To be honest, the last two decades of school reform have proven to be somewhat of a disappointment. Hard to concede, but it’s true.
The intuitively attractive dream that big reductions in class size could turn things around went up in flames in California. The seemingly logical appeal of vouchers, that parental choice would lead to better schools, ran aground in Milwaukee. And the idealistic hope that the federal government could bluster its way toward dramatic school improvement evaporated with No Child Left Behind.
To date, only one disruptor has significantly improved school outcomes for poor and minority students, who now make up roughly half of our schools: Charters.
Time to celebrate, right? Maybe not.
Problem is, not just any charter school will do for these students. Only the high- performing charters, those able to add a year-and-a-half of learning for every year a child spends in the classroom, are making a real difference. Roughly speaking, we’re talking about maybe 1,200 charter schools who are doing that reliably, year after year.
Again, time to celebrate, right? We just tap the accelerator on the best charters.
It’s not that easy. The only way that can happen is by first closing the hundreds of charters out there that are dragging everyone down. After all, there are 6,440 charter schools out there. Of those, maybe 1,000 warrant immediate shutdowns, and a lot of others need a thorough scrubbing. (Be sure to check out Matt Barnum’s recent investigation in the charter school disaster now unfolding in Ohio)
Closing low-performing charters has always been at the heart of the risk/accountability tradeoff that is unique to charters: Assume not all charters will make it, and as the weak close the strong will thrive.
But when not enough bad charters got closed, the tradeoff got out of sync.
Until this scrubbing occurs, the many charter critics, ranging from unions who despise the mostly non-unionized schools to superintendents who loathe the competition, have the perfect anchor to toss out: Why approve more charters when so many crappy charters remain in business?
They have a point.
So if high-performing charters are our last best hope, how can we salvage that hope? After interviewing the smartest people I know around the country, here’s a 5-point starter list for the best way to wash ourselves clean of the iffy charters:
1. Advocates need to change their mindsets.
Repeat after me: Charters need to be good, not just popular. Just because parents want to send their kids to a lousy charter school — maybe there are even parents on a waiting list to get into this school — doesn’t justify its existence.
That may sound logical, but to hard-core “choice” advocates the mere fact that a school fills up with students justifies its existence. Their point is understandable, especially when parents say their zoned school would be worse. Or the trickiest of them all: My zoned school isn’t safe.
The safety issue is the toughest. “That’s a heartbreaking one,” said. Scott Pearson, who oversees the highly regarded DC Public Charter School Board.
The safety argument, said Pearson, is part of the argument about the zoned schools being no better. Allowing that logic to prevail, said Pearson, guarantees that a neighborhood’s schools will never improve. The goal, he said, should be to open a better school in that same building.
Recently I visited charter schools in Kansas City, a city where there are a few outstanding charter schools, but only about half the charters perform better than the deeply troubled schools in the traditional Kansas City district. And yet few charters get closed. Rather, they struggle along, year after year.
Here’s what the national research says about that: Struggling charter schools can turn it around, but not very often, according to research from Stanford University’s CREDO, Center for Research on Education Outcome.
And never justify keeping lousy charters open just because equally bad district schools never get closed. This is not the same thing. “Charter schools are meant to be an improvement over (traditional) public schools,” said Pearson. “If not, why are we bothering? If we’re not delivering quality, I don’t think we have a business being in this game.”
Adds Greg Richmond, who runs the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, “Running a charter is a privilege, not a right.”
2. Charter advocates need to name names.
That’s a sensitive one. Already, charters are under attack from teachers unions and many superintendents. Why pile on by naming the low-performers among you?
That probably explains why so few state charter organizers single out charters for closure. But there’s an important exception: California, home to the most robust charter system in the nation.
“About five years ago we realized we had a quality problem,” said Elizabeth Robitaille, who oversees performance issues at the California Charter Schools Association. By controlling for socioeconomic factors, the group could see that its schools tended to fall on opposite ends of a scatter graph — a disproportionate number of both high- and low-performers.
“If we didn’t do something about it our growth would be hindered,” said Robitaille, “and it would also hinder our ability to be autonomous.”
