Earlier this week, ProPublica published a data-heavy exposé showing how school districts across the country are offloading struggling students into alternative high school programs with weak curricula and no connection to accountability systems. In effect, the students in these programs disappear without a trace. Districts game their dropout rates and test scores while unscrupulous school operators exploit the students who need a good education most desperately.
It’s great to shine a light on this longstanding, thorny problem. What’s not so great is that ProPublica’s sense of history doesn’t go back far enough. The report blames No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and charter schools for problems they didn’t cause. Before NCLB, many districts used the same strategies ProPublica details to hide dropouts and inflate their graduation rates.
Quite likely, two truths are operating at the same time: districts responded inappropriately to NCLB pressures, and NCLB’s data reporting requirements made their games easier to see.
ProPublica highlights a particular group of charters—for-profit, virtual or near-virtual schools that lack the services and supports needed to help young people facing huge academic and personal challenges get back on track for a high school diploma.
While it is inexcusable that a subset of problematic charters have become dumping grounds for young people who deserve better, that’s not a reason to blame the sector as a whole. The root cause of the problem is districts’ failure to ensure a solid educational experience for all students, even the hardest to reach.
System-Gaming Has Existed for Decades
Ways to make hard-to-serve young people disappear from high school rolls have existed since well before Michelle Fine’s groundbreaking study on this problem, Framing Dropouts, was published in 1991. In the early 1980s, Fine discovered that only 20 percent of the freshmen who entered one of New York City’s comprehensive high schools actually graduated. Policies around attendance and discipline pushed the rest out.
As my own 1999 reporting in Chicago showed, high schools frequently hide dropouts by transferring them to alternative schools where graduation rates and other outcomes weren’t tracked, so they didn’t count toward overall data. Despite promises from the district to address the problems, the issue resurfaced in 2015, forcing the city to recalculate graduation rates.
Notably, in Chicago, charter schools weren’t the source of the problem. Instead, the district rapidly expanded seats in alternative schools by contracting directly with for-profit alternative school providers. Just as ProPublica did nationally, Chicago journalists raised important questions about the quality of education they offer.
In an interesting Chicago twist, in the mid-1990s former CEO Paul Vallas encouraged a number of deeply-rooted, community-based alternative schools to unite under the umbrella of Youth Connection Charter School. In these schools, students attend full school days, earn credits in engaging classes and have close contact with teachers. By contrast with the schools featured in ProPublica’s reporting, data show the majority of Youth Connection Charter students earn high school diplomas and continue their education in community colleges.
It is unfortunate that school districts and operators have too often turned to alternative schools as a gaming mechanism rather than a true support for struggling students. And it is important to understand that chartering itself is not the root cause of the problem. We just put the old wine of gaming the system into a new kind of cask.
It’s critical that we in the worlds of journalism and public policy continue to keep our eyes on what actually happens to our most challenged young people as they make their way through high school and beyond. No Child Left Behind’s reporting requirements have helped us all get a better handle on who is graduating and how well-prepared they are for their next steps in life.
As states prepare to create new accountability plans under the Every Child Succeeds Act, the lesson we should draw from ProPublica’s work is not to ease up on reporting but to extend it into the shadowy world of alternative schools, to see the truth about what happens to our young people.