All Charters Are Not Equal: Time to Shut the Worst and Learn from the Best

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There’s a charter school trend playing out that, somewhat oddly, brings to mind women’s soccer. You have the World Cup-winning U.S. team, with the fierceness of Carli Lloyd and the finesse of Megan Rapinoe, and then you have, well, the rest of the world. Well behind.
Something similar is playing out in the world of charter schools.
There are about 6,400 charter schools out there. Of those, roughly 1,000 score in the bottom 15 percent of the schools in that state. That’s outrageous; they should be shuttered tomorrow.
Then there are the middling charters that are doing the same or a little better than traditional neighborhood schools. True, parents are choosing them — often for safety reasons. Is that a sufficient reason to maintain a separate-but-no-better school system? Their closure should at least be a debate.
But then, set far apart, are the top 20 percent, roughly 1,300 charter schools that target low-income minority students. They are burning new records: At a minimum, they add a year-and-a-half of learning for every year a child spends in the classroom.
Their methods may be controversial, and not for everyone, but parents are flocking to them. And their positive academic results have withstood multiple challenges from critics.
Most of these top charters arise from the big charter groups called Charter Management Organizations. KIPP charters draw the most attention, but there are many large CMOs that do as well as KIPP, perhaps even better: Uncommon Schools, IDEA, Achievement First, Aspire, YES Prep, Success Academies and Noble Street.
There are also small but highly successful CMOs, some limited to specific cities. In Denver, for example, DSST consistently shows large gains for poor and minority children. In New York City, the Icahn charters are among the best in the city. In Boston, a city that probably hosts many of the best charter schools in the nation, the Brooke, Excel and Match charters come to mind.
While the big charter organizations dominate this top group, there are plenty of charters with just one or two schools where students fare as well as they do in the high-rated CMOs. Washington, D.C., for example, bristles with great charters, such as Two Rivers, which is limited to an elementary and middle school.
There’s no single reason why this quality divide is unfolding, but a major factor has been charter backers focusing solely on quality. Funders such as Charter School Growth Fund and New Schools Venture Fund seek out the few charter groups they see as having potential to replicate quickly and successfully. Anyone checking their websites for their grant list will see that they have a great track record, which means the best charters have gotten better – and distanced themselves from the others.
That trend picked up speed in 2003 when former New York City Chancellor Joel Klein set out to lure the top charter groups into the city: KIPP, Uncommon Schools, and Achievement First. At the time, Klein’s plan was considered radical. Today, charter advocates in cities such as San Antonio are doing their best to imitate the Klein strategy. Why take the time and risk with home-grown operators with unproven track records?
Finally, top charter operators are a bit clubby, although not in an exclusive way. The best charters with a long history, such as North Star in Newark, get visited regularly by other charter operators who are encouraged to “borrow” at will. If you ask charters such as Noble Street or KIPP to share their secret sauce, they will. But not everyone asks, which again separates the haves from the have-nots.
Recently I visited Boston-based Building Excellent Schools, where about a dozen fellows a year – aspiring charter entrepreneurs — get treated to a year-long tour of the best charter schools in the country. During their visits they are encouraged to borrow heavily: Schools such as North Star, Excel and Brooke appear to have sharing built into their DNA.
The schools these BES fellows launch may never become a huge network, but chances are their students will make impressive gains, mostly because they copied the successful designs of groups such as Uncommon and KIPP. Again, the best get better, while others fall behind.
Finally, there may be something unique about charter schools that can explain this. As Stanford’s CREDO (Center for Research on Education Outcomes) has discovered, charters that start out slow tend to stay slow. They may try to improve, but the odds don’t favor that. By contrast, the quick-starting charters only continue to get better. That alone could explain much of this quality separation.
What’s happening here is more than a curious phenomenon; it has major policy implications.
The biggest: While it’s true that poverty is a huge player in student outcomes, in these schools poverty get tamped down into a small player. That’s big — really big. If it’s possible in these schools, why not elsewhere?
For charter authorizers, it means moving quickly to shut down bad charters and review middling charters that never seem to improve. Those schools never seem to improve because most won’t.  
And it means granting quicker authorizations to charter groups with proven track records. Stop pretending that all charters are roughly the same. They aren’t. Not close.
Finally, it should be a lesson for the many superintendents who whine that charters should be restricted to roles as “laboratories of innovation” – but then refuse to tap into the successful labs. Innovating superintendents such as Tom Boasberg in Denver and Duncan Klussman in Houston’s Spring Branch schools, who drew top charters directly into their system, remain outliers.
Oddly, the school chiefs in cities such as New York and Boston, home to the very best charters, seem the most resistant to reaching out to great charters for help.
That’s like getting an offer of soccer coaching from Rapinoe and Lloyd and saying thanks, but no thanks. We’re better off going our own way.
It has to be asked: So, how’s that working out for you?
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