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Inside Urban Charter Schools

Katherine MersethSenior Lecturer Katherine Merseth knows the controversy that trails charter schools in America. Concerns about charter schools include them challenging the long-existing status quo (there are more than 4,000 in the U.S.); adding fuel to the debate of vouchers, markets, and choice; and affecting the funding of traditional schools, seemingly pitting charter activists against traditional school educators. Merseth's latest book, Inside Urban Charter Schools, released this week by Harvard Education Press, provides an intimate look into five high-performing urban charter schools in Massachusetts, including what makes these schools a success.

Why did you conduct this research and write this book?

I am a hopeless academic entrepreneur—a do-er.  I don't think I have ever met a good idea that I didn't want to immediately implement. Furthermore, I feel strongly that our K-12 public schools need serious reform in order to better serve all students because the goals for our schools have increased at a greater rate than our ability to meet them. As students' diversity in language, background, and needs expands, many dedicated teachers and principals are working harder and harder, and yet, the needle of student learning has moved very little.

The charter movement, in theory, provides an opportunity to address these changing demands in new and exciting ways. It opens up opportunities for individuals to create schools anew, to hire staff that accept the mission and are willing to put in 60-80 hours per week to get the job done. Most charters espouse a "We'll do whatever it takes" attitude, a perspective that asks "Why not?" rather than a defeated "They won't let us." I am very attracted to this can-do approach. However, as I have observed the movement develop over the last 15 years, I have become somewhat disillusioned with their results. No matter how they are measured, there are some amazing charter schools, such as those highlighted in our book. At the same time, however, we know that there are many charters that are not successful. A further disappointment for me is that essentially given the freedom to create any form or structure of schooling, the vast majority of charter schools look just like the schools we've already got. Because of my disappointment in this lack of innovation when the conditions seemed so ripe for an entrepreneurial approach, I decided that I wanted to understand, in a more nuanced way, what the elements contribute to the successful performance of some charters. If my research team and I could determine what those factors were, I thought, the findings might help all schools, both traditional, private, and charter, improve. When the opportunity presented itself, I jumped at the chance.

Do you think charter school's autonomy and self-determination set them up for success? How?

Autonomy, no; Self-determination, yes.

Autonomy, per se, does not guarantee success. Many autonomous charter schools are dreadful. Indeed, what is important is how the autonomy is managed, applied, and used.  Certainly, the freedom that results from the autonomy to define the ways in which the school operates, how long the school day will be, what the behavior and personnel policies will be, and how the school allocates staff to students in the presence of content are critical elements. Furthermore, many argue that freedom from sometimes constraining teacher contracts and district policies can infuse a breath of fresh air badly needed in school reform.

Like fine Swiss watches exhibiting a symphony of wheels, dials, gears, levers, and springs, the schools profiled in Inside Urban Charter Schools operate with astonishing coherences and coordination across multiple levels, each part working in harmony with others to achieve clear, widely embraced goals related to academic achievement. Certainly the unrelenting passion and commitment of the stakeholders in these schools fuel this process, but it is the thoughtful combination of the school's activities—their coherence with regard to purpose, people, and planning—that channels the passion, commitment, and energy into outstanding results. While autonomy certainly helps, the lessons in this book are relevant for anyone in any system interested in higher student achievement.

All of the schools in our study were created as new entities, which can be an enormous advantage in the school reform business. Determining your mission, hiring personnel that embrace the mission, and attracting students and families who buy into the mission go a long way toward creating a coherent and cohesive organization. At the same time, however, no one should underestimate what it takes to start a school from scratch. Thinking though legal provisions, creating new governance structures for the board, establishing personnel policies, finding a facility in addition to managing finances, and contemplating what should be taught and how leave many charter starters short on sleep.

Not all charters are created from scratch, however. Some charters are converted from traditional schools into charter status by a vote of the faculty. While these schools may have some advantages in having a facility and staff with a newly energized mission, a previous culture and way of doing business may remain. Massachusetts does not have conversion charters; instead the state has a second class of charters called "Horace Mann Charters" that remain under the auspices of the district and abide by many elements of the existing collective bargaining agreements and district provisions. In the charter-friendly state of California, around 20 percent of the nearly 600 charters are conversions.

