Madison Prep: Do Graduation Rates Matter?

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.

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10 Responses to Madison Prep: Do Graduation Rates Matter?

  1. Mary Worth says:

    I understand your calculation that an invested parent (who is system-knowledgeable about charters) equals successful student. But I don’t think that accounts for the entire picture of why Madison Prep might be successful, and I am going to venture that it will be successful for more than just those students who would be college-bound anyway. Your theory doesn’t take into consideration 2 things:
    1. Wright Middle School is a charter, and is VERY EASY for parents to choose, over the regular homeschools of Cherokee and Hamilton. On the form that asks which middle school your child will be attending a parent simply selects it. And, unfortunately, Wright does not produce a lot of high flyers on the WKCE, compared with the homeschools. Wright MS Charter is chosen by many families where the parents are not academically invested. It is chosen because of the culture. The neighborhood kids are going to it so the next kid wants to go too.
    2. Similarly, parents who are on not that invested in their child’s academics but may have some initial first generation aspirations towards their child’s success, in ADDITION to those parents who are already savvy, may chose Madison Prep. So in addition to the already successful African American and Latino kids, there may be kids on the fringe of that who attend Madison Prep and are nurtured by the rigorous culture NOT currently available for those kids in the home schools.

    Please consider these two points in the larger picture.

  2. janeofdane says:

    I think what the Madison community expects of Madison Prep is a solution to the problem of poor achievement rates among minority students. But is that the problem that Madison Prep seeks to tackle?

    As I read comments on this program, there are some who feel that MMSD should give the go-ahead to Madison Prep just because it has gone ahead with Badger Rock and it isn’t fair that a minority charter school doesn’t get funded too. I’m old enough to remember that Wright school was an attempt to create a minority charter school and to tackle the problem of unequal achievement. There are a lot of good things to say about Wright. It hasn’t closed the achievement gap. But that’s a pretty tall order and I’m not aware of any community that has found a solution.

    I wonder if we don’t need to know more about the achievement gap before we design methods of closing it. How much of it can be tackled by changes to our schools and how much of it requires other solutions? The achievement gap is not just black and white. Children of African and Carribbean immigrants tend to do very, very well in Madison schools. Children of the underclass, whatever their color, do much worse. What are the class components of the problem? We know that children whose families have housing and income instability are at risk. It’s difficult to stay on track when you’re constantly changing schools and homes. We have a mayor who has expressed interest in the problem of poverty in Madison and might be a partner in looking for ways to stabilize housing and income for families with school children. I think our community has not done all we can to support the families who support our school kids.

    And I believe that the education level of parents is very much correlated with student success. African immigrants are among the most educated of American immigrant groups. Is that why their children do so well in school? Can we offer education to parents as well as kids? I believe the schools have been offering some parenting education opportunities. How well attended are these classes? Are there parents who would study American history concurrently with the curriculum their kids are getting in high school? Would that help? I know many a high school student would not want to sit next to Mom in English class but I wouldn’t it be a good thing if family members all set educational goals at the beginning of the school year and supported each other in reaching them?

    Frankly, one of the things most apparent to me is that some kids need a more active learning style than we offer in our schools. It seems especially true for boys that they just can’t sit still for hours each day. Other models, such as apprenticeships or learning-by-doing activities have been proposed in other school districts. Has anyone ever surveyed the MMSD staff about the needs they see and what kind of innovation they feel might make the biggest difference in the success of our kids?

    I’m the parent of a minority student and disparate achievement levels worry me very much. But I think that Madison Prep proposal is a “follow-the-money” story. There is money to be made in private and charter schools and as I watch the proposal evolve with very little empirical data to back it up, I question the goals of the project. Don’t give this project the green light out of liberal guilt and vague notions that it will close the achievement gap. I suspect that our district dollars can be more effective elsewhere.

