Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
By Larry F. Miller Oct. 26, 2011
Council should get to the bottom of ‘miracle school’
Rocketship schools seem to have a serious problem with attrition
When it comes to education, everyone wants a miracle. Milwaukee’s Common Council is considering a proposal to open eight charter schools run by Rocketship Education, a national charter network claiming to create what some people call “miracle” schools.
According to Gary Rubinstein, a Teach for America alumnus and Noel Hammatt, researchers who operate “Miracleschools.Wikispaces.com,” a “miracle” school is one that is significantly outperforming schools in its neighborhood despite working with the same student populations and the same resources.
Their litmus test for being rated a “miracle” school is fulfilling a list of nine factors. If a school fails in any of these categories, the researchers say, it is not truly a “miracle” school. The factors are:
- A low attrition rate;
- High test scores;
- Fair representation of special education students;
- Fair representation of English language learner students;
- A high percentage of students who qualify for free or reduced-price meals;
- Funding equivalent to the nearby “failing” schools;
- High graduation rate (for high schools);
- High college acceptance rate (for high schools);
- No evidence that the school discriminates against low performing students.
Rocketship Education began its charter model in San Jose, Calif., and is now scheduled to expand nationwide, including the eight elementary schools proposed for Milwaukee.
Rocketship operates only three schools, and yet is getting business support to expand nationally. It is important to go beyond the selected data that Rocketship Education chooses to present. When one sorts through data that is available from the California Department of Education, some troubling facts emerge in the areas of attrition rates, special education students and discrimination against low-performing students.
Clear data on attrition rates are not available from the two San Jose Rocketship model schools. This is in sharp contrast to Milwaukee Public Schools, which makes public all such information for all of its schools. However, by looking at enrollment changes over time, attrition problems become apparent. Rocketship Si Se Puede Academy, now in its third year of operation, had a 79% loss of students in the cohort moving from fourth to fifth grade in 2010-2011. Rocketship Mateo Sheedy Elementary had a 20% loss of students for the cohorts going into fifth grade for both the 2009-2010 and 2010-2011 school years.
This significant drop in student enrollment for specific class levels raises serious questions about the schools’ operations and claims of high test scores. In San Jose districtwide, the loss of student population is less than 1%.
Other disturbing data include the low enrollment of special education students. While the San Jose school district has a special education population of more than 12%, the Rocketship Si Se Puede Academy has only 14 special education students total. Its sister school, Rocketship Mateo Sheedy Elementary, serves only 15 special education students out of a total of 270 students. The newest school, Rocketship Los Suenos Academy, serves only 11 special education students. Keeping the number of special education students below 20, as shown in all three schools, means that special education is not considered as a subgroup required to make “adequate yearly progress” under No Child Left Behind.
The practice of not serving special education students or forcing out low-performing students can produce the appearance of successful schools. KIPP charter schools, for example, have been exposed for similar practices in their attempt to raise test scores. If “behavior problem” students and special education students, who often are challenged by standardized tests, are taken out of the equation, test scores for the school rise. But such results are hardly miraculous.
Every child in Milwaukee deserves a high performing school. But the starting point for any school must be transparency and integrity in its claims of achievement.
I urge Milwaukee’s Common Council to carefully research all of Rocketship’s outcomes before approving its request for a charter.
Larry F. Miller represents the Fifth District on the Milwaukee School Board.