Attackers and defenders of charter schools are free to pick cases and attach labels, but we shouldn’t lump actual corruption or theft in with debatably unwise uses of funds.
Little Red Caboose or Impending Derailment? Charter Schools and Common Core
One jolting result from the generally sobering New York State Common Core test results was that charter schools fared worse than previously when compared to other New York public schools. Although student background was not taken into account, many New York charter schools’ proficiency scores were simply not as impressive as on other exams. Critics say this is proof that much-touted high-performing charters are simply fact-drilling credit mills, built to raise scores on outmoded tests. While these claims go much too far, the results should give some charter schools pause as they look toward full-scale Common Core implementation.
High-performing charter schools have accomplished a great deal, teaching students two or three grade-levels’ worth of academic content in one school year and immersing students in a culture that links hard work and serious study to graduation and college admission. But that is not enough. KIPP leaders have long said that though their students have done extraordinarily well on basic skills tests and college entrance, the organization needs to do a better job of preparing them to be critical thinkers and self-disciplined scholars.
It’s probably time for more charter schools to admit, however, that meeting even more ambitious goals for high-poverty students will require much more than a high-expectations culture. Many charter schools are serving a population of students who face a double uphill climb: they come to school less well prepared than students from more advantaged families, and the schools they have attended in the past have not accelerated them academically.
Overcoming those problems will mean reaching students earlier so less academic catch-up is required, engaging civic resources to better support students and their families, and redesigning schools so that they allow teachers to better personalize education to meet each students’ needs. However, it remains to be seen how quickly and well the charter sector will respond. It may take a deeper engagement with city resources, neighboring school districts, and community-based support organizations for the charter sector to fully rise to these challenges.
Tricia Mass and I did some research recently for an AEI series on the intersection between Common Core and the charter sector. We found that while there was a lot of optimism among charter leaders about Common Core, many of the folks we interviewed knew little about the details of the standards and the associated assessments. The national and state charter school support organizations were doing little to prepare charter teachers for the new types of instruction that Common Core implies. While most state education agencies and major school districts were producing videos, workshops, and online resources, charters, many told us, were unlikely to “get the memo” because they often operate so independently. In some cases this is by their own design—they want to be in charge of their own educational destiny, not tied to district-mandated curriculum. But in other cases, hostile districts don’t want to include charters and SEAs often don’t think to include them.
With all its flexibilities and nimbleness, the charter sector could be a small but powerful “little red caboose” for new Common Core educational designs. But, Tricia and I concluded that there is also a strong possibility that Common Core implementation could derail the charter movement, especially if schools are not adequately prepared for the depth of instructional change the new standards imply.
To truly prepare for Common Core, charter leaders need to go beyond workshops. They need to think about ways to collaborate while still protecting their instructional autonomies. New York City is an example: charter and district teachers meet regularly to share strategies on Common Core, special education, and other topics. These meetings are voluntary and charters maintain full control of their educational programs. But the collaboration, supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s District-Charter Collaboration Compact funding, builds both expertise and goodwill for more professional shared practice.
Charters, districts, and SEAs should not be so disconnected. All share an interest in ensuring students meet the new standards, but institutional barriers prevent collaboration. Though the charter sector has matured, many states consider them a separate system, somebody else’s schools serving somebody else’s children. Charter schools’ fierce independence has been a strength in many ways. But as the early Common Core results may show, that same independence carries significant political vulnerabilities and might ultimately put their students at a disadvantage.
Our network participants are already showing the potential benefits of the shift toward local problem solving.
Settling for cherry-picked or incomplete evidence isn't necessary.