Thursday, March 29, 2012

Public Education Dictionary: Creaming

If you are like me and didn't grow up on a farm you may be only vaguely familiar with the concept of creaming.You see, cream is made from milk, whereby the non-homogenized milk that comes out of the cow will naturally separate if left to sit, and the thicker part of the milk--the cream--rises to the top.

The act of "creaming" is when you remove the very top of the milk and set it aside to be used for making ice cream or baking or what-have-you (for you scientists, the
technical definition).

To describe how this term is used in public education, I offer the following parable.

I recently challenged a friend of mine who runs a service business which has about 1000 customers. I bet him a dollar (and pride) that I could run his business better than he could. To prove this I would take half of his customers and after a year's time we'd see who would have happier customers and higher profits. 
On the face of it, I made an offer to my friend he couldn't refuse: obviously he knows that I know nothing about his business, so he can't lose, right? 
He took the bet and we got down to the details on how we'd actually arrange things (which he agreed I would dictate). 
My arrangement was this: that I take his 500 best customers who have the most money and the fewest customer support issues. Also, if I find that over the course of time any of his customers become problematic or unprofitable, he will be obligated to take them back.
Needless to say, I won the bet. How could I lose?
You see, I engaged in the "creaming" of my friend's customers.

So when you hear critics of Charter Schools accuse them of "creaming" the best students, this is what they mean.

Charter schools engage in "creaming" in several ways:

  1. There is natural selection at work with Charters (which admittedly is not as big a factor in our area as others). Charter schools advertise a "better" product than the surrounding schools, and as a tendency, only the most education-oriented parents will apply--which are exactly the kids who tend to do a lot better in school.
  2. Second, there's selective marketing. Charter schools get to market their product any way they want, and they can target whomever they want. Needless to say they tend to target students who will maximize their test scores, profits, and so on. Bullis Charter School, in our case, is generally marketed in the richest part of our community, Los Altos Hills (where they also have a lottery preference).
  3. Third, in the case of our Charter experiment here in Los Altos, there's the issue of "suggested donations". At the information night, the pitch you here is along the lines of the following: "We need $5000 per student per year to maintain our school. If you don't pay this, one of your fellow parents will need to pay to make up the difference--or else our school will cease to exist". Obviously this will, as a tendency, heavily discourage parents who cannot afford $5000/year per child.
  4. Rejection of kids who are not "cream". Charter schools are free to expel any child they want, whenever they want--just like any private school could.  
One poster on a comments section in Seattle had this to say about Charter Schools (and creaming):
"If charter schools are so incredible, you should be able to name one that performs better than public schools without additional money, being selective about admissions, or expelling kids who do not perform academically.
I have never heard of one and have repeatedly asked proponents to tell me one so that I can read up on it. However, nobody seems able to do so. Can you please help me out? You are so certain of their success, you must have heard of one, yes?"
So far, no takers.

is an important concept to understand as it underscores how Charter Schools do not solve any real-world problems, they simply move them around. They take the easiest, cheapest-to-educate, highest-performing children and concentrate them in a single school, 
leaving public schools with the rest, making the Charter school look great, the public school look terrible, and reducing diversity for everybody.


  1. Joan -- I don't actually know who you are but these posts are brilliant. You're assembling a very cogent and intelligent argument about the abject failure of charter schools as they have manifested in high-performing school districts.

    I don't know -- and it's just that, I simply don't have the data -- to know if the charter school movement has been more successful in the context of underperforming school districts.

    In the particular case of BCS however, it is absolutely clear the the "innovation experiment" is a complete and total failure at achieving any goal related to improved outcomes, reduced costs, improved management, or real educational differences.

    Keep the posts coming. Great stuff.

    1. Thanks for the kind words, Bob.

      The nationwide data for Charters is coming in(see: for instance) and the results are "mixed" at best (17/46/37 better/same/worse). But that's just the surface level: the REAL story is encapsulated in that quote above, and in the overall Creaming problem.

      We would call a given Charters a success if--and only if--it produced a superior output with a similar input. Like that poster, I haven't seen it. I mean, surely out of the thousands of Charters out there, clearly there has to be at least ONE anecdotal bit of evidence, but the silence is deafening.

      The problem, one can surmise, is that no Charter would ever actively AVOID Creaming (and it would require an active role) because there's no Earthly reason to so. As such we may never find such a specimen--but that itself tells its own story.

  2. This wasn't new to me, but very well written. I could see a role for charters if they focused on different learning styles(like public Waldorf option, for example). I think charters may have begun with great intention, but as in Buddhism great intention must also have great action(and visa versa!). The coming of national standards seems to take us farther away from choices, although after reviewing the standards they are not that different, nor do they address any of the education issues we currently face. Must just be about Federal dollars.

    1. I have become a fan of what I understand Magnet schools to be: an alternative program that is controlled by the local school district. This way, an alternative, or even experimental program could be offered, but it could be done under democratic control, and without public dollars flowing to private corporations. The local District could then appropriately prioritize the program, limit it if necessary, main-stream some of its aspects, and so on.

      I also think priorities should be arranged to get a working baseline *first* and leave experiments *second*. Choice costs money. If a community is willing to invest enough money in education to the point where there is already an excellent baseline education for everybody, then--and only then--should they be thinking about branching out. A Waldorf-like option in a poverty-stricken inner-city neighborhood makes no more sense there than would a Whole Foods Market.

    2. The reality is that test scores(which are of course only one measure) can be predicted mostly by zip code and other demographics. This is because of a lot of factors(parental income, education of parents, etc.). My point is a lot can done to improve education but there will always be some that have an advantage. This can be seem in the wealth gap in our country. I really don't see that changing a whole lot. My son is in private kindergarten this year mainly because I don't drive and moved into the district after registration, thus would not be able to get into the school closest to home. However, my sister who is a teacher thinks its a great idea. She has 31 kids in her kindergarten class, 60% of whom are ELL. My son's class has 16-17 students and is an all day kindergarten class. Hopefully I am employed soon so I can continue it(currently credentialed teacher for k-6 and business but jobs are few!), but those with access to a higher quality of education will end up towards the top.

      The thing I would like to see changed is the idea that a 4 year college is needed. Why not start giving kids in middle and high school vocational training? You don't need a 4 year college education to be a graphics artist, for example.

    3. You should read my blog posting titled, "Closing the Parent Gap". In short, I completely agree that parents (and poverty) predict test scores.

      My article also takes this idea "seriously": why not make less fortunate parents, better parents? This might cost a lot, but I bet it would still be cheaper than all of the programs they have now (which seem to be based on a world which ignores this obvious fact). If you're serious about closing the achievement gap, you need to close the parent gap.

      Sure, the children of millionaires are always going to live a charmed existence, but the two century-old vision of public education being the great equalizer can be improved upon. We may not close the gap entirely, but I think we can narrow it a lot.