More Errors from the New York Times on Michigan’s Charter Schools

 

90Over the summer, the New York Times published an error-ridden piece on Michigan’s charter schools that it has yet to retract. Now, the NYT is doubling down with another piece adding new errors to old ones. The errors begin in the opening sentence:

Few disagreed that schools in Detroit were a mess: a chaotic mix of charters and traditional public schools, the worst-performing in the nation.

This is editorializing thinly veiled as “news.” In fact, lots of experts disagreed with that statement. The original NYT piece received a wave of criticism from national and local education policy experts, charter school organizations, and other journalists. As I explained at the time, the central premise of the NYT’s takedown on Detroit’s charter schools was an utter distortion of the research:

The piece claims that “half the charters perform only as well, or worse than, Detroit’s traditional public schools.” This is a distortion of the research from Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO). Although the article actually cites this research – noting that it is “considered the gold standard of measurement by charter school supporters across the country” – it only does so to show that one particular charter chain in Detroit is low performing. (For the record, the “gold standard” is actually a random-assignment study. CREDO used a matching approach, which is more like a silver standard. But I digress.) The NYT article fails to mention that the same study found that “on average, charter students in Michigan gain an additional two months of learning in reading and math over their [traditional public school] counterparts. The charter students in Detroit gain over three months per year more than their counterparts at traditional public schools.”

As shown in this table from page 44 of the CREDO report, nearly half of Detroit’s charter schools outperformed the city’s traditional district schools in reading and math scores, while only one percent of charter schools performed worse in reading and only seven percent performed worse in math.

CREDO 2013 Michigan Charter School Study

Grouping the very few underperforming charters with the approximately half of schools that perform at roughly the same level as the district schools distorts the picture. It’s just as fair to say that more than nine out of ten Detroit charters performed as well or better than their district school counterparts. The most accurate description would note that about half of Detroit’s charters outperform their district school counterparts, about half perform roughly the same, and a very small number underperform. […]

[NYT reporter Kate] Zernike is still claiming that the CREDO study “does not consider Detroit[’s charter sector] stellar,” even though both the 2013 CREDO study of Michigan’s charter sector and the 2015 CREDO study of charters nationwide found that, on average, Detroit’s charter schools outperformed the district schools that their students would otherwise have attended. Indeed, one even called Detroit’s charter sector “a model to other communities.”

Nevertheless the NYT has resurrected its spurious claims to attack Betsy DeVos, the President-elect’s pick for Secretary of Education. In the NYT’s telling, DeVos was responsible for killing a bill that would have imposed some sort of regulations on Michigan’s charter schools that supposedly would have improved the system:

So city leaders across the political spectrum agreed on a fix, with legislation to provide oversight and set standards on how to open schools and close bad ones.

But the bill died without even getting a final vote. And the person most influential in killing it is now President-elect Donald J. Trump’s nominee to oversee the nation’s public schools, Betsy DeVos.

Her resistance to the legislation last spring is a window into Ms. DeVos’s philosophy and what she might bring to the fierce and often partisan debate about public education across the country, and in particular, the roles of choice and charter schools.

The bill’s proposals are common in many states and accepted by many supporters of school choice, like a provision to stop failing charter operators from creating new schools. But Ms. DeVos argued that this kind of oversight would create too much bureaucracy and limit choice. A believer in a freer market than even some free market economists would endorse, Ms. DeVos pushed back on any regulation as too much regulation. Charter schools should be allowed to operate as they wish; parents would judge with their feet.

The idea that DeVos thinks “any regulation” is “too much regulation” is sheer nonsense. As I’ve detailed before, regulations in Michigan limit the ability of charter schools to set their own mission (e.g., they must be secular), mandate that they administer the state standardized test, forbid them from setting their own admissions standards, forbid them from charging tuition, limit who can teach in the schools, limit the growth of the number of schools, and so on. Calling this regulatory environment the “Wild West” is downright Orwellian.

The NYT piece never once lists any of the regulations to which Michigan’s charter schools are already subject, nor does it cite any education policy analysts who disagree with the reporter’s spin regarding Michigan’s charter sector. (The one dissenting voice was only quoted saying that DeVos “never said choice and choice alone is a panacea.”)

And what exactly did DeVos object to? More than 20 paragraphs into the article, the NYT finally explains:

But the provision that proved most controversial to the DeVoses would have established a Detroit Education Commission, appointed by the mayor. With three members from charter schools, three from the traditional public schools and one an expert in educational accountability, the commission was to come up with an A-to-F grading system for all schools, and evaluate which neighborhoods in the city most needed schools.

