‘Market approach’ to high schools has serious drawbacks

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Daniel Hertz

Daniel Hertz

The question of whether Chicago’s market for high school choice works by weeding out low-performing schools is two-fold: It works somewhat for traditional public schools, but definitely not for charters.

The idea for this article stems from reports by WBEZ and Catalyst Chicago about the rapidly growing number of high schools in the city, with most of the new schools being charters.

The growth in high schools is certainly not the kind of problem most people think about when they think of CPS. Who would have guessed that in an era of massive school closings, Chicago would increase the total number of high schools by 50% in a decade? But it’s a big concern. As the number of schools increases, some schools become under-enrolled and have to cut extracurricular programs and special academic classes that no longer have enough students to support them. They also end up requiring extra financial help from the district just to maintain a functioning building.

If you wanted to put a positive spin on this, of course, you might say that Chicago has created a functioning market in high schools. Students and their families are free to choose the ones that offer a better education, and if that creates winners and losers, good! The bad schools ought to fail. That’s exactly what charter proponents have been asking for all along.

But that concept only works if students are leaving bad schools and enrolling in good ones. If we’ve just created enrollment churn without moving students from bad to good, all we’ve managed to do is add another serious problem to a district that already has plenty.

So which outcome is it?

Happily, CPS provides data that can tell us: enrollment and ACT scores for every school in the district. (Here is the obligatory caveat about how good ACT scores do not equal a good education. Given the district’s laser-like focus on test scores, though, it seems fair to judge them – on a you-have-to-at-least-be-good-at-this basis – by whether they’re moving this particular needle at all.)

So, using the district’s numbers, I calculated how much enrollment has changed in every high school between the 2005-06 school year and the 2012-13 school year. I grouped all the schools by their ACT scores – all the schools that scored 15 in one bucket, 16 in another bucket, and so on – and added up the positive and negative enrollment changes for each bucket. Here’s the graph:

What we should see, if the market is working, is big red bars on the left side, indicating that lots of students are leaving low-scoring schools, and big blue bars on the right side, indicating that students are flocking to high-scoring schools. Obviously, that’s not quite what’s happening. 

True, it looks like schools with above-average ACT scores are mostly gaining students, while lots of students at below-average schools are leaving. But a lot of those students are going to other below-average schools. That’s why you see sizeable blue bars even on the far left side of the graph. Why, if the market is working, are we seeing any enrollment increases at schools with average ACT scores of 13 or 14, both of which are truly, truly abysmal? Random guessing, for comparison’s sake, will result in a score of 12. A score of 20 is considered the minimum to get into college.

Just to be clear about what these graphs show: It is not only that some students are enrolling at bad schools. People move, and new classes come in, and so on–so it would be highly surprising if any school was so bad that not a single new student showed up. But what these numbers show is that some terrible schools are seeing their total enrollment increase, to the tune of about 4,000 additional students at schools with an average ACT score of 15 or lower.

The fact that enrollment losses outnumber enrollment increases doesn’t change the fact that some of the schools that are “winners” in this market scenario are providing some of the worst education in the district. That suggests a problem.

Enrollment gains not a sign of quality

Part of the problem is explained by separating that graph into charter schools and non-charter schools:

Now the situation becomes a little bit clearer. There are still some enrollment increases at non-charter high schools with very, very bad ACT scores, which is still a problem. But these increases are a much smaller proportion of all student migration, and are massively outweighed by the simultaneous enrollment decreases at low-scoring, non-charter high schools.

But look at the charter numbers. The high-scoring charters have enrollment increases. The mediocre-scoring charters have enrollment increases. The low-scoring charters have enrollment increases. The very-low-scoring charters have enrollment increases. 

Basically, all charter schools have gained students, no matter the quality of their education.

I can think of two possible explanations for that:

1. Charter schools provide a better education than non-charters in ways that don’t show up on ACT scores. For example, a zero-tolerance approach to discipline that creates a safer learning environment, a curriculum that encourages more creative and critical thinking skills or teachers and administrators who forge tighter, more nurturing relationships with students and parents.

2. Charter schools get better public relations than non-charters, and so parents want to enroll their children there whether or not they actually provide a better education.

Obviously, Possibility 1 would be much better news for the market than Possibility 2, which suggests a major failure. My guess is that both are going on.

But I suggest that there is almost no way that the unmeasured benefits of Possibility 1 actually outweigh the awfulness of any high school where the average ACT score is 13 or 14. I am definitely in the camp that believes we make too much of standardized tests in education. Yet, having been (very briefly) a teacher myself, I know that there are scores below which there is just no way that a student has received a decent education–scores low enough to pretty much guarantee a failure in literacy and numeracy that not only rules a chance at any kind of higher education, but even the most menial of non-physical work as well as physical work that requires any kind of computation or written communication. 

In other words, these low-scoring schools are graduating people who simply have not been prepared to participate as adults in our society. And we’re rewarding them by handing them, through the growth of the charter sector, the responsibility for thousands of extra students.

Winners and losers, but no solutions

These numbers have established that on one end of the spectrum – low-performing charter schools – the market is failing spectacularly.

But it’s clear that, overall, there is some movement to higher-scoring schools. The median decline has been from a school with an ACT score of 14.9, while the median increase has been to a school with an ACT score of 17.7. That’s a huge and heartening gap.

Unfortunately, it also indicates one of the major problems with the “school market” approach. Why? Mostly because the minimum ACT score that demonstrates college readiness is 20. Very few of the schools gaining more students graduate a large minority – let alone a majority – of seniors who score that high.

Plus, half of all enrollment increases have been at schools that have ACT scores below the district’s average, which is below the minimum needed for college. 

Why would that be? I don’t know, but I can take a couple of guesses. For one, the top-scoring high schools in the city are mostly selective enrollment, and unlike neighborhood schools – which have to find room for students in their attendance areas no matter what – they won’t grow significantly unless they get extra room. Or maybe, since parents often send their children to schools where they know other families, there’s something going on with social networks.

More importantly, I would imagine, is the geographical problem. Most of the city’s very bad high schools are in certain neighborhoods on the South and West Sides, and a disproportionate number of the above-average ones are on the North Side. One-way commutes of over an hour would definitely be a disincentive to send your kid to the better high school across town – especially if you live in an area where getting to and from the nearest public transportation means crossing gang lines.

What does this all mean? Even though there is some movement to higher-scoring schools, Chicago’s market in high schools has some serious drawbacks:

….Half the city’s enrollment increase is happening at schools with ACT scores that are below district average.

…Charter schools, which make up virtually all of the schools added to the district over the last decade, grow rapidly regardless of whether they provide a good education or not.

…There are major structural impediments to moving kids from low-scoring to high-scoring schools.

Chicago’s market is creating clear winners and losers. Whether the outcome is worth it for the city overall is to some extent a judgment call. But what does seem clear is that the market isn’t getting rid of extremely low-performing schools—and the more charter schools the city creates, the worse the market will perform.

Daniel Hertz is a master’s degree student at the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago. This article was originally published on his blog at danielhertz.wordpress.com.