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Harvard EdCast: Replicating Effective Charter School Practice

A conversation with Sarah Cohodes about whether we can transcend the charter school debates in order to identify what works and how to make it transferable.

Sarah CohodesIn general, charter schools don't perform too differently from traditional public schools, says Teachers College Assistant Professor Sarah Cohodes, Ed.M.’11, but some successful urban charters are showing huge gains for low-income minority students, offering the promise of closing achievement gaps. But as Cohodes points out in our latest episode of the Harvard EdCast, there are simply too few charter schools in the country to actually make a meaningful impact on that gap – even if all charters adopted the practices that seem to work.

The debate around charter schools often misses the questions that interest Cohodes most: What can we learn from these schools, what practices are key to their success, and can those practiecs be replicated elsewhere?

“It’s a situation where we know more about how charters are doing, but a lot of what politics are about is not about the educational experiences of children in school,” she says. “It’s about what’s happening for adults in terms of teachers, what’s happening in terms of funding, what’s happening in terms of unionization, what’s happening in terms of support or lack of support for traditional public school districts…. I think we’ve seen a lot of change. A lot of information but think there is still not a settled political question. A lot is about politics and not what’s happening in school.”

Some of the consistent gains, particularly among low-income minority students at urban charter schools, are a result of the cultures of high expectations and behavioral norms, frequent feedback for teachers, tutoring, longer school days and years, and data-driven instruction, Cohodes says.

Of course, charter schools have the flexibility in regulations to develop such policies and practice that traditional public school may not always have. “There’s nothing magic about being a charter school it just so happens that these are the people who put together these practices, and had the regulatory ability to make longer days,” she says.

Cohodes — recently on campus to deliver a PIER Seminar at the Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard University — is asking the question of whether those practices can be applied in public school to the same success. To date, efforts to take charter school practice and apply it in traditional public schools has had mixed results. In some cases, she says it’s just as successful in the traditional public school, but those gains aren’t always actualized in other attempts.

“An open question is it about implementation or about those practices not able to be translated into the new context for whatever reason,” she says. “It’s possible you bring in charter organization to reconstitute a school, but a school is a community and network of people who’ve been doing things one way for a long time and it’s very hard to change people.”

No matter what efforts a school undertakes, says Cohodes, they require total buy-in from an organization. “It’s also [about] what are our options available. It’s better to try these things than do nothing or close a school or hire a new principal and say it’s going to magically change,” she says. 

In this episode of the EdCast, Cohodes talks about her research exploring charter schools and whether we can replicate effective charter school practice into traditional public schools.

About the Harvard EdCast

The Harvard EdCast is a weekly podcast featuring brief conversations with education leaders and innovative thinkers from across the country and around the world. Hosted by Jill Anderson, the EdCast is a dynamic space for discourse about problems and transformative solutions in education, shining a light on the compelling people, policies, practices, and ideas shaping the field. Find the EdCast on iTunes, Soundcloud, and Stitcher