Thursday, July 7, 2016

What Does the Status Quo Have Against One Child’s Success Story?

On Tuesday NJ Spotlight published an inspiring speech by a Newark teenager about his journey through high school— from quitting Uncommon Schools’ North Star Academy because he wanted an “easier” school, to his realization of what he had lost and his decision to reenroll, and his recognition of the role the school plays as a North Star for him and his peers. His op-ed is adapted from a moving speech he gave to 700 of his classmates last month.

Wise words from a Newark teen.

Minutes later Julia Sass Rubin sarcastically rained on his and thousands of other Newark students’ parade. Let’s hope that Aaron and his college-bound classmates (100% of whom were accepted to 4 year colleges by the way) don’t end up in classes with professors like Rubin.  Instead, we hope that his professors are objective people who can present facts to their readers and not selectively cherry pick some facts over others to try to push their status quo agenda that hurts urban kids like Aaron.

Let’s count the ways that Rubin twists data to serve her need to rip choice from poor parents in Newark—a choice, by the way, that she freely exercises from her Princeton community far, far away from Aaron and his friends’ reality. 

 First, she tells us, that North Star has high attrition among students. Basically, in this Newark public charter school, every year, students leave.

 Yes they do. As they do in every public school in Newark.

 What she doesn’t tell her readers is that North Star’s attrition is actually half of the Newark Public School system’s average. North Star loses about 10% of its students a year—while NPS schools on average lose 20% or more. The NPS rate is not surprising for an urban school district, but what is surprising is that Rubin, a university professor, would present a completely one-sided number and not even bother to compare it to a constant.  Clearly it’s because she wants readers to think that North Star’s attrition rate is high rather than the truth—that North Star’s attrition rate is low—and other schools should be flocking to it to find out why.

Next, Rubin goes to the “it’s not the same kids” theme.  Her proof?   That North Star doesn’t have any English language learners, while the district’s average is 11%. Here again Rubin practices statistics that even a 7th grader at North Star could tell you is faulty.

The fact is, and Rubin knows this but doesn’t want to share, that ELL students are not uniformly dispersed through Newark schools or neighborhoods, so in this case, an average doesn’t begin to tell the full story. The median ELL rate for Newark district schools is 3%. Almost 50% of all Newark ELL students are served by just 10 district schools—out of over 60 schools. Why isn’t Rubin up in arms about the 14 district schools with zero ELLs?  Why doesn’t she explain that North Star’s schools are in predominantly African American high poverty areas and in fact that North Star students have a higher overall poverty rate than the district?

It’s nonsense to continue to say that students at North Star are “different” than students who attend Newark public schools, especially when you’re doing it from your ivory tower and using selective data.

A misleading Rubin missive wouldn’t be complete without a full throttled discussion on special ed.

So let’s tackle this notion that because Newark Public Schools has classified a higher percentage of kids as special needs (17%) than North Star (9%) that it suggests in any way that more kids are being better served with special needs at NPS than they are at North Star.  Here’s one example of a North Star mom who describes  what it was like for her special needs son at a district school and yet another, who describes how her special needs son is nurtured at North Star, and yet another with a special needs son, too, who is served at North Star. Can Rubin tell these moms that their sons would be better served at Newark district schools?

And here’s yet another way that Rubin conveniently slices and dices data to fit her spin rather than give readers an accurate view. She says that North Star’s free lunch rate is 69% vs. NPS’s 76%.  She fails to mention that the most commonly accepted marker of poverty in schools is free AND reduced price lunch, and in that case, North Star’s rate is higher than the district average (84% vs. 81%). Now, Rubin may say that reduced price kids don’t matter. That they aren’t “poor enough” to matter. I bet those families would beg to differ. North Star serves a higher percentage of free and reduced price lunch students than two thirds of all Newark district schools. Seems like an important fact to leave out, unless you are just trying to skew the picture.

Most offensive to the hundreds of educators and thousands of families of North Star is when she writes that the school is “educating a much easier population of students.”  Much easier, huh? That must be it. That explains why 100% of North Star’s AP Computer Science students (all of whom are black or Latino) passed the exam, compared with a national pass rate of 64%.  That must be why when North Star took over Alexander Street School, where third and fourth graders could barely read or do math, by the end of the first year  of North Star’s turnaround, the students matched the state average in ELA PARCC scores and outscored the state’s most affluent kids in math. Easy kids? Or phenomenal teaching. Give readers all the facts and let them decide.

Rubin should expand her universe of data to see something much bigger than what she’s trying so desperately for people to believe. There is undeniable proof that not only are these the same kids, but that this school is getting different results.


Julia said...

Dear Laura,

Did you at least get to edit this blog post or did North Star's PR head Barbara Martinez just hand it to you whole?

Happy to discuss it with her, either directly or through you.

The Free vs. Reduced issue has already been addressed by Mark Weber and me here: (starting on page 27), and by Professor Bruce Baker prior to that.

The point is that, in a community with demographics like Newark's, Reduced Price Lunch is actually a sign of relative privilege.

Barbara can't dispute the special ed statistics. North Star simply doesn't educate the same number of special ed students and their special ed students have less expensive and less challenging disabilities.

It's also interesting to note that North Star actually began the 2014-15 academic year with a 9% special ed rate but finished it with only 8%, so there may be some attrition there as well.

North Star's incredibly high student attrition rates, particularly for males, has been documented by others. See, for example, Baker,B.D.(2013)Newark Charter Update: A Few New Graphs and Musings. School Finance 101.‐charter‐update‐a‐few-new-graphs-musings/

If Barbara wants to provide some publicly available data to support her contention that students are leaving Newark Public Schools at a higher rate than they leave North Star, I'm happy to have that conversation with her.

