Arne Duncan: What Impresses Me Most About the First 25 Years of Public Charter Schools

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This essay is excerpted from the new Richard Whitmire book ‘The Founders: Inside the Revolution to Invent (and Reinvent) America’s Best Charter Schools.’ See more excerpts at The 74, and explore the Founders Oral History at The74Million.org/TheFounders.
In the field of education, success is too often an orphan while failure has many fathers.
The stories of the high-performing charter school networks featured in Richard Whitmire’s important new book provide a welcome antidote to the pernicious notion that high-performing schools for disadvantaged students are isolated flukes, dependent on a charismatic educator or the cherry-picking of bright students. Whitmire’s account lets us in on the secret of the sauce: What is it that schools can do at scale for children to close achievement gaps, even in the face of the real burdens of poverty?
As CEO of the Chicago Public Schools, and later as the U.S. Secretary of Education, I had the good fortune to visit dozens of gap-closing charter schools, including many of the charter school networks featured in Whitmire’s account. I always came away from those visits — as I do when I visit any great public school — with both a sense of hope and a profound feeling of respect and gratitude for the school’s educators and school leaders. These outstanding educators exemplify what we should aspire to in all public schools: Educators who wake up every day determined to make a difference in the life of a child, determined to excite a love of learning, and determined to open a door of opportunity where none existed.
At the same time, it was clear to me on these visits that running a high-performing charter school is anything but simple or for the faint of heart. It takes courage, a caring connection with students, and a tenacious commitment to equity. It takes smarts, and expertise about how children learn. And it takes talent.
I have yet to visit a great school where the school leaders and teachers were content to rest on their laurels. I have never heard a charter school leader describe their school as a “miracle school” or claim that they have found the silver bullet for ending educational inequity. The truth is that great charter schools are restless institutions, committed to continuous improvement. They are demanding yet caring institutions. And they are filled with a sense of urgency about the challenges that remain in boosting achievement and preparing students to succeed in life.
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This year marks the 25th anniversary of the passage of the first state law authorizing charter schools — which came about, in no small measure, thanks to the advocacy of Al Shanker, the legendary labor leader of the American Federation of Teachers. Twenty-five years later, it seems fitting to take stock of the successes and failures of the charter school movement — and to ask what challenges the next 25 years will bring.
In their first quarter-century, charter schools dramatically expanded parental choice and educational options in many cities. What was once a boutique movement of outsiders now includes more than 6,700 charter schools in 43 states, educating nearly 3 million children. But the most impressive accomplishment of the charter school movement is not its rapid growth. What stands out for me is that high-performing charter schools have convincingly demonstrated that low-income children can and do achieve at high levels — and can do so at scale.
Poverty is not destiny
When I was at CPS in Chicago, people used to warn me that we could never fix the schools until we ended poverty. For the record, let me stipulate that I am a huge fan of out-of-school anti-poverty programs. At CPS, we dramatically expanded the number of school-based health clinics, free vision services, and dental care. I was virtually raised in an out-of-school anti-poverty program, my mother’s after-school tutoring program on the South Side of Chicago.
Yet I absolutely reject the idea that poverty is destiny in the classroom and the self-defeating belief that schools don’t matter much in the face of poverty. Despite challenges at home, despite neighborhood violence, and despite poverty, I know that every child can learn and thrive. It’s the responsibility of schools to teach all children— and to have high expectations for every student, rich and poor. I learned that lesson firsthand in my mother’s after-school tutoring program — and I saw it in action in my visits to many of the gap-closing charter schools featured in this book. High-performing charters are one more proof positive that, as President Obama says, “the best anti-poverty program around is a world-class education.”
Sadly, much of the current debate in Washington, D.C., in education schools, and in the blogosphere about high-performing charter schools is driven by ideology, not by facts on the ground. Far too often, the chief beneficiaries of high-performing charter schools — low-income families and children — are forgotten amid controversies over funding and the hiring of nonunion teachers in charter schools. Too often, the parents and children who are desperately seeking better schools are an afterthought.
