Quality Seen as Job One for Charters

February 23, 2009 11 min read
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When President Barack Obama pledged on the campaign trail last September to step up federal aid for “successful” charter schools, he was touching on a matter of mounting concern: how to ensure better and more consistent quality across the growing charter sector.

Amid worry about the mixed academic results for charter schools—and a belief that too many chronic low performers remain open—a variety of efforts are emerging to tackle the issue of quality.

The focus on charter quality comes a quarter-century after A Nation at Risk declared that a “rising tide of mediocrity” was eroding U.S. education. While the 1983 report didn’t advocate creating charter schools, which emerged in the early 1990s, it aimed to “generate reform of our educational system in fundamental ways.”

Growth of Charter Schools

The U.S. charter sector has expanded significantly since the first charter school opened in 1992.


SOURCE: National Alliance for Public Charter Schools

The landmark, though controversial, federal commission report is seen as helping to usher in not only the wide embrace of standards-based reform, but also other work to improve public education, including the rise of charters.

With some 4,600 such public but largely independent schools now serving more than 1.3 million students in 40 states and the District of Columbia, the charter sector represents one of the most notable shifts in the U.S. education landscape since the report’s release.

Yet many charter supporters say the movement has fallen short of early hopes, a sentiment captured by a U.S. Department of Education report issued last fall.

"[E]ven with rapid growth and considerable success, the charter sector stands at a crossroads,” the report, “A Commitment to Quality: National Charter School Policy Forum Report,” said. "[C]harter schools can do much better, fulfilling their promise as an engine of educational innovation and quality for students across the country.”

The louder drumbeat for quality among charter supporters leaves some critics unimpressed.

About This Series

This is the third installment in a yearlong, occasional series examining the impact of the 1983 report A Nation at Risk.

The first installment was published on April 23, 2008, as the 25th anniversary of the report was being marked. It explored concerns about global competition and efforts by policymakers and educators to benchmark American performance against that of students in competitor nations.

The second, published Sept. 24, looked at U.S. progress toward finding more time for children’s learning. In the fourth and final installment, Education Week will examine the education system of a high-performing nation as well as the systems in several other countries.

View the complete index of stories in the A Nation at Risk series.

“An awful lot of time has been spent arguing over a procedural reform, and now we have folks acknowledging that there are serious problems, and scrambling to address those problems,” said Alex Molnar, an education professor at Arizona State University in Tempe. “Wow! Hallelujah! Now we have to continue on with this same circus, pretending that we just have to tweak this.”

Still, state policymakers concerned about inconsistent quality within the charter sector are signaling a willingness to step in more aggressively.

In Ohio, for example, the state for the first time will compel as many as 23 low-performing charters to close at the end of this academic year, under provisions of a 2006 law pegged to the state’s accountability system. That legislation was enacted at a time when the governor and leading legislators in Ohio were deemed particularly charter-friendly.

"[Charter enthusiasts] have certainly awakened to the fact that there are too many crummy charter schools out there and not enough high performers,” said Chester E. Finn Jr., himself a longtime charter proponent and the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington think tank.

“The fact that you slapped the name ‘charter’ over the door,” Mr. Finn said, “doesn’t assure you of anything. ... It may not be different; it may not be better.”

‘These Schools Live On’

Charter veterans note that in the movement’s early days, many advocates believed the charter approach had advantages over regular public schools that would almost certainly lead to much higher quality.

For one, allowing new schools to open with autonomy over key operations was deemed a recipe for innovation and academic success. Another prevailing idea was that as a form of parental choice, charter education would come with some automatic quality control.

“People would not choose bad schools; they would only choose good schools,” Greg Richmond, the president and chief executive officer of the National Association of Charter Schools Authorizers, said in summing up that belief.

Central to the charter idea, moreover, was that in exchange for autonomy, the schools would be held accountable for delivering strong academic results. If they fell short, they would lose their charters and be forced to close.

Obama on Charters

While he was campaigning for the presidency last September, Barack Obama outlined his plans for charter schools. This description, drawn from campaign materials, is now on the White House Web site.

