By Michael Pih, Associate Director of Policy & Research
Despite significant evidence to the contrary, it’s a common refrain among charter school critics that the strong academic performance of NYC charter schools can be explained by their selective enrollment of students based on certain characteristics, including prior academic performance, or by a practice of counseling students to leave after they have enrolled and been deemed low performers or difficult to serve – both of these accusations are colloquially known as “creaming.” Part of the irony of these allegations is that while the state’s charter school law requires all charters to enroll students via a random lottery process, many traditional district schools have imposed selective admissions criteria that require students to meet certain minimum thresholds in attendance, academic achievement, or performance on entrance exams, among other criteria.
As to the question of whether charter schools push out the hard-to-serve students, several independent analyses conducted over the last few years have dispelled this myth. In 2012 and again in 2016, investigations by WNYC found lower attrition rates among the city’s charter schools compared to traditional district schools. In two separate analyses, the NYC Independent Budget Office found similar results. In its 2014 analysis, not only did NYC charter school students stay in their charter schools longer than their peers in nearby traditional district schools, the IBO found lower attrition rates among English language learners, Black and Hispanic students, and students eligible for free or reduced price lunch in charter schools. In its 2015 update, the IBO extended this finding to include students with disabilities in charter schools.
Education researcher Marcus Winters, of the Manhattan Institute, has similarly studied whether there is any evidence to suggest that charter schools engage in the practice of counseling out students after enrollment. His research corroborated the finding that attrition rates are lower for charter school students than traditional district school students, even among special student populations, including students with disabilities and English language learners. Additionally, he has found no evidence that low performing students are being counseled-out of charter schools at higher rates than traditional district schools, despite what charter critics claim. Now, he has focused his research on the question of creaming at the point of entry, and the results provide even more evidence that challenges the myth that charter school success is driven by creaming who enrolls to begin with.
Winters postulates that if in fact charter schools creamed students at entry, like selective traditional district schools, their unadjusted academic performance should be statistically indistinguishable from those selective schools, which do in fact select the highest achieving students. To conduct this analysis, Winters looks at student performance as measured by proficiency in the state assessments in the middle school grades; traditional district elementary schools, much like all charter schools, do not have selective admissions standards. The results show that selective admissions middle schools outperform charter schools in ELA though there are no differences in math performance: disaggregating by different admission criteria, for example schools that emphasize performance on entrance exams, shows the same effect, though the magnitude of the ELA performance gap between selective admissions and charter schools varies depending on the type of admissions criteria used. We should note, however, that once the analysis adjusts for observable differences in student demographics, the ELA gap is statistically insignificant, and charters significantly outperform selective middle schools. This result tends to confirm what the Charter Center has shown by way of descriptive analyses of the state assessments by subgroup, and a recent IBO analysis of the city-state performance gap.
Though this new research won’t put to bed the false claims that charters are selectively enrolling the most motivated and academically prepared students, it does underscore how much these claims are rooted in rhetoric rather than fact. Much of it distracts from the serious issues that afflict many urban schools districts like NYC, including performance gaps compared to wealthier suburban districts, systemic segregation, and ensuring special student populations receive the appropriate services and supports for special student populations. We hope that Winters and other researchers continue to challenge the myth of selective admissions in charter schools, and more importantly shine light on how best to serve all students.