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Posted at 6:01 PM ET, 05/25/2010

Charter school stats challenged

By Valerie Strauss

I received an email from the Harlem Success Academy (see below) taking issue with a post I wrote on Sunday that talks about the school.

The post referred to a story by Steven Brill in The New York Times magazine that compared two New York City schools, P.S. 149 and the academy in terms of student populations.

Brill had written that the student population was the same. I quoted numbers from the NYC Public School parents blog showing that the populations were not the same.

The email I received was sent by Jenny Sedlis, director of external affairs for the Success Charter Network. Here’s what the e-mail said:


There has been a lot of misinformation floating around in response to the Steven Brill NY Times Magazine piece. The NYC Public School Parents blog posted inaccurate information, which was then repeated word-for-word on a Washington Post blog. For those interested in the real facts, please see below.

Special education:

1. PS 149 in fact tests FEWER special education students than we do at HSA. They had only 3 children with IEPs take the 3rd grade test while we had 9 children with IEPs take the test in 2009. (See PS 149 report card, page 14, attached) PS 149 either doesn’t have as many students with IEPs in 3rd grade or is not testing them.


1. HSA actually tested more students classified as "economically disadvantaged." HSA tested 43 economically disadvantaged students while PS 149 tested 39. True, as a percentage of the overall students tested, PS 149’s percentage is higher. However, and this is a big however, poverty was not a determinant of our students’ performance. Of our 43 "economically disadvantaged" students who took the test, 93% passed the ELA and 33% got "4s." Our "economically disadvantaged" students had a significantly higher percentage of "4s" than our not "economically disadvantaged" students. In fact, while 100% of our not "economically disadvantaged" students passed the test, NONE got "4s." On math, poverty was also not a determinant in performance. 100% of our "economically disadvantaged" students passed the math test and 63% got "4s."

2. The stats she cites for poverty are incorrect. If you look at the attached report cards for PS 149 and HSA -- we have the SAME EXACT percentage of students eligible for free or reduced lunch -- 70%. They do have a higher percentage of students eligible for free lunch, however, they certainly do not have the 81% free lunch that the bloggers claim (it’s 68%). And again, our students eligible for free priced lunch still aced the tests, so it’s really not an excuse.

3. There are many schools you could compare HSA to that have far fewer economically disadvantaged students that nonetheless have far lower scores. For example, PS 6 on the Upper East Side of Manhattan has just 10% free and reduced students (and 9.6% of 3rd graders tested are "economically disadvantaged") and HSA still outperformed them.


1. PS 149 only had 2 Limited English Proficient (LEP) students take the 3rd grade test in 2009. While HSA did not have any LEP students take the test, I don’t think that a difference of two students is significant enough to draw any major conclusions. We do have LEP students taking the test this year, so we’ll be able to see in the coming months whether we were able to help LEP students pass the tests or not.

2. While we are not arguing with the point that we’ve had trouble attracting LEP students, we have for next year given preferential admission to them in the lottery, so I suspect the disparity will be gone next year.


1. We don’t track or report students in temporary housing so I don’t know where the first blogger would have gotten her information. I know anecdotally that we have dozens of families across the network in temporary housing, but I unfortunately don’t have hard stats on this one.

2. I can though say that the blogger’s assertion that PS 149 has 10% homelessness is false. In 07-08, PS 149 had 476 students, 13 of which were in temporary housing. That’s 2.7%. Here’s the link to verify:

While it doesn’t list 08-09 stats, it seems unlikely that their homelessness stats increased to 10% from 2.7% in one year.


I appreciate the email but I still stand by my original post, which I wrote mainly to point out that public schools have to take every student who walks through the door and most charter schools don’t.

I did not discuss which school has a better achievement record, nor did I disparage charter schools. In fact, I noted that many charter schools are wonderful institutions and work wonders for poor children, and I am sure that the Harlem Success Academy is one of them.

