Part 2 of Innovation Everywhere, But Never the Change We Seek: Public Charter Districts

This is the second blog post in a series that examines some of the more popular reform movements, and their potential to transform education systems and raise student achievement. The list of education reforms that have been enacted during my career is long. A few have been successful, but the ingredients for their success were not scalable. More often these innovations have not been able to raise student achievement or close the achievement gap.

The Charter School movement has been one of the most controversial school reforms from its inception. Supporters typically claim charters provide families with choices, particularly in large urban districts where parents feel the traditional public schools have failed them. Opponents of the movement claim that these schools are not really open to all students, especially more challenging students, and drain resources from already financially challenged traditional public schools.

The idea of school choice is one that political conservatives have strongly supported. Many people believe that government has failed at providing quality public education, so the only way to improve the quality and efficiency of schools is to privatize education. It makes sense that if free market competition drives product innovation and quality in other sectors, then applying these same principles in the education “market” should drive improvements in the quality of schools, ultimately resulting in higher academic achievement.

After more than 15 years, charter schools have proved to be a mixed bag. Some charters are performing better than the local public counterparts, some are performing worse, and many are performing at equal levels. With more than 1 billion dollars of taxpayer money being controlled by Charter District Authorizers in Michigan alone, I think this issue warrants much closer investigation.

One of the highest performing charter schools in the country is BASIS in Scottsdale, AZ. The school is ranked #1 of all public schools in the state, and US News ranks them #2 nationally, with 100% proficiency in math and reading.

Some of the common factors that are seen in high performing charter schools include:

  • Small school size (BASIS has between 20 – 50 students in each grade level)
  • The school has a low disadvantaged population (BASIS has no disadvantaged students)

It is interesting to note on average nationally, a charter school serves about 300 students. I also find it noteworthy that BASIS Scottsdale serves a population that is 54% white and 41% Asian.  In Michigan, Jared Burkhart, executive director of the Michigan Council of Charter School Authorizers hits on the same point. He points out that the top nine authorizers in the Education Trust – Midwest report all received 100.0 score for improving chronically failing schools, but said none of those authorizers ever had a chronically failing school to improve. There is no question that BASIS Scottsdale, and other similar charters, is doing well. The question I have is if this school is doing better than traditional public schools with the same characteristics would do.

On the other end of the spectrum there are charters like some of the districts authorized by Eastern Michigan University. According to an article by Kyle Feldscher about a recent report by Education Trust – Midwest, “Student performance at the schools authorized by one of our ‘F’ authorizers, Eastern Michigan University, borders on criminal,” the report states. “All nine schools ranked by the state were in the bottom third of all schools statewide. All but one school was ranked among the bottom 25 percent of schools in the state.

In Michigan alone, there are other examples that call into question the viability of charter schools. Detroit Public Schools is a low performing district that has been facing major challenges for decades. Charter schools have provided an alternative for a very large portion of students in Detroit. It is not surprising that parents have looked elsewhere for better educational options for their children when DPS ranks last in the nation in 8th grade math scores among African American students compared to other urban school districts. What is shocking, however, is that the majority of charter districts in Detroit (65%) perform worse than DPS among African American students in 8th grade math. Furthermore, the majority of charter districts statewide (67%) also perform worse than DPS among African American students in 8th grade math.

What seems clear is that choice is not the panacea legislators had hoped for. According to a 2013 study of charter schools across the country by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes, 75% of charter schools performed equal or worse than the local public school in reading, and 71% performed equal or worse than the local public school in math (p. 56). Stanford, Rand and other organizations have found that well run charter schools perform better than their low performing local public comparison schools, but that overall, academic achievement in charter schools is mixed.

I would argue that well run public schools also perform well. Considering these marginal results, and that some of the comparison public schools have very low levels of student achievement (hence the motivation for creating the charter school alternative), it seriously calls into question the viability of “school choice” as the scalable path to better schools and higher student achievement for every child in the country.

If charters are not the answer to transforming the whole public education system and raising student achievement, what can we learn from their experiences? Part of the major difference between traditional public schools and public charters is in the freedom from regulation and the flexibility they enjoy. In a Daily Beast article written by Conor Williams,  he calls out three types of flexibility that made his charter school in Brooklyn successful: 1) hiring (and firing), 2) schedule, 3) and curricula. Jared Burkhart, executive director of the Michigan Council of Charter School Authorizers also notes that ultimately, it’s the combination of high expectations for every student, strong school culture, flexibility to make adjustments based on good data, and freedom from excessive bureaucracy that allows charters to succeed where other schools have failed.

Obviously, things like high expectations, a strong learning culture, and making adjustments based on data are elements that help make private, public and public charter schools successful. Where public charter and private schools differ, however, is in how extensively they are regulated, and adjustments they are allowed to (or not allowed to) make because of that regulation. We continually see more punitive, command and control style regulations put on traditional public school districts by state and federal authorities, while these same legislators free up other school entities from regulation so they are able to innovate. I fail to see the logic in this if the ultimate goal is to improve public education for all and raise student achievement across our great nation.

I am not advocating that the do away with charters. There are plenty of examples where they are succeeding, BASIS Scottsdale being one example. There are also examples of charters that meet the needs of students in fundamentally different ways, such as the blended approach of the Nexus Academy of Lansing, MI, of which our CEO Leslie Wilson is Board President. What I question is if privatizing public education is really the best answer to improving education for all students, and what the consequences are (and will be) of continuing the transition to privatization.

Michael Gielniak, Ph.D
Chief Operating Officer
One-to-One Institute

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