When I was at CPS, we replaced one failing school in the violent, high-poverty Englewood neighborhood with three schools, one of which was Urban Prep Charter Academy, an all-male, all-black school. At Urban Prep’s predecessor, Englewood High, a senior was shot to death at a bus stop in front of the school a few years before we closed the school. Just 4 percent of seniors read at grade level — i.e., in every class of 25 students, one student on average could read at grade level. And this educational malpractice had been going on for a long time. Don Stewart, the former president of Spelman College and head of the Chicago Community Trust, told me that his mother wouldn’t let him attend Englewood High 50 years earlier because it was known as a terrible school even then.
In 2010, four years after Urban Prep Charter Academy opened, it graduated its first class — with all 107 seniors headed off to four-year colleges and universities. Urban Prep Academies recently announced that 100 percent of the 252 seniors in the class of 2016 were admitted to a four-year university or college, too — the seventh year in a row in which 100 percent of Urban Prep seniors were admitted to a four-year college or university.
(Related: Arne Duncan grades himself — and sees failures)
Despite the bloodless, abstract quality of much of today’s debates on charters, the ideologically driven controversies won’t end anytime soon. Advocates and activists will continue to care about whether a high-performing school is identified as a charter school or a traditional neighborhood school. But it is worth remembering that children do not care about this distinction. Neither do I. There is nothing inherently good or bad about a charter or any other school. The only thing that matters is if a school is a great school. It doesn’t matter to me whether the sign on the door of a school has the word “Charter” in it, and it doesn’t matter to children. Nor does it matter to most parents.
Challenges for the next quarter-century
Many of the challenges facing high-performing charter schools in the next 25 years are no secret. Richard Whitmire ably identifies those challenges, as have many pioneering leaders of top-performing charter management organizations. I want to single out three specific issues.
First, while high-performing charters have a solid record of boosting achievement and attainment among students of color, their record is much less impressive with students with disabilities, English-language learners, and difficult-to-serve populations like adjudicated youth. Black and Hispanic students are overrepresented at high-performing charters. But students with disabilities and ELL students are not.
In the next 25 years, top-performing charters should do more to include and elevate the most difficult students to serve. My hope is that high-performing charters will pioneer ways to better educate students with disabilities, overage students, students in the correctional system, and ELL students. Diversity and cultural competency are particularly critical issues at high-performing charters where most teachers are white and where most students suspended are black or are students with disabilities. The relatively small subset of high-performing charters that overuse out-of-school suspensions and expulsions should be striving to reduce their reliance on exclusionary discipline.
Plenty of top-performing charter schools set high behavioral expectations for students without making heavy use of exclusionary discipline. It’s time for all schools, charter or otherwise, to rethink their school discipline and school climate policies if they are suspending a large proportion of their students. Every school should think of itself as a pipeline to college and careers, not as a pipeline to juvenile detention centers and prison.
Second, high-performing charters should be pushing for more accountability in the charter sector. The grand bargain of charters is that in exchange for increased autonomy from school district rules and union contracts, charter school leaders will provide more accountability for taxpayer dollars. The charter sector is doing a better job today of closing down poorly performing charters than in the past. But there are still far too many bad charter schools that continue to be reauthorized, too much financial mismanagement at charter schools, and too many states with weak laws regulating charter authorizers.
A recent study of urban charters in more than 40 cities found that, overall, urban charter students were making substantial gains in math and reading, compared with their traditional public school peers. But the 2015 study, from Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO), also showed that charter school performance varies enormously from city to city.
In Boston, charter students were making huge gains, learning the equivalent of more than two years of math in only one school year and gaining nearly an additional year in reading. By stark contrast, in Las Vegas, charter school students were losing 11 weeks of learning in reading and 16 weeks of math during the school year. That vast gulf in outcomes between Boston and Las Vegas charters is not just coincidence — Nevada, unlike Massachusetts, has had a history of lax regulation of charter schools.