  3. jackiew6315 says:

    Via Kaleem Caire on facebook
    Madison Preparatory Academy has the largest and most diverse coalition of supporters of any education innovation that has come before the Madison School Board since the Urban League of Greater Madison advocated for the buil…ding of James C. Wright Middle School in the early 1980s. It’s interesting that those who oppose us cannot claim such unity of purpose, or such results. Madison Preparatory Academy has been endorsed by the youth of the Simpson Street Free Press, 100 Black Men of Madison, Latino Education Council, Communities United and more than 300 people who live in or are from the Greater Madison area. Add your name to the growing list of supporters. Click on the following link to sign our petition today and tell the Madison School Board you support Madison Prep:

    I do understand his comment about the unity of purpose, but I fail to see what the results are as they remain undefined. Janeofdane does a great job summing up many of my concerns. I worry about all of the kids that are currently supported by programs supported by the very groups endorsing Madison Prep. Many of these groups run wonderful and very important programs to assist a large number of disadvantaged students with everything from school supplies to tutoring. I fear that many of these programs that serve a large group of students will go by the wayside as there are only some many volunteers and resources to go around.

    The Board has to weigh what is best for the MMSD students as a whole and not the few students that would be lucky enough to enroll in Madison Prep.

  4. Mad4Madison says:

    Ed –

    In full disclosure, I am not supporting Madison Prep. There are many reasons for this and some have been posted very thoughtfully above.

    But I do have concern with some of the reasons why folks are against this instance of a charter school. For example:

    1) Was the same criteria used for all the other charter schools?

    2) Was the same criteria used for Nuestro Mundo? What are the achievement results at NM?

    3) Is the argument of casuality also used when comparing results to NM?

    I just see a very slippery slope when we compare the discussion and bar that is being set for Madison Prep – especially if it is different than what was used for the other charter schools. This is not a “voucher” issue, but a charter issue.

    I am not against the idea of a charter school. I am simply not for directing funds to the degree that Mad Prep is requesting – especially when I weigh the fact that no one seems to know what the net cost will be. Maybe I am crazy, but I make personal decisions based on cost v. benefit and that is hard to do when you don’t know the cost.

  5. Ted Lewis says:

    Thank you for this thoughtful, insightful post. I predict that, if it comes to fruition, Madison Prep’s students would have an inferior academic experience than they would have had otherwise. Non-union charter schools, because of their relatively poor working conditions, have twice the staff turnover of regular schools. A constantly changing staff undermines the conditions for effective teaching–experience, stability and collaboration. Instead of putting substantial resources into this experiment, the District should instead invest in measures that have been shown to work (such as those that have been successful at Sherman).

  6. noblejoanie says:

    Thanks, Ed, for your thoughtful approach to this proposal. I’d like to see some better analysis of the success or failure of Wright M.S. which was an earlier district effort to address the minority achievement gap. There isn’t an unlimited pot of money, thus it’s all the more important to consider the budgetary impact on all students; and I’d be especially interested in seeing broken out the impact on those minority students left behind in the public schools.

    Fundamentally, though, I’m very troubled by the premise underlying this charter school, namely that students do better surrounded by others who resemble them in gender and ethnicity. I’d be less troubled if the school’s purpose was to assemble a student body that resemble one another based on motivation to achieve without regard to gender or color.

  7. Torrey says:


    One thing your post ignores is “college readiness.” Your are focusing solely on graduation rates, as if that is the only determinant of going to college or future life success. You are correct that you can make a logical argument that it’s possible Madison Prep won’t boost overall graduation rates for the district (although I believe it will). But what will it do for college readiness? What if graduation rates don’t go up overall, but the percentage of students deemed “college ready” as well as actually going to college goes up substantially? The fact is, only 7% of African American seniors and 18% of Latino seniors were deemed “college ready” by ACT standards in 2010. While you can make a logical case for Madison Prep not boosting overall graduation rates (again, I think it will), one can also make a strong logical case for it drastically boosting college readiness levels for many MMSD students.

