Friday, November 07, 2008

Competition Yields Unequal and Disappointing Charter Results

Substantial research strongly suggests that teachers may be the most important element of an effective school. But does that mean that K-12 improvement must wait on the ability of schools or systems to recruit, nurture, and retain outstanding teachers?

Such a strategy implies that widespread excellence hinges on the ability of publicly funded school systems to attract more than 3.3 million superstars—or more than 200,000 such hires a year. The challenge of recruiting our way to excellence is a daunting proposition.

Education Sector senior fellow Steven Wilson, is skeptical that it is a feasible one. In an American Enterprise Institute working paper, he notes that today’s successful charter schools have succeeded by creating a “No Excuses” culture reliant on their ability to attract talented and passionate recruits. He doubts, however, that these models are capable of working at the scale that the nation requires.

Indeed, given the limited talent pool of promising hires and the exhausting demands these schools make of faculty, Wilson considers whether such models can ever effectively serve more than a handful of the nation’s students.

Internationally, the top performing education systems (Finland and Singapore) draw their teachers from the top third of college graduates. In America, urban school systems typically draw their teachers primarily from the bottom third.

However, the SAT scores of prospective teachers passing teacher licensing tests has risen in the last ten years in the United States, as have their college grades.

At least since President Lyndon Johnson announced his plan to move the nation “toward the Great Society,” policymakers and philanthropists have sought a remedy to persistent academic underachievement in America’s cities.

While the charter school movement as a whole has disappointed, a small number of the new schools have posted arresting results, with their low-income students, primarily African-American and Hispanic, outperforming students statewide—and in some cases, their white peers from affluent suburban districts.

Among this smattering of “gap-closing” schools, one broad approach, frequently called “No Excuses” schooling, appears to dominate.

The Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) network of schools is the exemplar, but the approach is proliferating in other networks, including Achievement First, Uncommon Schools, and in stand-alone schools, many of which aspire to replicate themselves in the coming years. The growing attention these organizations are receiving is richly deserved.

If scholarly research (addressing complexities like selection effects) confirms their apparent achievements, they will have demonstrated a schooling model that, with some consistency, turns around the academic trajectory of their students. That possibility has already created understandable excitement, attracted substantial philanthropic support for existing or aspiring No Excuses school networks, and drawn thousands of exceptional young people to work in urban education as classroom teachers, school leaders, and managers in No Excuses networks.

The critical question is now one of scale: If the No Excuses formula is behind most high performing urban charter schools, is the approach sustainable, and can it be widely reproduced?

The new bargain that charter legislation extended—authority and autonomy in exchange for accountability—sparked thousands of education entrepreneurs to create new schools. Despite the energy and commitment of their founders, most charter schools have failed to decisively outperform their district competitors.

Seventeen years after Minnesota became the first state to pass charter legislation, the number of charter schools that are truly “gap-closers”—where urban or rural students, despite their economic disadvantage, are performing on par with their more affluent, typically suburban peers—is small. There are perhaps as few as 200 nationwide...

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