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School Choice & Charters Opinion

Move Beyond ‘Good Enough’ and Vouchers and Charters Won’t Matter

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — January 31, 2017 5 min read
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The desire for public school alternatives continues to expand. Simultaneously, the charter schools movement has yet to discover the innovation that will make us all better. What we know is that there are multiple forces that come into play as we try to educate each and every child who walks through our doors. And we also know that systemic and even classroom change can take time before improvement is noticed. But, not always. We have shared stories of two schools in Metro Nashville that within one year saw differences in student achievement, one an elementary school and one a high school. It can happen.

We hear reports of teacher unions and others rising up in opposition of the appointment of Betsy DeVos. She is a non-educator and certainly had a less than stellar Senate hearing. But, we wonder about the common and expressed desire to have excellent education for all students.

Location Matters
We neither stand for or against vouchers and charter schools. In and of themselves, they are neither the solution nor the villain. Here is what we know and can say with a level of confidence: Public school leaders and teachers work hard at delivering the best quality education for their students but they don’t succeed with all of them. The funding of schools, dependent upon the zip codes in which students reside, is unequal. The pool from which districts can pull new teachers diminishes the further away a school is from a metropolitan center. The students bring a variety of different readiness levels, depending upon the education and values of their parents, their exposure to reading and books, their socio-economic level, their health, and their exposure to pre-school learning. The variables are countless.

A Trend of Improvement Exists
Whether we are accepting of a role for standardized tests or not, we do have some results from which to learn. The NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) scores are based on students who took the tests. The choice for participation is explained on the NAEP website:

In state assessments (mathematics, reading, science, and writing), a sample of schools and students is selected to represent each participating state. In an average state, 2,500 students in approximately 100 public schools are assessed per grade, for each subject assessed. The selection process for schools uses stratified random sampling within categories of schools with similar characteristics. Some schools or groups of schools (districts) may be selected for each assessment cycle if they are unique in the state. For instance, if a particular district is in the only major metropolitan area of a state or has the majority of a minority population in the state, it may be selected for assessment more often. Additionally, even if a state decides not to participate at the state level, schools in that state identified for the national sample will still be asked to participate.

Results? There is evidence that on the 4th and 8th grade levels there is a trend of improvement, one small step at a time. On the 12th grade level, we are not seeing the same. But the changes in the results of K-12 systems take time. As the students arrive in high school better prepared and in possession of greater skills, high schools can raise the bar even higher. We can expect to see changes on the 12th grade level over time if the 4th and 8th trends continue. But, patience is in short supply.

Not Enough
What drives the desire for alternatives? And what options lie in the hands of local districts and schools to address those desires? We contend that the current reform and improvement efforts have too often nibbled at around the edges, new programs, new ideas, new computers, new courses, all within the same structure. The current model runs on the same funding system, the same governance system , the same Carnegie unit system, the same certification and course system, the same annual and daily schedule. The measures schools use are similar to the ones always used. There exists the predictable classwork and homework, quizzes and tests. And now the NAEP tests are inching upward. Hard work to keep everything on track is showing some results. But the measure is a standardized one that tries to uncover the information and academic skills of youngsters in these areas. Is that enough?

We Already Know What Solutions Are
The truth is we know the answers. Zip codes determine a lot about our student bodies. We know who they are and what they need. The level of parent involvement, the quality of the relationship between the Board of Education and the Superintendent, the dedication of the principals and their faculties to learning and trying new things, the shared vision for the future, the relationships between faculty and families, the capacity to fill the gaps so students can move forward and higher in their academic choices... these are just some of the aspects that contribute to student achievement that actually wind up being measured in those NAEP tests, aren’t they? But it takes time for it to show up most of the time. A challenge exists in the fact that we pay attention to what we are measuring. Since we assess academic information and skills that is where attention is focused.

Pay Attention To What Matters
Those aspects of our work that create a welcoming, inclusive, supportive learning environment are hard to measure and most don’t bother measure. Yet, they are necessary in order for learning to grow and students to succeed beyond the wildest dreams held by parents and grandparents. In order for public schools to be considered successful by all, and for the families in each zip code to be proud to send their children to their school, standardized test results matter along with a few other factors. The result of all the work should/will result in an upward trend in results, what is important is that the learning environment supports and maximizes learning. Just some of what matters and is not measured on standardized tests are:


  • the manner in which discipline is handled,
  • how safe/accepted children feel,
  • an upward trend in attendance,
  • learning and implementation of new practices by teachers and leaders,
  • teacher efficacy
  • and the morale of all in the building/district.

Educators are confident in their knowledge that these 6 factors affect learning but what we measure is what we pay attention to. Perhaps if attention to measuring the factors that contribute to successful learning, and communicating about the focus and progress on them, people will feel better about their schools, and want to support them as far more than ‘good enough’. If not, vouchers and charter schools will continue to become more voracious as they nibble around the edges and into our core.

For Your Convenience
For more about what affects student learning, go to Hattie’s research on effect size.
For More on NAEP Scores view:

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or Email.

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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