    So when you ask of Madison Prep, “What difference, if any, this will make in overall educational outcomes for Madison students,” I believe the answer lies in the increased number of students ready for college, and who will actually go to college. That’s what your are missing in your analysis.

  8. Torrey says:

    Ed, you asked the question:

    “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?”

    I’ll argue, and I’m sure you would agree, that the extent to which the achievement gap can be closed through Madison Prep is also a critical issue. This means it’s not just important to look at how many students would graduate from Madison Prep but NOT from one of our other High Schools, but also at how much of the achievement gap in actual learning and college readiness can be closed by Madison Prep vs. if the student stayed in one of our traditional schools.

    Fortunately there have been some studies on this effect. Caroline Hoxby looked at charters in New York City and compared the results over time of children who entered charter lotteries and got in vs. those who entered and lost, remaining in their traditional public school. The great thing about an analysis like this is that it eliminates the problem you stated above:

    “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… So, one would expect that charter schools will have higher graduation rates.”

    By nature Hoxby’s study included ONLY students whose parents were sufficiently involved in their child’s education, as each student’s parents – whether the student got into the charter or did not – made the effort to attempt to get their child in. If a study shows the long-term outcomes for students who won the lottery as being better than those who lost the lottery, that would seem to be a problem for your argument in this post – that it is unlikely/doubtful that Madison Prep would be any benefit overall to MMSD students.

    But that is in fact exactly what Hoxby found. As stated in the research paper, “On average, a student who attended a charter school for all of grades kindergarten through eight would close about 86 percent of the ‘Scarsdale-Harlem achievement gap’ in math and 66 percent of the achievement gap in English. On average, a lotteried-out student who stayed in the traditional public schools for all of grades kindergarten through eight would stay on grade level but would not close the ‘Scarsdale-Harlem achievement gap’ by much.”

    I would urge you to check out the research paper at or this summary in the NY Times at

  9. I have been slow to reply to the thoughtful comments that have been posted. I’ll try to address them all in one fell swoop.

    First, I take Mary Worth’s point as to Wright Middle School. While Wright technically is a charter school, it’s hard for me to see what distinguishes it today from our other middle schools. Whatever else one can say about Madison Prep, if it is established I don’t imagine anyone will have difficulty identifying differences between it and our other middle schools, including Wright.

    Mary also suggests I am overlooking the extent to which the school could be beneficial for students who don’t have the benefit of particularly savvy parents. Let me try to be clearer. I understand that some of the students who would enroll in Madison Prep are just the type who would benefit from its programs and who would find their way to the school without the benefit of savvy parents. The questions I have are, first, what percentage of the student body are those students likely to comprise, and, two, are there strategies that we can devise that would increase that percentage.

    As to the second point, I’d like to explore if there is a way to reserve some number of admission slots at the school for students from our elementary schools in the area who appear most likely to benefit from what Madison Prep would have to offer. There may be other ways to address this issue as well.

    Janeofdane, Jackiew6315, and Ted Lewis all raise a number of good points and questions about the likely effectiveness of Madison Prep, particularly compared with possible alternative approaches. I certainly understand that people have a number of questions and concerns about the Madison Prep model. I have raised a number of questions and concerns myself.

    While our commenters don’t oversimplify in this way, I have heard the view expressed that the Madison Prep proposal should be rejected because there are other, potentially more effective ways of addressing the achievement gap. I don’t think it is fair to judge the proposal on the basis of whether it will single-handedly eliminate the achievement gap. Of course it won’t. The achievement gap is a complicated issue. There are a multitude of contributing factors to the underachievement of our students of color, and those factors interact in complex ways that I cannot claim to understand.

    It is more realistic to ask whether Madison Prep will make a positive difference. This to me gets back to the cost question. If the net cost to the school district of the Madison Prep proposal can be brought down to a manageable level – and it appears that there may have been real progress on this effort in the past few days – then I’m more willing to take a chance on the proposal and see how effective it turns out to be.

