Blog: The Educated Reporter

The Charter School Quality Conundrum

Merrimack College student Megan Donahue completing her graduate practicum at the Lawrence Family Development Charter School, in Lawrence, Mass. A recent study finds charter schools in that state have relatively strong achievement, but across the nation quality has been very uneven. (Flickr/Merrimack College)

Charter schools increasingly are being scrutinized for the exact problem many advocates hoped they would help solve: poor student outcomes. How exactly to deal with those schools that do not meet academic expectations—or fail in other regards, such as employing questionable business practices or not being equitable in welcoming all students—have become key concerns.

At a recent Education Writers Association seminar in Denver, experts discussed steps needed to ensure that charters uphold the original bargain of getting autonomy and flexibility in exchange for academic results. Many charter advocates lament that too many low-performing charters are permitted to operate year after year.

One idea? Close 1,000 of the lowest-performing charter schools and open 2,000 new ones through “a rigorous approval process” that creates a far higher likelihood of success. Alex Medler of the National Association of Charter Schools Authorizers reiterated his organization’s call for such a strategy, noting that more than 200 charter schools closed last year.

“We do have the capacity to create smart policy that says, ‘Lets keep the good ones going and have more like them, and get rid of the bad ones,” said Medler, the charter authorizer group’s vice president for policy and advocacy.

But Warren Simmons, executive director of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University, cautioned that even while he has deep misgivings about the uneven quality in charter schools, he worries about a school reform strategy that relies, at least in part, on closing down a lot of schools, especially in communities with high concentrations of charters.

“School closure may sound like an effective strategy when you’re thinking very abstractly,” he said. But closing a significant number of schools — charter or traditional public schools — in a particular city “is a very disruptive experience for the educators, for the students, for the community,” he said. “It leads to a constant churn.”

Simmons argued that the key is to provide a supportive “ecosystem” that ensures effective assistance and support for all public schools in a community to thrive and effectively serve students.

Panelist Margaret Raymond of the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University, said the track record in improving low-performing public schools is poor. 

“We have actually plowed so many billions of dollars into so many different school improvement strategies over so many decades and seen such miserable results,” said Raymond.

In fact, she’s found much the same problem exists for charters.

“We’ve actually done some work looking at charter schools from the day they open through their first five years,” she said. “And our evidence showed that with a really, really high degree of precision, we knew at the end of the third year how schools were going to do (over time.)”

She added, “The probability of a low-performing [charter] school ever getting out of the cellar is really, really low.”

Raymond also echoed the calls to take a tougher stand on charter schools when it comes to a lack of transparency with their operations and use of public resources.

“We have been quite permissive about slapping hands when we find these things, … or letting it play out in the press, as opposed to immediate consequences,” she said.

‘The Real Story’

The discussion on charter quality and accountability last month came as the charter sector continues to grow rapidly. Nearly a quarter century after the first American charter school opened in Minnesota in 1992, 2.9 million students are enrolled in 6,700 public charter schools across the country, according to  the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. In the 2014-2015 academic year, charter enrollment climbed by nearly 350,000 students. Charter school students comprise about 6 percent of America’s nearly 50 million public school students.

In 2013, CREDO issued the latest of its national evaluations of charter schools. At the big picture level, Raymond said it’s fair to say that charter school achievement, on average nationally, “has been about on par” with regular public schools, “slightly better in reading and no different in math.” But big differences emerge when you dig below the surface, she notes.

“The national (data) does have some cocktail party value, ” she said, “but the real story, I think, is at the state level.”

Last fall, for instance, CREDO issued a study finding that achievement in Ohio’s charter schools, on average, falls significantly below the state’s regular public schools.

“When we released our report in Ohio, the one thing I said is to be very glad that you’re not Nevada, because that means you’re not the worst,” Raymond said.

On the flip side, Raymond pointed to Massachusetts as a state in which charters “are really strongly outperforming district schools,” and called out the District of Columbia as a place where the charter sector has made strong gains over time.

Earlier this month, CREDO released a new study of achievement in urban charter schools. It found that, on average, across the 41 cities, charters performed stronger than comparable district-run schools, but again the average cloaked wide variations among cities, with some showing strong charter outcomes and some weak relative to regular public schools.

Charters Are Not ‘Monolithic’

Simmons of the Annenberg Institute lamented that charters are often treated as “monolithic,” when in reality they are very diverse in their outcomes. By talking about charter versus traditional public schools, “we are obscuring the range of challenges in the charter sector.” Last fall, the Annenberg Institute issued a report raising deep concerns about charters not just because of uneven quality, but also because of concerns about issues of inequitable access in some cases as well as a lack of transparency that has led to some instances of fraud and abuse.

Medler’s organization has been sharply critical of the Annenberg report, arguing that it’s long list of new requirements for charter schools goes too far and would make them into “clones of traditional public schools, losing the flexibility needed to be innovative and better.”

Medler argued that many charter authorizers are the “weak link” that leads to poor quality. His organization has outlined a set of best practices that authorizers should adopt to provide adequate safeguards in school quality, as well as concerns about equity and transparency.

The ‘Cool Cities’ Dilemma

During the questioning from reporters, the issue arose of whether some “cool” cities may have a certain cultural cache and other factors that helps them attract talented educators and top charter school networks. Does this place other cities at an unfair disadvantage?

Raymond noted that in New Orleans, a strong group of young, enthusiastic educators came down after Hurricane Katrina struck to be a part of the restoration of that school system.” She said, “We see that same sort of critical mass of enthusiasm and drive and interest among young educators in places like Los Angeles and New York and DC.”

“The concentration of that kind of energy and labor sort of drops off pretty quickly as you go to other markets,” Raymond said. “Nobody’’s lining up to go to Detroit.”

At the same time, the panelists suggested that tapping talent from other cities is not necessarily the best way to go anyway, and is not sustainable.

It’s not about attracting the best charter management organizations, Medler said, but rather “growing your own” strong set of charters locally. “It is about identifying my entrepreneurs and my [education] leaders and helping them.”

Simmons said that the parents of children in Detroit and elsewhere should not be dependent on the perspective of “cool cities” to draw talent from elsewhere.

“I live in Providence. We’re not a cool city, but … our children deserve an effective education system.”