In other words, DeVos objected to giving district school officials and their political allies the power to regulate and even close down their competition. Why, she’s a veritable Ayn Rand!

Yet again, the Times fails to cite any education policy experts who were skeptical of the proposal or sympathetic to DeVos’s position. Moreover, in the antepenultimate paragraph, someone working for a DeVos-funded education advocacy organization in Michigan explained that DeVos supported the final version of the bill, which did not contain the commission but did “allow the state to close the [charter] schools at the bottom of existing state rankings,” putting lie to the reporter’s spin that DeVos thinks “any regulation is too much regulation.”

New York Times readers deserve better.

Cross-posted from Cato-at-Liberty.

There are 9 comments.

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  1. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Maybe this is the fake news they’re talking about these days.

    • #1
  2. Hoyacon Member
    Hoyacon
    @Hoyacon

    The Reticulator:Maybe this is the fake news they’re talking about these days.

    It’s the fake news they should be talking about.  But that would mean looking in the mirror.  It’s easier to pretend Alex Jones has more influence than the NYT.

     

    • #2
  3. WinterMute Coolidge
    WinterMute
    @NartFOpc

    Great write-up. I’m excited to see some change in the department. I’m also excited to see how the media spins it when these kinds of results start coming in from around the country (hopefully).

    • #3
  4. rebark Inactive
    rebark
    @rebark

    Over half of this author’s brain has cognitive output greater than or equal to that of a brick.

    • #4
  5. David Wilder Thatcher
    David Wilder
    @DavidWilder

    Silly man, why let a few pesky facts get in the way of a perfectly narrative.

    • #5
  6. genferei Member
    genferei
    @genferei

    Jason Bedrick: New York Times readers deserve better.

    No, they really don’t.

    • #6
  7. Nick Baldock Member
    Nick Baldock
    @NickBaldock

    Thank you, @jasonbedrick, for this piece. It is very important and I’m very glad you wrote it.

    However: as I (and I’m sure most of you) know from experience, our left-leaning friends obtain their information from the NYT, John Oliver etc and any conversation is a dialogue of the deaf because we simply don’t share the same information. They won’t read this and I won’t read Vox.

    Further observations: (a), those Michigan regulations are so restrictive that one wonders why anybody would bother to found a charter school;

    (b) is it the same in the US as here in the UK, where it is regarded as anti-social and slightly wrong to deliver a service to the public better than the public services?;

    (c) there is no reason why a mix should of necessity be chaotic, which reminds me of Vernon Blythe’s observation that reformers often mistake tidiness for progress;

    (d) even if it were true that half the charter schools produced the same outcome or worse, wouldn’t that mean that half produced a better outcome, thus resulting in a slight overall victory for charter schools?;

    (e) what the hell is an ‘expert in educational accountability’?

    • #7
  8. Jason Bedrick Inactive
    Jason Bedrick
    @JasonBedrick

    Nick Baldock:Further observations: (a), those Michigan regulations are so restrictive that one wonders why anybody would bother to found a charter school;

    Indeed, and those are pretty standard in the charter sector. But people who want to open a new private school, especially one that caters to low-income families, understand that the finances will be very difficult. Opening as a public charter school means a guaranteed source of revenue so long as your school is more attractive to parents than their assigned district school.

    (b) is it the same in the US as here in the UK, where it is regarded as anti-social and slightly wrong to deliver a service to the public better than the public services?;

    In some circles, that seems to be the case, sadly. Not among the Ricochetti though, I expect.

    (c) there is no reason why a mix should of necessity be chaotic, which reminds me of Vernon Blythe’s observation that reformers often mistake tidiness for progress;

    “Chaos” is a left-wing term for “freedom to do things we don’t like.”

    (d) even if it were true that half the charter schools produced the same outcome or worse, wouldn’t that mean that half produced a better outcome, thus resulting in a slight overall victory for charter schools?;

    Yes. See the chart above. Only a tiny fraction of charters performed worse. About half performed better. And about half performed the same. So saying “almost all the charters performed the same or better” is just as true as saying “half performed the same or worse.” It’s all spin.

    (e) what the hell is an ‘expert in educational accountability’?

    Whoever the mayor decides is one.

    • #8
  9. profdlp Inactive
    profdlp
    @profdlp

    There’s an old joke that the reason the IRS shut down Al Capone is that they didn’t like the competition.  I think our public school system operates much the same way.

    • #9

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