Support High-Quality Schools and Close Low-Performing Charter Schools

Barack Obama and Joe Biden will double funding for the Federal Charter School Program to support the creation of more successful charter schools.

The Obama-Biden administration will provide this expanded charter school funding only to states that improve accountability for charter schools, allow for interventions in struggling charter schools, and have a clear process for closing down chronically underperforming charter schools. Obama and Biden will also prioritize supporting states that help the most successful charter schools to expand to serve more students.

“We haven’t as a sector lived up to that end of the bargain,” said Bryan C. Hassel, a charter expert and the co-director of Public Impact, a Chapel Hill, N.C.-based consulting firm.

Attempts to close charters often face big barriers, he noted, including staunch opposition from families. “These schools live on and exist, generally, even if they’re extremely bad,” he said.

Over the past several years, a consensus has been building among many leaders in the charter sector that far more attention, and action, is needed to ensure that the schools do better.

Mr. Obama highlighted the issue at a campaign stop in Riverside, Ohio, two weeks after getting the Democratic nomination for president. “I’ll double the funding for responsible charter schools,” he said, vowing to work with governors to hold all charters accountable. “Charter schools that are successful will get the support they need to grow. And charters that aren’t will get shut down.”

Mr. Obama proposed to double funding for the $190 million Charter Schools Program, which provides federal seed money for new schools. He has not yet submitted a fiscal 2010 budget plan.

The House version of the economic-stimulus plan the president signed last week contained $25 million for charter school facilities, part of a new $20 billion school construction program, but that entire program was excluded in the final package.

Nelson Smith, who leads the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools in Washington, welcomed Mr. Obama’s campaign speech.

“I don’t share the suspicions of those who worry about what he means by ‘responsible’ charters,” Mr. Nelson said. “That’s what we all want.”

He said that his group, since its inception in 2005, has worked on multiple fronts to promote improved charter schooling.

In one current example, the alliance is planning this spring to issue a model charter school law, based on lessons learned about authorizing and accountability, school facilities, and other issues.

Also, the alliance is one of four organizations spearheading a national consortium that aims to be a force for improving the quality of charters. Central to that work is defining, and developing widespread consensus within the sector, on what charter “quality” is and how best to measure it.

As part of the effort, a panel of stakeholders developed “A Framework for Academic Quality,” issued last June. It recommends four key indicators: student-achievement level at a single point in time; student progress over time; postsecondary readiness and success; and student engagement, as shown by such measures as attendance.

Joan A. Devlin, a senior associate director at the American Federation of Teachers, praised the work to devise the quality framework as “very sincere.” But she cautioned that it would be tough to get local buy-in for such efforts.

“The whole idea of the movement is that you have a thousand points of light,” she said. “You have these very small, independent and independently minded charter school ... operators that will not bow to a national authority.”

Eye on Authorizing

One road to better charter quality that’s gaining far more attention is the role played by charter authorizers, the bodies charged with approving, monitoring, and potentially closing schools.

Authorizers come in various shapes and sizes, depending on state law.

They include school districts, universities, state departments of education, state bodies explicitly created to authorize schools, private nonprofit organizations (in Ohio and Minnesota), and even the mayor’s office in Indianapolis.

Robin J. Lake, the director of the National Charter School Research Project at the University of Washington, argued in a 2006 paper that “irresponsible authorizing—allowing unqualified people to open schools and doing little about bad schools—may prove to be the Achilles’ heel of the charter school movement.”

Mr. Richmond of NACSA, which is widely seen as a standard-bearer for strong authorizing practices, said he continues to see wide and troubling variations in the work of authorizers, even as some have made important strides.

Asked to grade the state of authorizers nationally, he said most deserve an “incomplete.”

Some analysts argue that authorizers themselves should be held accountable for the quality of their work, and even for the performance of schools they oversee, with sanctions for authorizers who do a poor job.

“At the very least, states should track and make publicly available clear information about how each charter authorizer’s portfolio is performing,” said the recent Education Department report.

