Charter school debate overlooks lessons learned


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In the debate over how to improve the nation’s educational system, there is typically no middle ground on the value of charter schools. You’re either for them or against them. But in their fervor, both sides are missing a more fundamental question: Which charters work, and why?

Charters — publicly financed schools run by private entities with flexibility on curriculum, teacher pay and dismissals — can make valuable contributions, but not always.

Enough charters (more than 5,000) have been tried in enough places for enough years to start drawing some conclusions. One has to do with the way failing students are treated. In traditional public schools, that’s considered the student’s problem. At successful charters, teachers are expected to find ways to reach them and move them forward. That’s one common denominator economist Margaret Raymond has found in her research of charters for Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes.

Effective charters also are usually organized around a single guiding principle. At High Tech High, which opened in San Diego in 2000 and is now part of a growing network, the principle is that students learn best by being engaged in projects. The culture at KIPP (the Knowledge is Power Program) schools, a 99-school network with remarkable results, is built around motivating students to work long, hard hours with college as the prize. KIPP extends the time students spend in class through longer days, twice-monthly Saturday classes and summer school. To engage parents, a KIPP teacher visits each student’s home and works on a “learning pledge,” which is signed by the teacher, the student and the parents.

Still, KIPP and other high-performing charters are not the norm. Raymond’s 2009 study of charters in 15 states and Washington, D.C., found that just 17% of charters were providing superior education opportunities for their students, half were no different from traditional schools and a third delivered results that were worse than public schools.

For anyone interested in reform, the Stanford study provided plenty to chew on, but few educators took a bite. Only a handful of states contacted the author for data that identified the schools and their performance. Most states and localities seemed utterly uninterested in facts that might shake their preconceptions.

A few districts took a more sensible approach. New York City contracted for its own study, and Raymond found some brighter news: More than half of charters delivered better outcomes in math than traditional schools. A non-profit educational group in New Orleans commissioned a study, too, and is using the data to award grants to effective schools.

New York and New Orleans are unafraid to close ineffective charters — something that was supposed to be central to the charter experiment. In exchange for taxpayer funds and freedom to operate outside the traditional school format, charters would be highly accountable. Somewhere along the way, accountability got lost. It’s as tough to close a bad charter as a traditional failing school. Yet shutting down bad charters is as important as learning from successful ones.

As debate swirls around charters in Georgia, Indiana, New York City and other locales, there’s no reason that the successful models shouldn’t own a larger share of the education marketplace. All that stands in the way are school boards afraid to close failing charters, and misplaced battles that pit charters against traditional schools.