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Learn From All Successful Schools, Not Just Charters

obriena's picture

Few would argue with the notion that public education in America needs to improve to ensure that our country remains prosperous in the coming years. And we should look wherever we can for ideas on how we can increase student achievement for each child in the nation.

One possible source for these ideas: charter schools. Last week, the Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution released “Learning from the Successes and Failures of Charter Schools,” in which Roland Fryer discusses his efforts to learn what works in the world of charter schooling and implement it in traditional public schools.

By studying 35 charter schools of varying performance levels in New York City, Fryer and his colleagues identified five practices that are consistently found in higher-achieving schools and that together explain roughly half the difference in effectiveness between charter schools:

  • More human capital (how often schools give teachers feedback on their instructional practice)
  • Data-driven instruction (whether teachers alter instruction to reflect student learning)
  • High-dosage tutoring
  • Increased time on task
  • A relentless focus on high academic expectations

Fryer and his colleagues then attempted to transfer these practices into traditional public schools, with demonstration projects in Houston and Denver. To date, the results are very promising. Participating schools in both cities have seen math and reading standardized test scores rise at rates that are comparable to those of high-achieving charter schools.

Because of this success, Fryer proposes using variations of these five tenets as a starting point in turning around the nation’s chronically underperforming schools, taking care to point out that the goal is not to replace traditional public schools with charter schools, but “to emulate in both charter and traditional public schools practices that have shown to be successful.”

I greatly respect Roland Fryer. He takes complex arguments and makes them manageable without oversimplifying. He appears to understand the nuances in the conversations around public education.

But something about this work bothers me. As the report acknowledges, while some charter schools have shown great success, as a whole they have a very mixed record and (on average) no statistical impact on test scores compared to traditional public schools. And at the release event, Fryer pointed out that traditional public schools have a similar range in performance variation.  

Yet the report focuses exclusively on charters, saying that “the astounding success that some [charter schools] have demonstrated suggests that we should learn as much as possible from them in the hopes of better serving the huge number of students enrolled in traditional public schools.”

I understand and agree with the idea that we need to learn what we can from successful charter schools. But there seems to be an implication – if only by omission – in such statements that there aren’t traditional public schools demonstrating similar astounding success that we can also learn from. And we know there are. So why in looking for lessons to scale up in traditional public schools is there an emphasis on the charter sector? Why not study the best practices of high-performing traditional public schools as well? In fact, might studying high-performing traditional public schools be more likely to lead to scaleable solutions than studying charter schools, given the political and financial issues that can arise in implementing some of the ideas found in charter schools in traditional public schools?

I wasn’t the only one at the release event to have this reaction. Richard Rothstein, another scholar I greatly respect and a panelist at the event, raised a similar point.

And I appreciate Fryer’s response, which seems to boil down to the fact that studying successful charter schools allows for a more rigorous methodology. For example, in looking at schools where some students win spots via lottery and other (presumably similar) students do not, you have a built-in comparison group.

I accept that. Researchers should use the best methodology they can. But I worry what lessons we miss when we study charters while excluding traditional public schools. And I worry that while Fryer understands the nuance in the education world, those who might read his paper and attempt to use it in policy debates might not.

So what do we do about it? At the very least, all public education advocates should take care to emphasize the success that exists within public school systems, not just in the charter community. And we should press for research on that success, so that we can scale up best practices from this sector as well. We cannot ignore the lessons we can learn from the schools already operating within the system if we hope to give each child in this nation access to a great education.

Image by GregVos (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons


Anne, I agree with your

Anne, I agree with your concern about the use of charters as a model for ed reform and research. As a social reseacher myself, I appreciate that there's a research design rationale for using charter schools as a test bed for evaluating approaches to public school reform. Yet on balance, it is not a compelling rationale.

Sure, the researcher has a concern for the validity in her study. Internal validity is why you might want to use charters in a study that examines students under a lottery assignment (some go to charter, so go to traditional school, assignment is apparently random).

But there are serious technical problems with this approach. One is that it isn't really random assignment--it is random assignment *after* students/families self select to go to the charter or not. Given the way charters operate, this is a serious threat to the validity of a study that wants to generalize results to traditional public schools.

More importantly, there's a deeply problematic policy context here. Charters are fundamentally about segregating students according to more or less obvious family/student characteristics. Charters regularly and reliably skim, keeping at risk populations of learners in traditional classrooms. Comparisons of student performance in skimmed v. unskimmed groups is just not very interesting and tells you little about helping schools that confront the challenges of educating ALL children.

Charters are increasingly promoted and run by organizations less concerned with educational outcomes than ideological ones (anti-teachers unions, vouchers). This means that lots of research is, well, corrupted by the people providing the research money.

Finally, an maybe I'm off topic a bit in saying this, but I hope CT Parent Power avoids following the example of organizations like Stand for Children. Stand started life as a grassroots organization focused on developing policy goals in a bottom up process, deriving strategic goals by way of community discussion and consensus. But it soon became the darling of the Broad and Gates foundations, who used financial incentives to turn the organization upside down--no longer making policy based on parent input and concerns, it now recruits parents who are willing to accept the public policy packages advocated by corporate reformers (Broad, Gates Foundations), anti-union groups (DFER), and right-wing interests committed to a wider political agenda(ALEC). In particular, it has adopted charter school promotion as its central organizing idea. Inevitably, this change has meant a turn from grassroots to astroturf organization.

Kudos, RG! You've hit the

Kudos, RG! You've hit the nail on the head here.

Privatizers---the more accurate name for so-called "educational reformers"---try to get us to accept their base assumptions. And one of those base assumptions is that "charters" are "good schools" and public schools are "bad".

Therefore, who wouldn't want to put their child in a "good charter" as opposed to a "bad public school"? Duh.

And then, once those bedrock assumptions are shared with everyone, we can now begin the "debate about the future of our schools."

Bullshit. I start MY debates by taking apart the propagandistic premise of "Charter Schools Are Good"; once that's justifiably demolished---based on facts and simple arithmetic---we can THEN begin the debate.

We all need to do the same. In the future, whenever somebody starts talking about education and expects you to accept the hoary premise that "Charters are better schools", be sure to tear it a new one.

THEN start the debate.

Sadly, many people are

Sadly, many people are dancing to the tune of the very rich, including researchers at our great universities.

Learning from different

Learning from different schools, whether they are successful or not, teachers and educational gurus is helpful for any teacher. I try to read books, articles and watch seminars and TV programs on everything concerning my subject. That's how I become more professional to work effective and fruitful!