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.