<< The Body Politic

A tale of two schools

Friday, July 27th, 2012

As our January report, “Strengthening the Civic Mission of  Charter Schools,” shows, we are interested in following and learning from some of the incredible work that charter schools are doing in the realm of civic education. The Program’s Cheryl Miller and the Center on Reinventing Public Public Education’s Robin Lake wrote in their introduction, “Charter schools provide an intriguing opportunity to rethink the role of public schools in preparing students to become informed and engaged participants in the American political system. As public schools of choice, charter schools are freed from many rules and regulations that can inhibit innovation and improvement. They can readily adopt best practices in civic education and encourage (or even mandate) extracurricular activities to enhance civic learning. With their decentralized approach to administration, they can allow parents and students a far greater role in school governance than they would have in traditional public schools.”

Writing recently for Education Week, AEI’s Daniel Lautzenheiser expanded on the “new and potentially transformative way of thinking about schooling” that charter schools provide. In the article, Lautzenheiser looks specifically at a middle school run by Democracy Prep (a charter school network profiled in the report and whose founder, Seth Andrew, participated in our charter school event in September) and compares it with the Academy of Collaboration Education (ACE), a public middle school. The Democracy Prep school was named the best middle school in New York City in 2010; the ACE school was the worst middle school in the city that year.

What makes the comparison interesting is that the two schools were, until recently, located in the same building and drew students from the same population. Lautzenhesier writes:

The story is this. The first campus of Democracy Prep (the network now has seven schools) opened in 2006–the exact same time the New York City Department of Education (DOE) opened ACE. In hindsight, the case offers about as close to a scientific experiment as is possible in K-12 education: two brand new schools, both teaching about 100-125 6th grade students, located in the same building, with the same kinds of students, all from Harlem.

From day one, the two middle schools moved in literally opposite directions in terms of student performance (as measured by the DOE chancellor’s annual Progress Report) and parent and student satisfaction (as measured by NYC School Surveys). A short three years in, in 2009, ACE received a “D” score on the chancellor’s Progress Report and was ranked the worst middle school in central Harlem, while Democracy Prep received an “A” and was ranked the best.


It was at this point that the disparities began to attract the attention of local news. According to a New York Post article at the time, “Only 3.4 percent of [ACE’s] 195 students–about six kids–read at or above grade level…That’s the rock bottom of the 41 ‘peer group’ middle schools. It comes in next to last in math, with 9.1 percent at grade level… It also flunks safety. ACE made the state’s list of 16 ‘persistently dangerous schools,’ one of 12 in the city.” In July 2011, the courts reversed their decision and allowed 22 persistently failing schools to be shut down, including ACE.

At the same time, Democracy Prep has expanded, opening a second middle school, Democracy Prep Harlem, in 2010 with 109 students. DOE located Democracy Prep Harlem in the exact same space that ACE once occupied, meaning it now serves similar students, in the same community, in the same building but with massively different results. (And to be clear that this isn’t a case of DOE blindly giving preference to charter schools over zoned neighborhood schools, there is another middle school–PS 92, a sort of average “B”/”C” rated school–located with Democracy Prep in the same building on West 134th street. In other words, DOE concentrated their accountability efforts on the truly persistently failing schools.)

In a follow-up post, Lautzenheiser responded to criticism that the differences in the two schools’ performance could not be fully explained–that although we know that Democracy Prep performed better, we cannot really know why it did. Some critics thought it was because of potential differences in class sizes, per pupil spending, or student make-up. After running through the numbers on each of these, Lautzenheiser concludes with what he thinks the main difference was:

Democracy Prep’s status as a charter school grants it a few distinct advantages. The school operates on a longer school day. Teachers are on call until 9:00pm to answer student’s questions. They can offer higher starting salaries for teachers. They can also recruit and replace teachers more easily without tenure and by limiting contracts to one-year, performance-based agreements. Marcus Winters documents some of this in a good City Journal piece two summers ago. The most recent DOE audit highlights others, including “High expectations of students are leading to high levels of progress, behavior and attendance,” “Parents and caregivers receive very regular and detailed information on the performance and progress of their children,” and “The quality of teaching and learning is good so that the majority of students, including special education students, make commendable progress in their work.” For more discerning readers, Harvard’s Will Dobbie and Roland Fryer’s recent in-depth study on New York City charter schools provides further evidence on why certain charters are higher performing than both zoned public schools and other charters. […] While these ideas aren’t in and of themselves cure-alls–data can be used in an inappropriate manner, the means by which we evaluate teachers can be heavy-handed, and there can be bad charter schools–they represent a new and potentially transformative way of thinking about schooling. And that’s a good thing.