Charter school authorizer scorecard may not reflect roles accurately

According to a report released by a Michigan-based education group, Saginaw Valley State University – as a charter school authorizer – received a D grade.

Education Trust-Midwest, founded in Michigan in 2010, describes itself as a non-partisan, data-driven policy, research and advocacy organization.

With a focus on improving the education of all students, particularly those who are African American, Latino, Indian American or from low-income families – those the system traditionally has left behind – the organization believes a key component to the long-term success of a charter school is the sound practice of its charter authorizer.

In its February 2015 report “Accountability for All: The Need for Real Charter School Authorizer Accountability in Michigan,”  the group studied 16 charter school authorizers in Michigan and graded them based on three criteria: decisions regarding opening charter schools and quality of their operators, performance standards for current schools and improving chronically failing schools.

These 16 authorizers are responsible for 135,000 students, about 96 percent of all charter students in Michigan.

As of fall 2014, schools under SVSU’s authorization had 11,494 students.

Of the 16 authorizers included in the report, SVSU was ranked 14th, earning a D grade with an average score of 52.2 out of 100 points.

In the first category, comprising decisions regarding charter school openings and the quality of their operators, SVSU earned 50.0 points.

In the second category concerning the setting of performance standards for current schools, SVSU netted 40.0 points.

And in the third category representing the improvement of chronically failing schools, SVSU was given 66.7 points.

The report noted SVSU “authorizes multiple schools with extremely poor performance” and – along with other schools earning D and F grades – has a “portfolio so low, it’s impossible to call them a success based on any academic measure.”

Cesar Chavez Academy District is highlighted as one of those extremely poor performers. Citing state data, the report claims only 2 percent of schools in Michigan perform worse than Cesar Chavez.

The district has proficiency rates among English Language Learners that are nearly 10 percentage points lower than English Language Learners at Detroit Public Schools. About 95 percent of its students are Latino and 98 percent come from low-income families.

Director of the School-University Partnership Office Craig Douglas defends Cesar Chavez, as its kindergarten and first-grade teachers have far more responsibility than their colleagues in other districts.

“The students in the elementary school usually come from home where they’ve spoken Spanish – not English,” he said. “So the teachers need to get them comfortable speaking English. Then, it’s not a real surprise when their third-grade MEAP (Michigan Educational Assessment Program) scores don’t come back so great … as a result of just knowing less English than other third graders.”

Douglas said the report failed to mention Cesar Chavez’s many accomplishments: scores on standardized tests tend to rise as children grow older and the high school has received a bronze ranking by U.S. News and World Report for two consecutive years and has been ranked second on Mackinac Center’s 2013 “High School Context and Performance” report card.

He acknowledges the Education Trust-Midwest’s report is harsh regarding the Cesar Chavez Academy District, but maintains its students  do well in college, many ending up at SVSU.

The report goes on: “These grades do not mean that these struggling authorizers do not run some good schools … On the contrary, SVSU authorized operator Scholastic Solutions to open Chandler Park Academy High School in Harper Woods in 2007.”

The school’s performance is lauded, but called “too uncommon.”

As a charter school authorizer, SVSU provides scholarships for graduating seniors to attend SVSU with defrayed costs, tuition support for staff taking SVSU graduate coursework and ongoing professional development for staff, school leaders and boards of education.

Douglas noted the report used “stale public data” and awarded higher scores to authorizers with fewer schools in more affluent, less-challenged areas.

“This is really making the case to slow down the rate of growth,” he said. “SVSU’s rate of growth is very conservative, so we got lumped into a generalization unfairly. It has never been our goal to become larger or to climb the ladder to just keep increasing our number of schools.”

Additionally, the report identifies SVSU as having 34 total schools, but only 19 are currently authorized.

In an interview with Kyle Feldscher, Capitol education reporter for MLive Media Group, Jared Burkhart, executive director of the Michigan Council of Charter School Authorizers, called the report’s methodology flawed (http://www.mlive.com/lansing-news/index.ssf/2015/02/study_says_many_michigan_chart.html).

The top nine authorizers in the report all received 100.0 points for improving chronically failing schools, but Burkhart said none of those authorizers ever had a chronically failing school to improve.

He said many authorizers – like SVSU – are going into underserved areas on purpose in order to improve student achievement. That process can often lead to low overall performance, even if improvement is taking place.

Burkhart said those authorizers are doing more to help kids than ones in traditionally successful areas.

“The question is which authorizer is doing more to actually improve outcomes for kids, but that’s not the question they’re asking here,” he said. “I don’t even know the question they’re asking. The methodology, it’s a bad way to get where they’re trying to go.”

Douglas agrees, noting the metrics seem uneven.

“Our role as authorizers certainly goes beyond the students’ MEAP scores,” he said. “And that’s not reflected in the Education Trust-Midwest’s report.”

The Michigan Council of Charter School Authorizers is currently piloting a voluntary accreditation system for charter school authorizers; Grand Valley State University is set to complete the process this month.

The system is based on nine metrics, which include application processes, performance contracts, transparency, fiscal and legal compliance, operations, board development, oversight, and training, reauthorization, transfers, and closure and intervention procedures.

“These metrics really go beyond student achievement to comprise all the duties of authorizers,” Douglas said. “The report doesn’t show that. As authorizers, we care deeply about student achievement, but have a bigger span of responsibility. We stand with our schools and want to support their efforts in every way we can.”

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