Minnesota lawmakers are expected this year to act on legislation that would set a higher standard for authorizers.

“We still continue to have high-profile problems with some charters that give them all a bad name,” said state Rep. Mindy Greiling, a Democrat who chairs the House K-12 education finance committee and is co-sponsoring the measure. “There have been some spectacular sponsors, and others who sign on the dotted line and absolve themselves of any responsibility.”

Caps as Lever

The legislation would establish a higher bar for those wishing to become authorizers, and for existing ones to continue, said Eugene L. Piccolo, the executive director of the Minnesota Association of Charter Schools, which is backing the effort. Authorizers would be subject to a state evaluation every five years, but would also get far more state funding over time.

One of the most hotly contested state policy issues is charter caps. Currently, 25 states and the District of Columbia have some type of cap on charter growth, with most limiting the number of schools that may exist, according to the national charter alliance.

Many charter advocates say caps do nothing to protect quality, and prevent the creation and expansion of promising new schools.

But Gary J. Miron, a researcher at Western Michigan University who studies charters, argues that caps provide a powerful incentive for a state’s charter sector to safeguard quality.

“If you close [poor-performing] schools, you get to open new ones,” he said.

Andrew J. Rotherham, the co-director of Education Sector, a Washington think tank, argued in favor of “smart caps” in a 2007 paper. Caps as they now generally exist “are too blunt a policy instrument to sufficiently address quality,” he wrote.

One element of a smart cap, he said, is to eliminate limits for schools that have made strong academic gains, permitting them to open new campuses.

State charter school associations are getting far more engaged in promoting quality, driven in part, observers say, by a recognition that bad charters harm the image of all such schools. A prime example was the launch in 2007 of a program by the California Charter Schools Association to certify charters that successfully complete a review of their academic achievement, governance, and fiscal integrity. So far, 86 charter schools have earned the certification.

“It’s not a super high bar, because they are a membership organization,” said Mr. Hassel of Public Impact, “but compared to a more typical, ‘Hey, any charter is a good charter’ [attitude], they’re at least putting a stake in the ground for quality.”

Role of CMOs

Charter groups in some other states have indicated that they may pursue similar efforts.

The Colorado League of Charter Schools has long been engaged in efforts to improve charter schooling.

It’s seen as a leader, for example, in helping schools get more sophisticated about “performance management.” Such management includes setting academic goals, managing and analyzing data, and devising assessment strategies for improvement.

Meanwhile, other organizations are cropping up to push for more and better charters in particular cities.

Such groups include the Newark Charter School Fund, in New Jersey, formed by a coalition of philanthropies, and New Schools for New Orleans, which, among other work, is “incubating” strong charter schools by offering intensive, hands-on training and other help for those planning to run them.

Another big strand in quality discussions has been the push, fueled in part by philanthropies, to create and expand charter-management organizations.

CMOs are essentially nonprofit networks of centrally managed charters, such as Aspire Public Schools, which runs 21 California schools.

“You needed to find a way to scale up those charter schools and operators that were proving they could do this well,” said James A. Peyser, a partner at the San Francisco-based NewSchools Venture Fund, a leader in supporting and assisting CMOs. As of last school year, its portfolio included 16 CMOs operating more than 120 schools.

But some analysts note that not all such organizations are delivering hoped-for results. “I wouldn’t want to put too many eggs in the CMO basket,” Mr. Rotherham of Education Sector said.

And some caution that philanthropic enthusiasm for CMOs could drive the charter sector toward a narrow set of operators and approaches.

“It’s easy for the whole quality idea just to get translated into, ‘Let’s replicate KIPP and three other models that are good, and we won’t try anything that’s different or bad,’ ” said Mr. Hassel, referring to the widely touted Knowledge Is Power Program charter network. “Where’s the next KIPP going to come from?”

Special coverage marking the 25th anniversary of the landmark report A Nation at Risk is supported in part by a grant from the Broad Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the February 25, 2009 edition of Education Week as Quality Seen as Job One for Charters


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