’ their empty seats, the profile of their student population remains essentially the same.”

Casey believes Moskowitz and other charter school proprietors will strongly resist changing their policies but that society and the U.S. Department of Education will eventually be forced to face up to the ways that charter schools are quietly screening students: “To resolve these issues, Success Academy and similar charter school chains would have to make changes in policy and practice that would strike at their ability to engineer student populations to achieve high test scores.  And this would put the charter school brand itself at risk.  Do not look for Eva Moskowitz, the New York City Charter School Center and the National Association of Public Charter Schools to willingly travel down that road.  A major political battle is in the making.”