Eliminating the Achievement Gap: A White Paper on How Charter Schools Can Help District Leaders

June 2011

A staggering achievement gap exists between minority and white students in America. The gap is unjust, and it is constraining our country economically, socially, and politically. Intense political pressures, labor contracts, and other forces prevent urban superintendents from closing those gaps. However, partnerships with high-performing charter schools and charter networks can help superintendents overcome those dynamics.

Increasingly, superintendents are acting as portfolio managers, partnering with charter schools whose only mission is to serve high-needs students, overseeing those partners’ progress, closing down schools that do not work, and creating more that do work. Instead of seeing charter schools as competitors, district leaders who act as portfolio managers can leverage high-performing charter schools and networks to transform struggling district schools and close the achievement gap. Superintendents who are successful in creating the political will for this more radical transformation will create lasting, positive change in their districts.

Why is it hard for existing districts to close the achievement gap? What are district leaders finding when they look outside the traditional system for gap-closing solutions? And how are new schools able to do what traditional schools have not? This white paper examines these questions by drawing from the experiences of high-performing charter school networks that are reaching the type of scale to support district transformation efforts, such as Aspire Public Schools, Yes Prep, and Mastery Charter Schools, or that are designed to operate in multiple regions, such as Rocketship Education, Uncommon Schools, and KIPP.

Authors Lake and Hernandez discuss how these successful charters focus on school culture and parent involvement, use an extended school day, employ ongoing diagnostics and interventions, and provide intensive professional development. They outline ten steps a district needs to take in order to initiate a portfolio management strategy. And they conclude that school leaders who are serious about addressing performance problems can't afford to pass by proven solutions for students simply because they are called charter schools.