Charter schools throughout the country are coping with myriad challenges in preparing for the Common Core State Standards, an effort that could force them to make adjustments from how they train their teachers to the types of curriculum they use to the technology they need to administer online tests.
Charter schools were designed to serve as independent entities with a great deal of autonomy to operate outside the rules that govern traditional public schools. Yet charters, as public schools, are also expected to adhere to the common core, a set of uniform academic expectations adopted by 46 states and the District of Columbia.
Many of the academic, financial, and administrative issues charters face closely mirror those of their regular public school counterparts, including concerns about the high costs of implementing the standards and the challenges of putting the technological infrastructure in place for online testing. Charter advocates have complained for years that they have not received funding comparable to that of regular public schools, which could pose an additional burden.
Plus, questions remain about whether the common-core standards will bolster or hinder the independence and flexibility that charters see as their greatest strengths.
‘A Leg Up’
“I don’t want to attack common core without more evidence that it is in fact getting in the way,” said Nina Rees, the president and chief executive officer of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, based in Washington. “Common core is the basics you need to cover, but you can go above and beyond that.”
Despite the hurdles ahead, many charter school officials and advocates say they believe schools within the sector, because of their tradition of flexibility, are well-positioned to make the changes necessary to comply with the standards.
"[Common-core standards] made so much sense to us because we have always tried to boil things down to what are the big ideas that children really need to understand and understand in depth,” said Catherine C. Whitehouse, the founder, principal, and chief educator for the Intergenerational School, a charter in Cleveland that eschews grade levels for multiage classes. While the common standards provide expectations for children, charter schools like hers are prepared to craft curriculum to flesh out those broad academic guidelines.
“Charter schools have a little bit of a leg up on [district schools] because we’re very nimble,” she said.
Currently, about 6,000 charter schools educate 2.3 million students in 42 states and the District of Columbia.
Stacy Emory, the director of curriculum and resources for the K-8 San Carlos Charter Learning Center outside San Francisco, said that her school is at an advantage because it has traditionally not used textbooks for the curriculum, allowing for more curriculum flexibility.
The school employs project-based learning and multiage classes, which Ms. Emory said align more closely with the common standards than the previous California state standards because the project-based approach emphasizes covering fewer topics in greater depth, a key goal of the common standards.
The San Carlos charter school is building its own common-core curriculum. But schools planning to rely on prepackaged, vendor-created common-core curricula should approach the materials with a critical eye, warned Lindsey Blackburn, the director of curriculum and assessment for the Ohio Alliance for Public Charter Schools.
“Every vendor is slapping ‘common core’ on something and trying to sell it to you, but it doesn’t mean that it’s been properly aligned,” she said.
Also, having teachers create their own curriculum maps—documents that outline the content and skills covered in class—rather than obtaining such maps from other sources, allows them to get more familiar with the standards, she said.
The standards, which cover English/language arts and mathematics, were finalized in 2010. Two federally funded state consortia—the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium—are crafting the computer-based assessments that schools are scheduled to roll out in the 2014-15 school year.
Sandra Alberti is the director of state and district partnerships and professional development for Student Achievement Partners, a New York City-based nonprofit founded by three of the standards’ lead writers that is helping schools implement the standards.
Although some charter advocates express concerns that common standards may potentially crimp their flexibility, Ms. Alberti said there is a sharp difference between national standards and a standardization of curricula across the country.
“What education will look like if we really fulfill the promise of the standards is college and career readiness for all students,” she said. “We don’t mean that on [a specific day] all 6th graders will be doing the same math exercise.”
Ms. Alberti said that the common core allows more opportunities for charter schools to showcase their innovative instructional strategies and compare their approaches and performance with charter schools in other states and regular public schools around the country.
The national charter school network KIPP, or the Knowledge Is Power Program, operates 125 charter schools in 20 states and the District of Columbia, and has embraced the adoption of common standards, said the organization’s spokesman, Steve Mancini.
The network has identified master teachers who share their lesson plans as well as videos of their teaching with the rest of the teachers in the KIPP network to help them better prepare for the shift to the common core, said Mr. Mancini.
The KIPP schools—which typically serve students in low-income urban communities—place a heavy emphasis on both academics and character education.
Sayuri Stabrowski is an 8th grade reading teacher at the KIPP Infinity Charter School in New York City who is gearing up for the shift to common standards. She said the new standards encourage her to look at students’ reading progress on more of a continuum. Now, she approaches her 8th graders knowing what they should have learned in 6th and 7th grades, as well as what they will be expected to do in 9th and 10th. That helps her differentiate instruction more effectively for each student.
In addition, the common core emphasizes different types of reading, requiring more integration of nonfiction into the curriculum, Ms. Stbrowski said. To meet that requirement, she plans to include more nonfiction reading assignments to accompany the fictional works, such as To Kill a Mockingbird.
Some educators, however, are worried that the common core will de-emphasize the reading of fiction.
Implementing common core, analyzing what the standards mean, and coming up with lesson plans that address the standards have fostered greater collaboration throughout the KIPP network, said Ms. Stabrowski. She uses a website called Better Lesson on which teachers from any school in the country can post, share, and download lesson plans for each other, which has opened the door for feedback from other teachers, she said.
“There are more sets of eyes looking over our work, challenging us, and also asking questions to help us rethink for the next unit,” said Ms. Stabrowski. And the collaboration isn’t just happening within KIPP, she pointed out.
“Because common core is common language, it’s opened up relationships across many schools,” she said. “We actually get to sit down with people from district schools and talk about the exact same stuff and speak that language together because we’re all changing together. We all have this challenge to face, and I feel like it’s unified teachers a little more.”
But when preparing teachers for the common core, not all charter schools are created equal, cautioned Nelson Smith, a senior adviser for the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, in Washington.
Charter schools that are part of large state or national networks, such as KIPP, often have staff to track the latest developments around the common core and deliver that information to educators, he said. But independent charters may need extra help.
"[Independent charters] really need some special attention to make sure they’re aware of the changes coming down the pike and getting ready for them,” said Mr. Smith.
In Arizona, charter and district schools are working together to provide teacher training, said Justin O’Connell, the quality-schools training manager for the Phoenix-based Arizona Charter Schools Association, which has been certified to provide common-core training to charters and traditional public schools in the state.
“This is a heavy lift for all schools, and we’ve got to figure out ways to make it so that they’re not all trying to reinvent the wheel,” he said.
The state department of education has been holding workshops on common-core implementation, and the Arizona Charter Schools Association provides that service as well.
Despite states’ best efforts, many charter schools, as well as regular public schools, are struggling to finance high-quality professional development, said Ms. Rees from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.
Beyond the professional-development challenge, the reality is that many districts and charters are not ready for the technological demands of the common core.
Wendy Ranck-Buhr, the principal of the San Diego Cooperative Charter School, which serves students in grades K-8, says that although her school is well-positioned to implement the common core because its curriculum is a good fit for the standards, she worries about finding the money to beef up her school’s technology infrastructure in preparation for the online assessments.
As it is, her school operates in a district facility with outdated technological infrastructure, she said.
Moving the assessments online “is a great idea,” she said, “but the reality of it has me tremendously worried.”
Coverage of the implementation of the Common Core State Standards and the common assessments is supported in part by a grant from the GE Foundation, at www.ge.com/foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the January 23, 2013 edition of Education Week as Charters Prepare For the Challenges of Common Core