According to the book, changing governance is not the real indicator of whether a school is successful but ultimately it is how you use charters that make a difference. What are some of the things you witnessed in the five charter schools included in your study that make them effective?

We found several elements were important to the success of these schools specifically, these successful urban charter schools including:

  • a broad agreement about their mission and purpose—everyone's there to get high scores on standardized tests, everyone's in agreement about the need for results, and everyone's bought into how these results will be obtained. Nothing is wasted; nothing is extra. The sense of urgency is palpable.
  • a set of extremely high expectations for students and families with regard to academic performance, a strong work ethic, appropriate behavior, and responsibility. Some of the schools require parents and student to sign a contract. If a student fails to meet these high expectations, tutoring, extra time in class, and reteaching are provided, but only to a point. Standards are never lowered to accommodate student apathy or disengagement. In some cases, students choose to move to another school.
  • demand an extraordinary commitment from the adults in the building in terms of time, effort, and energy. The role of the faculty and staff is to do 'whatever it takes' to enable a student to learn. Sometimes adults in these schools 'burnout' or decide that personal goals such as raising a family or having interests and engagements outside of school are not compatible with this work. For a few of the schools in the study, this is viewed as a problem, while others schools accept it as a condition
    of the work. All of these schools have highly effective recruiting and selection processes to replace departed colleagues.
  • embody a philosophy of continuous improvement. These schools are not afraid to change, refine, or discontinue practices that seem to impede the achievement of their goals. In this regard they are nimble and opportunistic.
  • make extensive use of student performance data to frequently measure student academic outcomes and communicate these outcomes to families on a regular, sometime weekly basis.
  • implement purposefully designed systems and structures that allocate people and time in the service of academic achievement on high stakes tests. Every school has explicit accountability systems for teachers, students, and families with clear consequences for subpar performance.
  • utilize common classroom practices such as careful use of time for academic work, uniform lesson structures, deliberate efforts to prepare students with test-taking skills, and alignment of classroom content with the state standards. Notably the level of cognitive demand in many classrooms is not particularly high and is more focused on recall, memorization, and procedural knowledge.

What can educators and educational policymakers learn from charter schools?

There are many ideas and techniques that educators and educational policymakers can take away from charter schools. First, what these charter schools do, while impressive, is not so special as to be elusive to those who work in non-charter schools. Indeed, very little of what these charters do is beyond the capacity of traditional schools. The practices of these charter schools are eminently transferable. However, what seems to impede a smooth, bilateral sharing of ideas and approaches between the two camps is an unfortunate competition that pits one group against the other. The transfer of best practices must proceed in both directions. For example, while these five urban charter schools offer an existence proof that high standardized test scores are possible and within the grasp of every student in this country, it is equally true that the several practices of successful traditional schools in areas such as special education, the arts, or second language proficiency, offer insights for the charter world.

Second, children in these charter schools are highly successful on high stakes tests despite rather modest teaching techniques and the presence of significant variation in the cognitive demand of tasks required of children across a school's classrooms. Classroom instruction in these charters frequently appeared to honor the acquisition of basic, fundamental skills exactly the topics and items commonly found on standardized tests—over more cognitively engaging tasks such as arguing, defending, supporting, valuing, or evaluating. This instructional approach, combined with a sense of urgency, may work against thoughtful reflection and the exploration of more sophisticated thinking skills.

This finding about the instructional approaches employed by these charters raises a broad and important question for educators, policymakers, and citizens: What exactly do we want of our nation's schools? Today, the success of K-12 schools is measured primarily by cut-off scores on standardized tests. In this regard, these charter schools are exquisitely successful. Furthermore, one can hardly blame them for their laser-like focus on tests and skills because their future operational status is closely tied to their students' performance on these tests. While traditional schools are rarely closed for poor performance, charters live with a realistic threat of closure should their tests scores falter. Must we accept that high stakes test scores are the only appropriate measure of success for K-12 schools? Do they accurately represent what we want from our schools? What other outcomes might be appropriate for children who will live their entire lives in the 21st century? Are indicators such as college graduation, productive employment, democratic citizenship, social responsibility or positive parenting also plausible measures of success? These are a few of the important questions that the research raises for me.

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