    For me, there is a direct relationship between the cost to the school district of a proposal like this and the extent to which I need to be convinced that it will work the way it’s planned. The higher the cost, the higher the threshold of persuasion.

    This brings up the point that we should apply the same standards to the Madison Prep proposal as we did to the Badger Rock charter school proposal. In general, I agree. Here is something I wrote last November about the projected cost to the school district of Badger Rock:

    “I expressed the view at our [November 29 Board] meeting that cost-neutral would be great, but that we cannot realistically expect that we could implement new and innovative charter schools and other programs without spending some additional money. Badger Rock looks to be a great proposal on many levels. If it ends up costing us $200,000 next year, I’m okay with that in light of the many benefits to the District that the school promises.”

    I feel the same way today about Madison Prep. We can’t realistically expect the proposal to be cost-neutral to the school district. My initial analysis of the likely net cost of Madison Prep to the district, based on the school’s proposed budget at the time, seemed to me to be clearly too much.

    But that number is coming down. If we can get it down to anywhere near the $200,000 range for its first year, that would address the cost issue for me. (By the way, the Badger Rock folks pared their budget further after the November Board meeting I wrote about, and its first year net cost to the District is projected to come in at under $100,000.)

    As I have written, I am not willing to cut our existing school programs to fund Madison Prep. However, we have unused taxing authority available under the revenue caps. If the net cost of the Madison Prep proposal declines to an acceptable level, and if my other concerns about the proposal can be addressed, I could be willing to earmark a specified amount of our unused taxing authority for the net cost of Madison Prep over the five years of its requested contract term. In other words, the net cost of the proposal would be paid entirely by Madison property owners. With this approach, we’d have less of an either/or situation, where authorizing Madison Prep would effectively operate to exclude alternative approaches to addressing student achievement concerns.

    As to Torrey’s point, I agree that graduation rates, standing alone, are not a sufficient measure of the educational value of Madison Prep or any other school. My point was more limited. There has been a lot of talk about how Madison Prep is needed in order to increase the graduation rates of our students of color. That’s a goal we can all get behind. But we have to be careful about how we measure it.

    Even if the overall quality of Madison Prep somehow turned out to be exactly the same quality of education as that available at our other high schools, Madison Prep’s graduation rate for students of color is quite likely to be higher than it is at our other high schools, simply because of the characteristics of the students who are likely to enroll. If the school can turn likely non-graduates into graduates, that will be a wonderful thing, but it is that sort of transformation in the trajectory of a student’s performance that we should be most interested in measuring rather than graduation rates as a whole.

    Torrey repeats once again the figures about “college readiness.” As I have written more than once, this measure of “college readiness” has been derived by the ACT organization and requires, among other things, an ATC score of 24 or higher on the Science subpart of the ACT test. Nationally, only 25% of students of any color who take the ACT meet the college readiness benchmark to which Torrey refers. The percentage of Madison’s African-American students who met the benchmark on the ACT last year – 14% – is not nearly high enough to suit us, but it is considerably higher than the comparable figures for African-American students at the state and national levels.

    Finally, Mad4Madison asks about Nuestro Mundo. I wasn’t on the Board when Nuestro Mundo was first authorized as a charter school and I don’t know what standards were applied to the application, though my recollection is that it was not without controversy and the vote approving the charter school was one of the very few where the School Board overrode the recommendation of Superintendent Art Rainwater. Our current Board policy for considering charter school applications came later. By the way, Nuestro Mundo seems to be showing strong results. The school did quite well on our most recent value-added analysis, particularly in math.

  10. Laura Chern says:

    If you are willing to raise the tax levy for Madison Prep, how about raising it for other programs that help kids like SMALLER CLASS SIZES, AVID, more SEAs, more recess, more social workers and pyschologists, or better lunches? This really wears on my last nerve Ed.

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