The information on the blog where I first saw the statistics was written by Leonie Haimson, executive director of the nonprofit Class Size Matters. I talked to her about the stats and her sources. I believed them to be accurate when I wrote the post, and I still do, with discussions about two of them below.

-Sedlis challenges a statistic about homelessness at P.S. 149, saying that the 10 percent figure that I cited could not be true and the true figure had to be lower. But this New York City government document, dated April 2010 says that P.S. 149, in 2008-09, had 42 students in temporary housing out of a total population of 411 students. That's 10.2 percent.

-A second statistic that she challenges, however, is worth a correction and a larger discussion. I wrote that P.S. 149, “81 percent [of students] are poor enough to receive free lunch,” while “49 percent of the students at the Harlem Success Academy are poor.” In the email, Sedlis said that the percentage of students eligible for free or reduced price lunch at both schools were exactly the same, at 70 percent. The 81 percent is clearly wrong, and I have corrected it in the original post.
It is worth noting that if we pare back the statistic to only the students receiving free lunch -- which is the poorest group -- the charter school has 49 percent and P.S. 149 has 68 percent.

As is often true with statistics, one can often find reports to buttress any argument.

The document I quoted a few paragraphs ago says that the “poverty rate” at P.S. 149 for the current school year is 80.7. (That’s where the 81 percent came from. “Poverty rate” is often used to mean the percentage of students eligible for free and reduced price lunch, but sometimes only for those students eligible for free lunches.) Yet another report, from 2009, said P.S. 149 had a “poverty rate” of 100 percent.

So you can see why citing statistics doesn’t always prove a point, and can often not be the last word.

In this case, my last words will be the same as my first in the original post.

Charter schools often like to say they do better with the same population of children. That, surely, is sometimes true. And just as surely, that sometimes isn’t. The important thing to remember in any comparison is to make sure that the comparisons are real and true.

That’s all I was trying to do.

If you’ve read this far, THANK YOU!


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By Valerie Strauss  | May 25, 2010; 6:01 PM ET
Categories:  Charter schools  | Tags:  Brill piece, New York City schools, New York Times magazine and Brill story, P.S. 149, Steven Brill story, charter schools, statistics in charter school piece  
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Steven Brill wrote:
LEP student percentage was about five times the low percentage she uses.

Not based on the data from here, Steven:

2 ELL out of 276 equals 0.7%, based upon the math skills I learned in Catholic parochial school

Steven also responded:
For starters, according to the Department of Education’s own statistics, there were about 40% more students enrolled on the charter side of the building than the numbers she cites,

She gave no enrollment stats in the post I noted.

So, what do we have here?
Mr. Steven Brill has misstated “facts” twice.

Posted by: edlharris | May 25, 2010 8:05 PM | Report abuse

keep it up, edlharris. Don't let the B*stards get you down.

Posted by: efavorite | May 25, 2010 9:35 PM | Report abuse

Thank you. As a DCPS parent whose child suffers because of Rhee's ineffective leadership, I watch NYC closely.

I truly appreciate your efforts to do actual reporting on the subject of education. Your work, Bill Turque's work and some of the thoughtful commenters on your blog offer the best analysis of what's going on in education right now in DC and nationwide.

Posted by: Title1SoccerMom | May 26, 2010 10:04 AM | Report abuse

I can say with certainty that in DC, charter schools must take whatever students come through the door. Granted, there are space limitations, so lotteries are used as the only method of "selection". Most DCPS neighborhood schools must take whatever students live in their neighborhoods without limitations on the number, and they can select those that don't, but not all neighborhoods are low-income and its not like they're overcrowded; in fact there are several DCPS schools with majorities of upper income students; plus, they have several selective schools that only take students with past grade level or advanced performance. It is hard to compare charters to DCPS when you have populations that are diverse (charters have students from every ward and background) on the one hand and homogenous (DCPS has students where most come from the same neighborhood or same academic background) on the other. It certainly isn't a correct assumption that charters have the easier student populations to teach.

Posted by: DCcomm | May 26, 2010 11:32 AM | Report abuse

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