Charter Schools: Simple Questions with Complex Answers

Print Share on LinkedIn More

October 12, 2016; Boston Globe

Have charter schools fulfilled their promise as innovators? Some in Massachusetts have, and their advocates will field a ballot question in November to increase their numbers. Others across the country have shifted course, having learned from contemporaries’ management debacles. Unfortunately, quite a few within forty-three states and the District of Columbia failed miserably.

The concept of charter schools bubbled up in 1970s New England. It was part of a reform initiatives menu including alternative and magnet schools, school-based management, charters and choice, privatization, and community-parental empowerment. Early iterations enjoyed the support of Albert Shanker, venerable president of the American Federation of Teachers. Early innovator Ted Kolderie crafted charter schools’ four design elements: choice to equalize opportunity, accountability to operate as outcome-based versus process-driven, autonomy to bypass bureaucracy, and innovation from the standard model.

Like its predecessors in places like Minnesota, Massachusetts’ 1993 Education Reform Act’s initial centerpiece was innovation. The statute established charters:

  • to stimulate the development of innovative programs within public education;
  • to provide opportunities for innovative learning and assessments;
  • to provide parents and students with greater options in selecting schools within and outside their school districts;
  • to provide teachers with a vehicle for establishing schools with alternative, innovative methods of educational instruction and school structure and management;
  • to encourage performance-based educational programs;
  • to hold teachers and school administrators accountable for students’ educational outcomes; and
  • to provide models for replication in other public schools.

After amendments, evaluation, and insights, innovation has almost disappeared from the chartering process. The removal reflects the vagueness of the term and its difficulty to assess. What are the elements of an innovative charter school? How do you determine if school leadership and staff are innovators? Which evaluation tools effectively determine if programs and curricular are innovative? Innovation is as innovation does, and what innovation should do is increase student achievement.

Parents and students from underperforming districts and those in the suburbs often view charters through a different lens. Everyone’s goal is improved education outcomes, but years of disparities can limit the types of big-ticket innovations possible in urban settings. James Vaznis’s observation that “while some charters are groundbreaking, others simply strive to build high quality schools using existing methods” is intriguing. Striving to build high quality schools using any method is a good thing. The charter movement’s goal, after all, is to provide urban parents more options for education equity. Charter school students do not get a pass on taking high stakes tests.

According to U.S. World & News Report:

Parents gravitate toward traditional school models. Nowhere is this more apparent than in America’s affluent communities where it is rare to find many innovative private schools. Educators also don’t want to be viewed as “experimenting” on students, especially low-income students, by subjecting them to ideas that aren’t rooted in tried and tested theories and practices.

At first glance, this appears admirable, but one could argue it exemplifies the aphorism that the definition of insanity is doing the same things over and over and expecting a different result. Sometimes, innovation in urban schools comes as a thorough knowledge of content, a willingness to recognize different learning styles, and preparation in multiple teaching strategies. There is intrinsic value in simply striving to build high-quality schools. It may not be an issue for Dover-Sherborne or Marlborough, but it’s critical in Worcester, Holyoke, or Boston.

A charter schools researcher for Boston’s Pioneer Institute cited as problematic changes in state law restricting opening new charter schools in underperforming districts only to operators with proven records. Highly resourced school systems can afford cutting-edge entrepreneurial innovators with no track records, but underperforming districts need proven track records of success. For these schools, effective teaching and learning can be the innovation.

Charter proponents argue their work has improved public education, citing extended learning days, school cultures with high expectations, structured and disciplined learning environments, parent contracts, and rewarding high-quality teachers with higher pay—something you could never do in union-staffed schools. But they could improve on sharing best practices. There are examples. Boston’s Match Charter School spearheaded replications in Lawrence, as has Phoenix Academy in Chelsea. The nonprofit sector could fill an important role by creating a McKinsey-like organization engaged in active and formative research to quickly disseminate effective program frameworks to the field. Frameworks, because one size doesn’t fit all and innovative practices need modification and tweaking for schools.

National charter organizations hold conferences, but it doesn’t appear that attendees include public education practitioners. A Massachusetts audit faulted the Education Department for not creating a process to share charter innovations with traditional schools and recommended the department punish charter schools that don’t create best practices that can be replicated. The state didn’t implement the suggestion, possibly thinking that this harsh approach would create political fallout.

Massachusetts gets higher-than-average marks for teacher quality and ready access to data about schools. Its charter law, one of the first, offers high quality options to an increasing number of students, yet parents still struggle to exercise their right to a quality education, which union politics influence greatly. The result is too much tension between charter educators and public school educators—or, more specifically, union versus non-union.

“There are innovative practices taking place every day in public schools,” says Barbara Madeloni, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association. Charter advocates argue that their schools’ existence counts as innovation.

The stress teachers face is well documented, but my sense is that the stress for teachers teaching in schools unfettered by union politics might provide more opportunity for thinking about innovation. But innovation is an equivocal goal in and of itself. Solve the achievement gap in a school and that is celebrated as innovative. Say the goal is to solve any measurable education challenge for specific students and your innovation is the result. “Innovation” is an aspiration, not an incremental goal—Mary Frances Mitchner