For the first year of the campaign, the group sent report cards to all charters, assuring them of privacy — but just for one year. The next year, the group put 10 charters on its should-close list. This past year, the fourth year of the campaign, there were five on the list.
While there are far more low-performing charters in that state than appear on the list (roughly 150 charter schools in California that qualify as bottom-performers), Robitaille says they don’t name charters that are less than five years old. Nor do they name alternative schools, such as charters that serve pregnant students. Plus, there are other ways to pressure low-performing charters to close: Over the past six years, 177 California charters have shut their doors.
Most important, said Robitaille, is the dramatic improvement in the scatter graph as a result of pressuring the worst to improve or close, while encouraging the best.
At this point, California appears to be only state charter organization brave enough to publicly identify and advocate for the closure of underperforming charter schools.
3. Identify the low bar, and enforce it.
This is another lesson from California, which leads the nation in actively trying to boost charter quality. There is no agreement on what makes a great charter; depending on the student population being served, that will vary greatly. But there should be an agreement on the low end of the bar. So set that bar, and enforce it.
That low bar has to be precise about what constitutes academic achievement. I’ve spent time on the websites of some low-performers looking for their academic track record and found only data on attendance trends — a sure sign of desperation.
In theory, states that pass automatic closure laws — no due process allowed — aimed at charters slipping below that bar, have found the right answer. Problem is, those laws often aim too low. “What happens is the floor becomes the ceiling,” said Richmond.
4. Start advocating — loudly — for changes in mushy laws that allow bad charters to stay in business.
Two school reform groups in Philadelphia just launched a new campaign to do exactly that, and for all the right reasons. The only way top charters can expand, concluded the Philadelphia School Advocacy Partners and Philadelphia Charters for Excellence, is to close more low-performers. Overall, Philadelphia charter schools look impressive: Black students in poverty receive an additional 50 days in reading and 43 days in math, according to CREDO.
But still, nearly a fifth of that city’s charter schools perform worse than the district in math; 14 percent in reading. The answer, according to the report, is to ask lawmakers to tighten the process for closing bad charters.
Pennsylvania is hardly the only state with loose laws. Even California, a leader in trying to close bad charters, has weaknesses there. Currently there are two statutes struggling charters can use to justify their continued existence, said Robitaille. And one of them offers a get-out-of-jail-free card guaranteed to drag out closure: Authorizers can justify keeping a school open if they determine the zoned schools are no better. That’s a loophole any lawyer can drive a truck through.
While many states have improved their charter laws, there are exceptions. North Carolina, for example, just passed a charter school law that assumes the school deserves renewal, rather than requiring the school to prove that renewal is merited.
Before the final vote, Richmond, of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, wrote the House speaker asking him to “make success — not just the absence of failure — the expectation for all charter schools.” Richmond’s advice was ignored.
5. Improve charter authorizing.
First, get rid of the conflicts. During my visit to Kansas City, I discovered a system where there was no incentive to close charters. The charter “sponsors,” state colleges and universities, get paid for their authorizing duties on a per-pupil basis. Shutting down a charter means shutting down the dollar flow into your university department. That’s about a clear a conflict as you can get. Worse, the state appears to have little or no power to intervene.
That per-pupil reimbursement can work in a large system, where shutting down a single charter wouldn’t spark staff layoffs. But in Kansas City, where each authorizer only oversees a few charters, that’s a problem.
There’s a dangerous notion out there that little can be done about weak authorizers. But that’s just wrong. What’s needed is for state politicians to insist that the job gets done.
For years, the Arizona charter board was, well, an embarrassment. That state was known as the “Wild West” of charter schools (a moniker also applied to Ohio’s charter sector) — pretty much anything got approved in Arizona and it showed in the quality. “They were big cheerleaders, and they saw bad results,” said Richmond.
All it took to turn that around, however, was a tough new chief of authorizing, backed up by some legislators embarrassed by past mistakes. Today, Arizona is no longer an authorizing embarrassment.
That’s positive, but hardly a national cure-all. “Other states,” said Richmond, “have not had that revelation.”
Bottom line: Enough with the feel-good press releases from charter advocates about closing bad charters. Start taking action. Start naming names. It’s the only breakthrough route for expanding top charters.