I don’t know if the Urban League’s plans for Madison Prep will come to fruition. If they do, I predict here and now that the school will have a higher graduation rate than the Madison school district as a whole for African-American students and probably for other groups of students as well. I also predict that all or nearly all of its graduates will apply to and be admitted to college. What is impossible to predict is what difference, if any, this will make in overall educational outcomes for Madison students.
Of course charter schools like Madison Prep will have higher graduation rates than their home school districts as a whole. Students enrolled in charter schools are privileged in one clear way over students not enrolled. Each student has a parent or other caregiver sufficiently involved in the child’s education to successfully navigate the process to get the student into the charter school. Not all students in our traditional neighborhood schools have that advantage. Other things equal, students with more involved parents/caregivers will be more likely to graduate from high school. So, one would expect that charter schools will have higher graduation rates.
But correlation is not causation. We can’t infer from this that the students graduate at a higher rate because of the charter schools. To make that assumption would be to fall into the post hoc ergo propter hoc logical fallacy.
An example helps make the point. It is also undoubtedly the case that students enrolled in private music lessons when in elementary school are more likely to graduate from high school than children who do not take such lessons. Parents who are willing to spring for private lessons are also likely to be highly engaged in their children’s schooling, and this will enhance the students’ likelihood of graduating from high school. But I don’t think many people would argue that private music lessons cause higher high school graduation rates, and so the state should provide vouchers for private music lessons. Again, correlation is not causation.
What we’d want to be able to figure out is the extent to which, if at all, enrollment in charter schools changes the educational outcome for students – how many students would graduate from high school only because they were able to take advantage of the program at Madison Prep? That is to say, the student would have dropped out if compelled to remain at East, LaFollette, Memorial or West but graduated instead because the Madison Prep option was available. If we’re investing in a charter school in order to obtain higher graduation rates, that is the only figure we’d be interested in.
It’s the same thing with admission to college. The principal focus of Madison Prep will be to prepare students to apply to and be successful in college. To achieve this goal, students will need both the requisite interest and capability. Choosing to enroll in Madison Prep will demonstrate a student’s (or his or her parents’) interest in college. Sticking with the program for seven years will likely evidence the student’s capability. (If a Madison Prep student turns out not to be college material, it seems unlikely that he or she would stay at the school for seven years.)
Given these dynamics as well as the school’s strong interest in promoting a 100% college admission statistic, it will be notable if any Madison Prep graduate is not admitted to some college, somewhere.
Just as a culinary arts high school would graduate more students who go on to work in restaurants than a comprehensive high school like our four in Madison, a specialized school like Madison Prep will graduate more students who pursue the specialty, which in this case is college.
If Madison Prep gets the go-ahead, graduation rates and college admission statistics, standing alone, will likely tell us next to nothing about the actual impact that the school will have on overall educational outcomes for Madison students.
That impact will depend on the extent to which Madison Prep graduates will be, on the one hand, students who chose an alternative path to the college education that was their destination in any event, or, on the other hand, students whose attendance at Madison Prep was somehow the determining factor in delivering them to a college doorstep.
I don’t know how we’ll be able to distinguish between those two groups in a systematic way. But without that insight, we’ll have no way of knowing whether a school district investment in the Madison Prep proposal will yield payoffs in terms of higher graduation rates that in any way justify its expense.