Any analysis of NPP attrition has to factor in the impact of the One Newark system and the very high growth rate of charters, which would result in attrition to the Newark public system but that is a very different type of attrition than what we see at North Star. A better comparison to North Star would be to look at other charter schools and to see what their attrition rates are.

Newark Public Schools also do not market their 100% graduation rate, like North Star does. As Bruce Baker has pointed out, a school should not claim 100% graduation rates when it's losing so many students on the way to 12th grade.

NJ Left Behind said...

I'm happy to talk about this, Julia. Do you want to have lunch? My email is And if I print a guest post I make that clear. Emissions from you and Mark are, to me, suspect, given the various connections to NJEA, Education Law Center, and Save Our Schools, which have made their animus towards charter school expansion quite clear. And, really: did you need to sarcastically attack a child?

But I'd love to talk. I'm sure we can find some common ground. We both want the same thing: better public schools for N.J. children, right?

Mr.McConnell said...

I am glad to see two people weighing in already that might be able to help me. I have no privilege or animus, but I do have curiosity, and I definitely have no princeton, harvard, millions or billions to buy agreement with what I think, so I have some questions I just left on another article about suspension/expulsion rates at charters.

Do you think that, for traditional door-open-to-all schools, compulsory attendance by/acceptance of any student in the district (even students who have minimal to no parental guidance or possibly even negative role models outside of school home) can impact the school discipline stats? What about charter "choice" schools that rely on parents invested in their child's best chance, getting into a lottery, willing to sign on to and adhere strict student code of conduct agreements...Could that impact the discipline landscape of that "choice" school?

Can the two be compared, in regards to suspensions/expulsions/counseling or pressuring out...with validity?

Can the success or failure of one or the other be entirely attributed to teachers, unions, democratic control vs private management, profiteering, resisting transparency, obligations to investors/consultants, political influence...?

Do some parents choose to move their children away from a violent and disruptive cohort in a traditional community school as opposed to moving away from a "failing school"? Are great test scores more achievable if a manufactured "choice" with a more compliant and standardized cohort is the setting children learn in?

Is that manufactured option (accepting only those ready and willing to comply) the answer for all, or are we talking about a "choice" for some, leaving the rest who benefit from less support outside of school for the educators who just step into the mission-whatever it is/whoever it involves?

I agree with the need to innovate, just trying to weed through narratives and attacks before I can come to any conclusions.

Julia said...
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NJ Left Behind said...

Hi, Julia. I was offline yesterday. Just getting to your questions now.

Actually, the DOE does report disaggregated data for schools here. Anyone can look. See here:

If you'll follow the link, you'll see that a number of traditional NPS schools have 0 ELL students. This generally reflects the neighborhood served, which goes to your second point. In fact, North Star is comprised of 11 campuses mainly in the South, Central, and West wards and most of the students who attend North Star come from these neighborhoods. (Makes sense, right? You send your kid to the best school in the neighborhood.) The most heavily Latino ward is the East Ward, and this tracks with ELL rates in NPS.

Re: your "rival school district" comment: I disagree with your premise. North Star is not a "rival" school district, any more than TEAM is. Uncommon and KIPP offer parents alternative public school choices that are open to anyone through the district's universal enrollment plan. This shouldn't be a competition. It should be a collaborative exercise among all providers, both traditional and charter.

Perhaps you are referring to an ad I've seen about North Star that says, "your road to college begins here"? Seems pretty innocuous. I expect that any public school these days could use the same slogan.

NJ Left Behind said...

Hi, Mr. McConnell. I agree with Julia: great questions! Actually, Newark (and now Camden too) use a universal enrollment system that allows all parents of children enrolled in the district to list their top choices. So there's not actually lotteries, although other cities do use them. NJ, in fact, just issued a new regulation that allows charter schools to "weight" their lotteries to increase the odds of economically-disadvantaged kids being selected.

I hardly know where to start addressing your other global questions about cohorts, the impact of choice, unions, etc. on schools, discipline stats, school culture. Speaking generally, I think that all schools -- regardless of their type of governance -- need to find new ways to address disparate rates of suspensions and expulsions. Restorative justice is a start.

Julia said...
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Julia said...

North Star is very much a rival district - the key word there being district. All charter schools are their own districts. North Star is a set of schools that will educate over 4,000 students next year. Those schools draw from all of Newark, particularly with the One Newark plan, which places students from all over the city into all the schools.

The fact that North Star had zero English Language Learners in 2014-15 as well as fewer Free lunch and fewer special needs students, doesn't prove that North Star is intentionally keeping those students out, but it absolutely proves that North Star is educating a less challenging population of students than the Newark District.

That not only results in a concentration of the more challenging students in the district schools, it also impacts North Star's test scores and graduation rates, as does North Star's high attrition rate.

The point is that you cannot compare North Star to the Newark District without controlling for those differences and, as Bruce Baker has pointed out, North Star's attrition may distort even those test score comparisons that account for the demographic differences as North Star's attrition is not random.

Since North Star markets itself constantly - such as the editorial it placed in NJ Spotlight on behalf of the young man - and lauds its test scores and graduation rates in its marketing materials, it is important to acknowledge that it is educating a different population of students and that those differences impact North Star's performance.

Just as I would never compare two school districts without taking into consideration demographic and other differences, I would never compare a charter school and a district without doing so.

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