Critics say new UCLA anti-charter school report is full of “polemics,” short on research
March 17, 2016
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Researchers at UCLA’s Civil Rights Project have released a report that raises troubling questions about alleged racial gaps in discipline. “Charter Schools, Civil Rights and School Discipline: A Comprehensive Review”

Here are some of the key findings:

  • ŸŸ In the 2011-12 school year, 374 charter schools suspended 25% of their enrolled student body at least once.
  • Nearly half of all Black secondary charter school students attended one of the 270 charter schools that was hyper-segregated (80% Black) and where the aggregate Black suspension rate was 25%.
  • More than 500 charter schools suspended Black charter students at a rate that was at least 10 percentage points higher than the rate for White charter students.
  • Even more disconcerting is that 1,093 charter schools suspended students with disabilities at a rate that was 10 or more percentage points higher than for students without disabilities.
  • Perhaps the most alarming finding is that 235 charter schools suspended more than 50% of their enrolled students with disabilities.

While the report is raising important questions, researchers at Seattle’s Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) are flagging the report for violating common research principles.

Here is a message sent today by Robin Lake, CRPE’s leader:

We need productive research on discipline, not polemics

A new report from the UCLA Civil Rights Project violates most of the research principles that are key for fair, accurate, apples-to-apples comparisons between charter schools and traditional public schools around discipline.

The question the UCLA report tries to answer is important: Do charter schools use overly harsh discipline practices? There are serious negative consequences for students who are subjected to harsh discipline practices, including loss of learning time, negative self-image, and an increased likelihood of disengagement and dropping out of school. Serious research is needed both to understand where students are being hurt and how schools can do much better. Unfortunately, this report creates more confusion than clarity.

At CRPE, we are committed to an honest assessment of equity and performance in charter schools and we are as interested as anyone in calling out bad actors. CRPE has worked diligently with a panel of research experts to develop principles for how to draw fair comparisons on discipline between charter schools and traditional public schools so that legitimate problems can be tackled head on: The UCLA report disregards most of these principles.

Our expert panel agreed that comparisons must be apples to apples—among individual schools, not between schools and whole districts; among schools serving the same grade levels and demographic groups; and among schools in communities with similar rates of student attendance and school completion. Student behavior issues and penalties must also be defined consistently and recorded in ways that, for example, distinguish between a student’s tenth offense and her first, and between a one-period exclusion from class and a two-week suspension from school. Without appropriate comparisons, one school that is doing a better job than similar schools can actually appear to be doing much worse, and vice versa.

Finally, our experts agreed that research must not simply compare averages but analyze the relative contribution of school practices and other factors. It is misleading to make crude charter-district comparisons about discipline outcomes, just as it is for achievement test scores.

The UCLA authors even acknowledge that the self-reported data on which their report is based (submitted by schools to the federal Office for Civil Rights) are extremely limited. In the database UCLA used, an afternoon suspension at Roxbury Prep charter school is treated the same as a two-week suspension in Boston Public Schools. The OCR survey data provide no way to track trends over time, and no way to ensure the numbers are reported consistently.

Data debates aside, the UCLA report is peppered with claims about civil rights violations—and suggestions that charter schools are doing worse than district schools—that are wholly unsupported by fact.

The report tells us what we have known for years: Black students and those with disabilities are more likely to be suspended than white students. Charter schools are basically on par with district-run schools when it comes to suspension rates (the difference is a mere 1.1 percentage point) but some charters—particularly “no excuses” schools—have very high rates.

Let me be clear: Some charter schools have gone too far in their attempt to create an orderly learning environment. There is no warrant for overuse of harsh discipline. But the UCLA report ignores an equally serious challenge that parents know is very real: Getting control of unsafe and disorderly urban classrooms so kids can learn. Many families choose charter schools precisely because they want to escape schools that fail to offer their children an environment conducive to learning.

For these reasons, many urban charter schools have strict school-wide behavior codes. Research has shown that clear and consistent behavioral standards and the use of clear consequences for student behavior are strongly related to student learning gains.

Many charter schools are finding new ways to create safe and orderly classrooms without expelling or continually suspending kids. Cities can incentivize more charter schools to improve their discipline practices without infringing on charter autonomy. For example, in D.C., equity reports create transparency on discipline data so schools have to explain and defend (or change) their practices. New Orleans has created a centralized discipline process to prevent unfair expulsions from charter schools. An upcoming CRPE report will detail these two approaches and provide concrete recommendations to improve discipline practices for students.

Charter and district schools alike need constructive, practical ways to create safe and orderly learning environments for kids. What they don’t need are more reports like UCLA’s that serve only to fuel political battles and grab headlines.

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