About that Cato Institute Charter School/Philanthropy Report…

Yesterday I tweeted about a Cato Institute study purporting to show that philanthropists are ignoring the California charter school networks that get the best academic results. 

I often take a critical view of private philanthropists' role in education reform. But when I took a closer look at this particular study's methodology and results, I found that there are good reasons why big donors might avoid the top three charters here, despite their good performance on 2010 Advanced Placement exams and state standardized tests, the only measures used by Cato to assess quality.

The American Indian Public Charter Schools (#1 in Cato study, 21st for funding) were founded by Ben Chavis. (CORRECTION: A DIFFERENT BEN CHAVIS, FORMERLY BEN CHAVIS MUMAHAMMAD, WAS FORMER DIRECTOR OF THE NAACP.) I've written before about "No Excuses" charters, but AIM is somewhat infamous for taking the ideology to a whole 'nother level, so to speak. When Chavis was principal of the schools, he was known for berating employees and directing racial epithets toward students, supposedly to motivate them to overcome negative stereotypes. 

Even though Chavis is no longer principal, the AIM schools continue to embrace controversial discipline practices, such as sending misbehaving students to sit on the floor of older childrens' classrooms. There are few music, art, or sports programs. What's more, the school's website is filled with unusual references to the importance of "free-market capitalism." Children and teachers are given cash rewards for academic success. 

Plenty of folks celebrate Chavis and his schools. Others might be uncomfortable funding them, and I can't say I blame then. 

As for the Oakland Charter Academies (#2 in Cato study, 27th for funding), they came under new management are were renamed the Amethod Schools in 2004, as a means of addressing a history of organizational turmoil. Since then, achievement results have been good, but until the schools garner a longer, more stable track record, it's unlikely they'll attract much foundation support. 

The number three school in the Cato report is Wilder's Prepatory Academy Charter School (#3 in Cato study, 39th for funding(, a combined elementery and middle school in Ingleside, CA. Its website is not up-to-date and contains little information on the school's approach to curriculum, instruction, or anything else. Nor did I find any media mentions of the school. Other than test score data, there's not much here to convince a philanthropist to make a large investment. 

Anyhow, I'd say this Cato report serves as a reminder that we always need to probe deeper than test score data when we assess any school. Philanthropists rightly look for other evidence of success, including competent management, the political viability of the school's model, and a coherent approach to learning. 

5 thoughts on “About that Cato Institute Charter School/Philanthropy Report…

  1. Mike Klonsky


    Are you sure that you’re talking about the same Ben Chavis Muhammad, who was the head of the NAACP? I think this is a different guy. I can’t imagine Ben Chavis, the famed civil rights leader, running a fascistic charter school in Oakland.

  2. Andrew Coulson

    Ms. Goldstein is indeed mistaken. Ben Chavis, who developed the American Indian education model, is an American Indian. The Benjamin Chavis Muhammad with whom she confuses him, who directed the NAACP, is African American.

    Ms. Goldstein is also mistaken to assume that the findings of my study depend on the inclusion of any particular handful of schools. They point to an overall pattern that persists even when the outliers are excluded, as is discussed in the paper itself. The pattern in question is that there is no meaningful correlation between the academic performance of California’s 68 charter school networks and the level of philanthropic funding they are receiving.

    Ms. Goldstein is also mistaken in claiming that the AIPCS schools have neither athletic nor music programs, although academics are certainly the schools’ main focus.

    I would have been happy to correct these misapprehensions in advance if asked. Some fairly extensive corrections to this post seem in order.

  3. Dana

    Hi Andrew and Mike, thanks for the comments, I’ve corrected my confusion about the two different Ben Chavis-es. Many apologies!

    As for the school’s lack of tradtional art, music, and sports programs, I took this directly from its own website FAQ, here:

    link to aimschools.org

  4. Andrew Coulson

    Hi Dana,

    If I recall correctly, you hadn’t originally said no “traditional” sports programs, but simply “no sports programs.” Both golf and rugby have been available to AIPCS high school students, as you can read in Chavis’ book (just Google: AIPCS rugby, and you’ll find the first hit is to Google Books).

    The book also discusses extracurricular music lessons.

    More importantly, in the context of a review of my paper, is the fact that the inclusion or exclusion of ultra-high achieving schools like Ben’s has little impact on the results, as I mention in the study itself. Even ignoring these schools, philanthropists are still throwing money at charter networks more or less randomly. That is a huge problem, because it will not lead to the scaling up of the best and the crowding out of the inferior schools, which is what the philanthropists themselves say they want.

  5. Max Bean

    I haven’t read the paper and I haven’t studied the schools, but I think the implications of Dana’s argument go beyond the specific outlier schools she discusses: the point seems to be that test scores are not necessarily the best way of measuring a school. Without supporting or opposing that position, I think we can agree that there’s a difference between funding schools based on factors other than test scores and funding schools “more or less at random.”

    Maybe philanthropists are not so much enacting the blind will of natural selection as supporting pedagogical ideas that appeal to them. That’s not necessarily a good thing, but is a very human thing. People’s beliefs about pedagogy are very deeply held and tied to very fundamental psychological and philosophical conditions. I think we often fail to recognize the force and tenacity of these allegiances in shaping (and derailing) education reform initiatives.


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