Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Hopes, Fears, & Reality: A Balanced Look at American Charter Schools in 2009

This is the fifth annual report from the National Charter School Research Project (NCSRP).

Download Full Report (PDF: 1953 K)

Thanks to President Barack Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, charter schools are being promoted as an important tool for improving U.S. public schools. This latest look at the national charter school landscape contains reasons for cautious optimism about whether the charter school sector is poised to take advantage of the opportunity.

The 2009 edition of Hopes, Fears, & Reality finds that charter school growth has been “robust and consistent,” mostly in urban areas, suggesting a steady appeal, especially from low-income and minority parents. The report also finds that high-performing charter schools offer important lessons for other public schools. Namely, school culture must exude “a palpable urgency that communicates that the work is important,” a tight alignment of lesson content with state curriculum, and frequent “formative assessments that mirror high-stakes test conditions and items.”

With the “Race to the Top” program encouraging the expansion of charter schools as part of the effort to reform the nation’s lowest-performing district schools, charters are getting a new look—particularly in states that now ban or severely limit them. In response, many states are considering legislation to expand the number of charter schools allowed.

However, charter school advocates and state policymakers need to address shortcomings that threaten to limit the sector’s ability to become a mainstream option for American families.

The report finds that:

  • School turnarounds require much more than good intentions. They succeed only about 30 percent of the time.
  • If charter schools are to effectively replace chronically low-performing schools, the charter school sector needs to quickly develop a stronger cadre of excellent principals and capable governing boards.
  • States and localities can use charters as a tool for better schools, but they must be prepared to close charter schools when they fail to succeed. Some states rarely close a charter school; others consider it a regular and necessary function.
  • Boston charter schools that succeed in raising test scores do not always perform well on college entrance exams. To fully demonstrate that such schools are an important new model for urban schooling, the sector may need to pay greater attention to critical thinking and other skills needed for college success.
  • Teachers unions are increasing efforts to unionize charter schools; how charter schools respond to this challenge may be pivotal for the sector. While charter
    unionization has attracted much attention recently, to date relatively few charter schools have unionized, and observers remain split over the impact on
  • Though there are exceptions, most school districts that have lost and continue to lose students do not respond competitively. States could change that by increasing incentives for school districts to develop plans to compete with charters.

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