This past election showed us that data doesn’t always tell the whole story. Sometimes shoe leather reporting paints a more accurate picture. But data surely can inform a story — it can help explain a situation, right?
Many of us are experiencing election coverage overload. So, instead, we’re going to look at Stanford Univerisity, charter schools, and Betsy DeVos, Trump’s hotly contested Secretary of Education. DeVos has no experience as an education but was a powerful lobbyist in Michigan, where she helped usher in charter schools and pushed for a school voucher system.
Michigan had the 10th highest percent of charter schools in the country, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2013-2014. The number of charter schools in Michigan has been steadily on the rise, as has, naturally, the number of students enrolled in charter schools.
Camps on both sides of the charter versus public school debate are passionate. Educators, parents, and policy makers can be found in either camp, as well, giving an indication of what a complex and complicated issue charter schools are.
Recently, supporters of charter schools have been circulating this study from CREDO, the Center for Educational Outcomes at Stanford University. Waving it as a banner proclaiming the success of Michigan’s charter school system over other states’ charter schools, supporters of DeVos and privatized education see this study as hard proof — proof that a charter school system without a cap on the amount of charter schools allowed and with very little public and legislative oversight is the answer to the American education system’s problems.
Other’s aren’t so sure. The Detroit Free Press, for one, wrote about DeVos’s hand in the decline of public education in Michigan and the effect of the state’s extremely weak oversight of charter schools. Kate Zernike wrote about charter schools specifically in Detroit for the New York Times, detailing the story of Ana Rivera and her son, Damian, whom Rivera enrolled in charter schools to the detriment of Damian’s education.
All these articles use data, coupled with anecdotal evidence. That data doesn’t match up with that in the CREDO study. While the CREDO study says that charter schools in Michigan are some of the most successful of any state’s judging by learning growth, The Detroit Free Press and Zernike state that half of the charter schools in Detroit do “only as well, or worse than, Detroit’s traditional public schools.” In fact, Zernike quotes another CREDO study that states students of one charter school company operating in schools in Detroit, The Leona Group, had less academic growth than students at neighboring public schools.
How can it be that both supporters and detractors of charter schools are able to point to data from the same research institute to prove their point? Which data is correct? Is it all correct?
We decided to look at data available through Michigan’s Department of Education website. We chose to look at the reading and math scores of all schools administering MEAP and M-STEP tests — Michigan’s standardized education assessment tests — in the years 2004, 2012, and 2015. We chose these years partially due to the data available and partly because they were significant in terms of policy changes in Michigan.
In 1993, Michigan legalized charter schools. 2004 was the earliest year for which we could get data. In 2011, Michigan removed the cap on the amount of charter schools that could operate in the state. 2015 was the most recent data we could obtain.
We compared the average of all school’s proficiency rates — charter and public — for reading and math. We were unable to compare charter versus public schools because we were unable to find a list for each year of all charter schools in the state. This has changed a lot throughout the years and we were only able to, in a week, find the most recent list of all charter schools in Michigan. Because we wanted to look at how Michigan schools have fared over the period of time when Betsy DeVos was involved in educational lobbying, we chose not to look only at 2015.
As you can see, across the board, during this time of huge change in Michigan’s education structure, proficiency percentages have decreased significantly. Most particularly, math proficiency percentages. Even if charter schools do have marginal learning gains over public schools as the CREDO study claims (or vice versa), isn’t that point sort of moot when the entire system, charter and public, is failing?
What does Betsy DeVos have to do with Michigan charter schools? Zack Stanton wrote in detail about DeVos’s involvement with Michigan politics and, in particular education policy, for Politico. We also created a timeline, highlighting the major points of her involvement.
In essence, Michigan is an example, in miniature, of what Betsy DeVos might do to education systems nation-wide. And the jury is still out on the data available for the Michigan experiment.