The best charter school operators set high standards for ethics and accountability. But that doesn’t exempt them from a responsibility to promote better accountability for charters. Fairly or unfairly, the bad actors in the charter sector reflect unfavorably on all charters. Learning from the best, and culling out the worst, is a shared responsibility that shouldn’t be ignored.
Last but not least, in the next quarter-century, I hope that high-performing charters do more to fulfill their promise as laboratories of innovation. Charters were supposed to be the research-and-development wing of public education — “incubators of innovation,” in President Obama’s words. But they have yet to truly realize that potential.
With some notable exceptions, top-performing charters haven’t developed breakthrough innovations in the areas of personalized learning, technology, and competency-based learning. Nor, for the most part, have high-performing charters been in the vanguard of schools applying findings from the learning sciences to drive better instruction. And finally, top-flight charters have done little to either offer or improve the all-important field of early learning — in part because it is difficult, if not impossible, for charter schools to include early learning grades in states that fail to provide per-pupil funding for pre-K.
A seismic shift in American education
In the end, top-performing charters cannot merely tend to their own garden or stand apart from the need for dramatic improvements in American education. K-12 education is undergoing seismic change today. All but a handful of states have embraced higher learning standards, pegged for the first time to the expectations of student readiness for college and careers. The new federal law replacing No Child Left Behind pushes more of the responsibility for protecting at-risk children back to the states. Meanwhile, dozens of states are developing new and better ways to evaluate and support teachers that, for the first time, are taking account of a teacher’s impact on student learning.
Parents are questioning how much testing is needed to hold schools and educators accountable for providing a world-class education to all students. And for the first time in our nation’s history, more than half of public school students are children of color and more than half are from low-income families.
These profound changes in public education are happening while shifts in the job market are making a quality education more important than ever. In a knowledge-based, global economy, critical thinking, creativity, and problem-solving skills are the new currencies for landing a job. Under these rapidly evolving conditions, our schools urgently need new ideas and new technology to meet stiffer educational challenges. They need highly skilled and creative teachers with the ability to couple high expectations and personalized learning.
To fully take advantage of these extraordinary opportunities, I believe that the charter sector will need to undergo a slow but profound shift of mind-set in coming years. Charter school leaders will no longer just be outsiders knocking at the door of the traditional schools. My hope is that they will become less like combatants in the battles over education and more like co-conspirators for change with traditional public schools.
Thankfully, the shift to collaboration with school districts is already underway at top-performing charters. Witness the partnerships that YES College Prep has formed with the Houston and Aldine school districts, and KIPP’s partnerships in Houston. At the Uncommon Schools charter network, three leaders banded together to write Great Habits, Great Readers, which helps codify their schools’ successful K-4 reading taxonomy in the hope that it can help all elementary schools address the Common Core State Standards. And the Apollo 20 project in Houston has been the most sweeping and successful effort to date to import the practices of high-performing charter schools into district schools. (A similar project is underway in Denver.)
While the leaders of gap-closing charters are starting to push their gap-closing strategies to scale in school districts, some lawmakers and conservative commentators continue to resist the commonsense investments that would elevate our education system — from universal early learning to better teacher preparation. I urge them to read this book, to visit these schools, and to meet with these charter pioneers — talk with their students and evaluate their work.
This book shows that outstanding charter schools have proved there is no mission impossible in public education. By developing great teachers and leaders, working with courage, skill, and unrelenting determination, these gap-closing schools have demonstrated that every single child can learn.
The extraordinary accomplishments of the teachers, school leaders, and students featured here are a great start, but they cannot be the end of the story. I am not satisfied with just talking about top-performing charters as islands of educational excellence. If no man is an island, no school should be either. The question I ask — and that I encourage all educators who read this book to ask — is: Why can’t success be the norm?
I look forward to seeing how outstanding charter schools advance education in the next 25 years. But most of all, I look forward to the day when educational islands of excellence become districts and even states of excellence. I believe it’s possible. I know it’s needed.
Former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is a managing partner of the Palo Alto-based Emerson Collective, working with disconnected youth in Chicago.

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