School Choice & Charters Opinion

A Defining Moment for Charter Schools?

By Richard Whitmire & Andrew J. Rotherham — February 11, 2008 6 min read
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Many who bought early personal computers fired them up, wrote a few paragraphs, played some Tetris, and then asked: What’s the big deal?

Then came the Internet.

You might want to think of the charter school movement in a similar way. Since the first charter opened in 1992 in St. Paul, Minn., they have grown quickly, passing the 4,000-school mark. Now there are some outstanding ones and some lemons, but charter schools overall are not proving to be radically dissimilar to other public schools. So what’s the big deal?

Call it the “New York effect.”

—Peter Lui


It started four years ago, when New York City Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein attracted a few of the most successful charter networks (the Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP; Achievement First; and Uncommon Schools) with dollar-a-year rent offers. All three accepted, but they did more than that: Rather than compete, they engaged in what could be called “coopetition,” often holding hands as they expanded in the city.

“Instead of fighting each other for resources, we ended up trying to figure out how we can deepen the pool and work together to make resources available for all to grow,” says John King from Uncommon Schools. “Each of us visited each other’s schools when we were starting up and learned tremendously important lessons.”

The intermingling, which began with shared “lessons learned” and expanded into shared training and more, could yield the “Internet” era of charters, a time when the real impact of the idea manifests itself, as the best schools get even better and the low-performing charters (and low-performing public schools and districts) face increasing pressure to improve or close. Powerful, yes. And also a long way from the early vision of charter schools, championed by many on the left as a way to launch more authentic and mom-and-pop public schools, and by many on the right as a way to introduce the relentless pressure of competition into ossified public school systems.

Consider Jabali Sawicki, the principal of the 4-year-old Excellence Charter School in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. Sawicki began his career in charters teaching at Boston’s strikingly successful Roxbury Preparatory Charter School. He was tapped by leaders at Uncommon Schools (the Roxbury charter’s founders) to run the new Bedford-Stuyvesant school. Then, he received training from KIPP’s widely admired school leadership program.

As the elite networks create an even bigger footprint on the urban education landscape, some hard conversations about race and class are inevitable.

Now several of the teachers in Sawicki’s school are earning their master’s degrees from a new program at Hunter College, where the founders of all three charter groups, famous names in the charter movement and proven educators such as David Levin of KIPP and Norman Atkins of Uncommon Schools, serve as instructors. And when Sawicki’s students reach high school age, many will attend one of the two new high schools now under design for students from these three charter groups. Quarterbacking the new high schools, expected to open in 2010, is the Robin Hood Foundation, the hedge-fund-fueled financial muscle behind this intermingling experiment.

The significance of the cooperation is seen in Excellence Charter’s first test scores. Here is a startup school in a poor neighborhood with an all-minority student population, and it is hitting home runs in math and reading. That often doesn’t happen with new schools, and yet it is happening, not only with Excellence but with the other startup charter schools being spawned by these groups.

Perhaps the most striking payoff from the cooperation is the two-year master’s-degree program at Hunter College, which got off the ground when the charter founders discovered their ideal education school dean in the maverick education school reformer David M. Steiner. Led by Steiner, the Hunter faculty embraced the charter founders and this past summer launched a trial version of a program expected to expand rapidly to include not only teachers from other charter schools, but also hundreds of teachers bound for traditional New York City public schools. (“College and Charter Groups Team Up to Train Teachers,” Feb. 6, 2008.)

The goal was to teach the strategies that make these schools effective. As Uncommon Schools’ Atkins explains, planners wanted to “find the best people to teach content, and model and present the methodologies we use most successfully in our own schools.” As a result, a class led by this hybrid team looks nothing like a traditional education class. Here, the teachers and students bore in on the little things that define the tenor of the highly structured school day and intensive instruction that mark all three of these schools.

KIPP’s co-founder Levin says the goal is to have the expanded Hunter College program replicated in education schools across the country. “This is not about the success of one organization,” he says. “It’s about sharing what works for kids.”

That’s a critical goal, but one that in the past has proven elusive in education, where isolated successes rather than systemic improvement is the norm. Meanwhile, the challenges facing these elite schools and their leaders remain as substantial as the opportunity they have to reshape urban education.

For starters, all these initiatives remain heavily dependent on philanthropic dollars. Right now, a core group of funders is committed to the ventures, helping them leverage public spending. But philanthropic priorities can change, so the new elites must build durable avenues of support within the public sector.

The challenges facing these elite schools and their leaders remain as substantial as the opportunity they have to reshape urban education.

In addition, although they have grown rapidly, all of the high-performing networks still face the challenge of achieving quality at larger scale. Traditionally, quality and scale in education have been inversely related: As initiatives get larger, fidelity to the elements that made them effective in the first place is compromised. Yet it’s not an iron rule. Teach For America, for instance, bucked this trend by growing and maintaining (if not improving) its effectiveness and supplying hundreds of teachers and leaders for the elite networks. KIPP, the largest of these, has expanded and maintained high quality as well. But despite deliberate attention to the key elements of quality, as the networks try to move from impacting thousands of students to millions, the quality-scale challenge will be a test.

The strategy of addressing human capital internally, rather than expecting traditional avenues for teacher and school leadership preparation to do the job, will help. It’s also a model that can be replicated elsewhere by reform-oriented superintendents or other networks of high-performing charter schools. And if the elites can help close the gap between teacher preparation and effective practice, that will move the field forward. But David Steiners are in short supply, and it seems unlikely that teacher preparation will dramatically change without a fight.

And, as it often does in education, race is apt to play a role, too. The leadership of many elite initiatives does not look like the students being served. So far, the desperation for better schooling options in many communities has papered this over. But as the elite networks create an even bigger footprint on the urban education landscape, some hard conversations about race and class are inevitable. To their credit, the elites are trying to broaden the pipeline of diverse talent for leadership roles. Still, despite their efforts, an uncomfortable reality lurks just below the surface today.

Finally, and most importantly, these initiatives must show that they, and by extension charter schooling, can substantially move the needle on student achievement overall. As Matt Candler, the chief executive officer of New Schools for New Orleans, has remarked, no one wants to be part of a movement whose claim to legitimacy is that it “sucks less” than the other schooling options out there. But if they can get it right, the elites have the potential not just to substantially change the facts on the ground about urban education, but also to earn standing to set the standard for quality overall within public education.

That’s a long way from what was launched in Minnesota in 1992, and it could revolutionize American public education.

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A version of this article appeared in the February 13, 2008 edition of Education Week as A Defining Moment for Charter Schools?


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