Monday, May 26, 2008

Charter Schools and "Exit Doors"

Comparing public and private schools is difficult; in part b/c private schools are allowed to select their students -- both before and during enrollment. Having taught in a school overrun with discipline problems, I tend to believe that the ability to "get rid of" students (having an "exit door," if you will) has a potentially large influence on the climate of a school.

Charter schools are much more similar to traditional public schools than are private schools; but we still run into some of the same problems when trying to compare them -- particularly regarding selection of students. The vast majority of charter schools select students through a lottery, so they can't just select the top x number of students, but parents still have to take the extra step of applying to the school. The differences, if any exist, between parents that apply and do not apply for enrollment in charter schools is another topic for another time. What I hear mentioned less frequently is the extent to which charter schools have exit doors.

At my school, a number of kids went through every disciplinary procedure possible (reprimand, phone calls, detention, parent meeting, classroom switch, suspension, etc.) and continued to harass and disrupt both their teacher(s) and classmates. At that point, the school essentially had its hands tied behind its back. I believe a couple eventually went to alternative schools, but most hung around and continued to cause headaches. You could imagine the effect it might have on the climate of the school if we could simply say "you are no longer welcome here." The child, and his/her behavior, would no longer negatively influence the school -- and other students would know that they would no longer be welcome if they chose to behave the same way.

The problem with this, of course, is what happens to the child once they're disinvited from that school -- they still have a right to an education.

Anyway, I've always wondered whether charter schools have their hands tied behind their backs to the same extent in these circumstances. I've seen video of a new cohort of kids at a KIPP school being told by the principal that they should leave if they don't like the way the school is run -- so I suspect that at least minor differences exist. My guess is that, legally, a charter school has no more right to expel a student than does a traditional public school but, given that the student is there by choice and has a free fallback option, I'd also guess that a charter school would have an easier time convincing a student to leave.

Imagine the following scenario: a principal tells a parent that their child is not doing well in their school and would probably do better in a different environment. In a traditional public school, it's going to be tough for a parent to find another place to put their child. They're either going to have to pay for a private school, apply to a charter school, or move (or apply to enroll in a different public school if NCLB says they can and seats are open). In a charter school, meanwhile, the parent has the option to enroll their child in the local public school for free -- and probably the next day.

This whole explanation is a long-winded way of saying that I find the statistics in this post about KIPP schools around San Francisco very interesting (hat tip: Education Policy Blog). The author breaks down the attrition statistics of the three Bay Area KIPP schools. I remember reading about this in the news, and thinking that it was interesting but far too early to conclude anything. In short, the three schools all enrolled about half as many students in eighth grade as originally started out in fifth grade -- a pretty high rate of attrition. That statistic, in and of itself, however, isn't all that meaningful. The students were from the first cohort to enter the schools, and there are growing pains everywhere. The students could have left for any number of reasons.

What I find interesting is the attrition rate of African-American males -- which far exceeded the overall attrition rate in all three schools. Given that, nationally, African-American males are both the lowest achieving and the most likely to be disciplined, this raises important questions about whether these schools weed out certain types of students.

The first cohorts to enter the three schools had 13, 24, and 35 African-American males enrolled in 5th grade. By the beginning of 8th grade, they had 3, 8, and 8 left -- meaning that, across all three schools, 72 started and only 17 (21%) were left by the start of 8th grade (I don't know how many actually finished).

This, of course, proves nothing -- but it's circumstantial evidence that merits further investigation.

Ok, so let's say that these three schools are, in fact, weeding out the weakest and least-focused students. A charter school that regularly makes use of their "exit door" will never be comparable to a traditional public school that doesn't have this option. So what? Maybe if all charter schools did this, and we created more charter schools, then more excellent schools would exist. In other words, maybe it's an advantage to charter schools that merits more of them rather than hand-wringing. Though somewhat perverse, I don't think that argument is without merit. But I see a major problem:

The kids that are "asked" to leave have to end up somewhere. In a scenario where more charter schools exist, maybe they simply end up at another charter school -- and maybe they learn their lesson, or simply fit in better . . . or maybe they continue to wreak havoc. But in our current situation, I have to believe that it's most likely that they will end up back in the public school for which they're zoned. In which case, it's likely that the other students in the school suffer from the disruptions that this new student creates. This not only creates a competitive disadvantage for the school, it also punishes all students who choose to enroll in the traditional public school rather than a charter school. And that's simply not fair to those students.

