School & District Management

Closure of Stanford-Run Charter Sparks Debate

By Mary Ann Zehr — May 07, 2010 4 min read
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The authorizer of two charter schools run by Stanford University’s college of education has decided to shut down one of the schools but granted the other a two-year reprieve, giving the university’s education researchers more time to showcase their ideas for educating low-income students.

Some policy analysts say they’ve been unimpressed with the track record of the university’s two schools, one an elementary school and the other a high school, which stress student-centric rather than teacher-focused approaches to instruction.

The board of the Ravenswood City School District voted last month not to renew Stanford University’s request for a new five-year charter for grades K-12, citing poor student performance, among other factors. But the board voted to let the university’s high school continue for two years.

Deborah Stipek, the dean of Stanford’s school of education, said in an interview last week that the board pulled the charter because it needed to slash the district’s budget, but used low test scores as an excuse.

She said students at East Palo Alto Academy, the elementary school started in 2006, were performing at a level comparable to that of other California charter schools of a similar vintage.

Ms. Stipek said East Palo Alto Academy High School must improve students’ test scores. Still, she said, those scores don’t give the whole picture of a school.

The tests don’t assess various student skills, such as critical thinking, that are important to Stanford’s faculty, she said. “[The students] have a curriculum and instructional program that allows them to develop abilities to articulate an argument, to speak in front of the public, to see themselves as going to college,” Ms. Stipek said.

Revocation vs. Renewal

It’s not all that unusual for an authorizer to revoke a charter during the renewal process for a school, according to a report released by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers last week. It was during the renewal process that Stanford University lost its charter for East Palo Alto Academy.

The study found that charter operators that authorize 10 or more schools—a category that doesn’t include the Ravenswood system—close 14 percent of charter schools when they are up for renewal, usually because of poor student academic performance. Outside of the renewal process, 1 percent are closed.

Alex Medler, the vice president for policy and research for the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, said the number of schools that lose their charters during the renewal process—one in seven—may be “higher than many people think.”

He contended that those larger charter school authorizers, which together oversee 64 percent of charter schools, are more likely to close charter schools than school districts are to close regular public schools.

Nelson Smith, the president and chief executive officer of the Washington-based National Alliance of Public Charter Schools, observed about the report’s findings: “There is a sense that authorizers aren’t taking action on low-performing charter schools. At least for the larger authorizers, they really are.”

About the pending closure of Stanford University’s elementary school, Mr. Smith said he’d be reluctant to generalize too broadly about its meaning. “What apparently is the case is that this school was dramatically underperforming its peers in the district,” he said. “I don’t think this episode discredits any particular learning model.”

‘Not Just Preaching’

Some observers contend that Ms. Stipek did not take responsibility for the charter schools’ lackluster performance in her initial comments after the charter’s revocation. They pointed to Ms. Stipek’s view that the schools’ critics need to consider the influence that poverty and immigration status have on students’ performance.

Andrew J. Rotherham, the co-founder of Bellwether Education Partners, a new nonprofit think tank and consulting organization with an office in Washington, said such statements are “excuse making.” Yet he cautioned against reading too much into the school’s closure. “The revoking of one charter doesn’t warrant some of the wild generalizations made by observers that a student-focused approach doesn’t work in schools,” he said.

But Frederick M. Hess, who is the director of education policy studies for the American Enterprise Institute in Washington and writes an opinion blog for Education Week, said the school’s closure suggests that some Stanford faculty members should be more humble in promoting their ideas.

Mr. Hess characterized the Stanford education faculty as typically skeptical of conventional testing and highly supportive of project-based instruction. “When pushed to implement their own ideas, even in their private garden with extensive support, these highly respected experts delivered outcomes that were less than hoped for,” Mr. Hess added.

Ms. Stipek said that running schools is a relatively new venture for the university, and that “we have a learning curve just like everyone else.”

She added: “At least we’re doing it and trying, and we’re not just preaching from the sidelines.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 12, 2010 edition of Education Week as Closure of Charter Run By Stanford Ed. School Interpreted Differently

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