Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The Obligations of High-Output Charter High Schools

For good reason, the most widely admired charter high schools are the ones that take kids from the highest-risk categories (poverty, one parent, big city, black or Hispanic, male) and get them into and through selective colleges.

It’s a big deal for one school to double or triple a big city’s numbers of potential minority doctors, engineers, and scientists. Schools like Health Science Charter School in Cleveland and the Dayton Early College Academy have done just that. It’s a contribution akin to what elite public schools like the Bronx High School of Science have done for earlier generations of poor kids, and for their cities. In this blog post I call these “high-output” charter schools.

Image of school desks

But today’s high-output charter high schools are always subject to nay-saying. Sure, critics say, they take kids whose statistical odds of succeeding are low. But look, they only keep the ones who do the work and will put up with the schools’ demands on their time and freedom of action. What about the kids who get into such schools but can’t handle the work and behavioral demands, and the kids from the same families and neighborhoods who don’t get in at all?

Point taken. Kids who mature late and become willing to work hard at age 16 or 18 shouldn’t be told, “Too late, you missed your chance.” Kids who never find the self-discipline to do high school work should also have opportunities to go as far as they can.

But should the schools that are now doing so much to produce future professionals, entrepreneurs, and political leaders be criticized or penalized for not serving everybody? Or for not continually backfilling vacant seats as kids decide they can finish high school with less effort elsewhere? To me, the answers are no, for two reasons but with two caveats:

Reason #1: Communities where few, if any, kids are ready for college (e.g., where even valedictorians must take remedial courses) need schools that will create routes into top colleges and professions. To the degree that any school can increase the numbers of fully prepared graduates, it benefits the whole community.

Reason #2: Schools can only get these outcomes if they are effective at motivating kids who, in other environments, might put forth a lot less effort. When drawing from a highly at-risk population, it is not easy to identify kids who will do the work a priori. It’s one thing for a student and family to promise daily attendance and completion of all assignments but quite another to deliver. A high-output school has to let those kids who won’t fulfill their obligations go elsewhere, unless it is willing to abandon requirements that it considers essential to full college preparation. It should be free to fill seats that become vacant with kids who have a good chance of succeeding in the school, but shouldn’t be forced to fill vacancies.

Caveat #1: Nonetheless, high-output schools need incentives to motivate and keep as many kids as possible. They can’t be required to keep everyone, but they should be expected to improve over time and therefore steadily increase the numbers of excellent graduates they produce.

Caveat #2: It is one thing to count high-output schools as a success for the charter movement, and quite another to think they are enough. Once a community has one or two high-output schools, additional charter public high schools shouldn’t be built on the expectation of graduating only a fraction of their enrollees and sending the rest back to comprehensive public high school.

Cities and neighborhoods that produce few or no college graduates need high-output high schools. But of course they need a lot of other kinds of charter high schools, too, including ones that can rescue late bloomers. A city blessed by a high-output charter high school still has a lot more work to do. The same is true of the charter sector and the donors that support it.

READ Backfill in Charter High Schools: Practices to Learn From and Questions to be Answered

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