Granted, this is mostly speculation -- so don't read this and then decide that charter schools are evil or that expulsion is the ultimate solution -- but it's at least logical to assume that this problem might exist.


Rebecca said...

I find it interesting to think of public schools as not having an exit door. I have a good friend who teaches at a charter here in AZ (his 2nd or 3rd) and here many of the charter schools have become the exit doors for the public schools. Counselors at traditional schools will counsel students to go to a charter.

Some have very high standards, such as KIPP. That program is hard, but the kids who stick with it are well-positioned for college and future success. But as many or more charters are a collection of students who have been kicked out of somewhere else.

I think the final exit door for public students is the virtual schools; that appears to be more of where students go who aren't making it in public or charter schools.

Corey Bunje Bower said...

Good point. I didn't really think of it that way b/c that never happened at my school -- there weren't really any charters nearby. There was a mild attempt to counsel some of the kids to apply to go to other public schools through the NCLB choice provision, but there was so much red tape and so few openings that nothing much ever came of it.

Even if kids are being counseled out of traditional public schools and into charter schools, I wonder how easy it is to start at a charter mid-year. Anybody could leave a charter or private school and enroll in their local public school within a day or two, but I'm not sure it's as easy to go the opposite direction. I'm also not sure that the number of kids doing homeschooling whether online or with adults is all that large compared to the number of students that switch schools each year.

Rebecca said...

How hard it is to enter a charter mid-year really depends on the charter. It won't happen at a KIPP school.

In AZ we don't have the oversubscription problem other states have. There are always several charters in a metro area that have open slots and will take a student mid-year.

As far as the virtual schools, they aren't huge but they are growing. The thing is, they are charters with no class size limits, not homeschools. And more importantly, they are SOLD to parents that way - your kid is in a charter, they just don't have to go to class at a specific time or place. That perception seems to make a difference.

Linda Fox said...

I am in favor of letting public schools take the option of telling students (and their parents) "you are no longer welcome here". They used to do this, and it was one of the factors that made the schools work. The malcontents, the disruptive, and the thugs had to go. While it did little for THAT kid's education, it did wonders for the rest.

Roger Sweeny said...

The problem with this, of course, is what happens to the child once they're disinvited from that school -- they still have a right to an education.

That sentiment sounds wonderful but I'm pretty sure you don't really mean it. Because it's physically impossible.

It is possible for a government to guarantee every citizen a check each month. The government cuts the check and makes sure it gets to the recipient. The recipient need do nothing.

But no one can "give" someone an education. The person has to take it.

Governments can guarantee some sort of possibility of getting some sort of education. They can provide schools, teachers, etc. But the student has to co-operate to some minimal extent.

Some students just don't--and they act so as to take away other student's opportunities to get an education.

Laws may require us to keep them in some sort of school. But it shouldn't be where they screw up others.

Right now they don't get an education and neither do their peers. Throw them out and they still won't get an education. But other students finally get a chance.

Corey Bunje Bower said...

Linda: We certainly have to examine the effect a disruptive student has on others before making a decision on removing them from a class/school.

Roger: I thought about it, and I think the wording is ok. Certainly nobody can force an education on anybody else, but everybody still has a right to one. Nobody can force you to be silent, but you still have the right to not talk when arrested.

Roger Sweeny said...

No. Nobody has a right to an education any more than anybody has a right to have a beautifully toned, buff body.

State legislators could pass laws saying localities must make gyms and coaches available. They might even require 5-16 year-olds to go to a gym every day.

But that does not give anyone a right to a great body.

It sounds so nice to say everyone has a right to an education but -- it -- is -- physically -- impossible. And there are real problems trying to build real solutions on impossible premises.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Corey that part of what makes the successful charter schooks successful is their ability to use the "exit door" for disruptive or unmotivated students.

Not only does this allow the school to avoid the problem of such chronic behavior problems, but it also (as Corey notes) makes an impression on middle-of-the-road kids: "You can't act this way and remain in this school." It's a powerful deterrent.

If all schools had this ability, it would definitely improve the education of the remaining students. But as several bloggers noted: "Where do you put the excessed kids?"

Anonymous said...

Oops... "schools" not "schooks"