An Experiment in Common Sense

by Students Matter

Created twenty years ago as testing grounds for new and alternative educational models, the publicly funded but independently run schools called Charters have soared in numbers in recent years.

Nationally, charter schools enroll more than 2 million students or approximately 4 percent of the US student population.

Many charter schools live up to their promise: Animo Leadership High School, an L.A.-area charter school in Inglewood affiliated with the Green Dot charter school organization, made this year’s list of 61 finalists for federal Race to the Top grants.

However, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, which oversees more than half of the nation’s 5,600 charter schools, said Wednesday that one in five charter schools generates poor enough academic performance to warrant its closure.

In all good systems, there will be successes and failures. The measure of an organization is its ability to acknowledge both successes and failures and learn from both, adopting more broadly the practices of the successes while closing the failures. This measure is called accountability, and it works. The charter school system has the capability to act appropriately and close a school or program that is not meeting the singular purpose of educating the students.

The characteristic at the heart of the charter school movement, which simultaneously empowers some schools to excel while allowing others to fail, is flexibility accompanied by accountability.

Exempted from some state regulations, charter schools can be narrowly tailored to fit different students’ needs and more quickly adopt methods proven elsewhere to improve overall student achievement. They strive to develop and share best practices for the sole goal of improving the student’s education.

Two years ago in Houston, TX, where two of the most respected charter networks, the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) and the Youth Engaged in Service (YES) Prep, started, 20 of the city’s lowest performing traditional public schools entered into a program to adopt the strategies believed by Harvard economist Roland G. Fryer to correlate with successful charter schools.

A year into the first phase of the “Apollo 20” program, the roughly 7,000 middle and high school students “posted measurably higher results in mathematics on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, or TAKS, compared with their previous performance” and modest improvement in reading. (The results for the eleven elementary schools added a year after the middle and high schools are not yet available.)

Some charter schools employ initiatives too school-specific or too new and yet unproven to warrant the cost to scale them across districts or states, but the “charter schools that show the most empirical success,” according to Bruce D. Baker, a professor of education policy at Rutgers University, actually just do “mundane, common-sense things that work.”

Indeed, the five strategies adopted by the schools in Houston’s Apollo 20 program were: increased instructional time, hiring and retaining better teachers and administrators, data-driven instruction, high-dosage tutoring, and creating a “culture of high expectations.”

Imagine if Los Angeles Unified, with 186 charter schools to study and learn from, more than any other district in the nation, followed Houston’s lead by adopting the practices of the successful charter schools?

Imagine if Los Angeles Unified cultivated its best charter schools—and closed its worst—and then integrated the best practices of those schools into the district’s traditional public schools?

Imagine if Los Angeles Unified had the same freedom with its traditional public schools as with its charters to enhance the successful schools and close the failing schools?

Sounds like common sense to us.

Unfortunately, in reality, the powerful United Teachers Los Angeles and the school board members it lobbies, feel threatened by charter schools—schools free to hire non-UTLA teachers—and campaign against the expansion of successful charter networks in Los Angeles.

Even more harmful and shortsighted, the opponents of charter schools also vehemently fight against allowing traditional public schools to adopt one of the tenets at the core of the best charters schools’ success: flexibility in hiring, retaining and dismissing teachers based on their performance in the classroom and not on their seniority.

Vergara v. California, the statewide lawsuit sponsored by StudentsMatter, seeks to take the handcuffs off of traditional public schools and allow common sense—instead of politics—a chance to govern our schools.  Good organizations adapt to data driven input and act upon it.  Poor organizations are intimidated by other’s successes.


Photo courtesy of Brad Graverson, Daily Breeze