Guest Commentary: Charter Debate Misses The Point — It's Quality, In All Schools

(Lee Nachtigal/Flickr)
(Lee Nachtigal/Flickr)

Lost in the current charged debate over charter school expansion is a focus on what really matters: expanding the number of high-quality classrooms wherever they exist within a district. The education-reform ideology and operational structure of a school should matter less than whether that school has other key attributes, such as effective leadership, skilled teachers and a culture of caring and high expectations.

Schools with these attributes exist throughout Massachusetts — and the country — in many forms: district, charter, parochial and private. Thus both the “pro” and “anti” camps of the charter school debate not only foster division among families and educators; they also distract us all from what would improve our schools.

Without question, charters can provide greater autonomy than traditional public schools, as well as more latitude in making personnel, enrollment, curriculum, professional development and scheduling decisions. This operational freedom has been key to the success of many charter schools, including several in Boston. In fact, a well-publicized 2013 study of charter schools across 25 states by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes singles out Boston charter schools for demonstrating the largest average growth rate in math and reading test scores (in comparison to district schools) among any city or state in their study.

Yet charter status does not guarantee success. Locally and nationally, many charter schools perform worse than traditional public schools; several have been forced to close. The same 2013 CREDO charter school study summarized:

Even with this decentralized degree of control, we do not see dramatic improvement among existing charter schools over time. In other words, the charter sector is getting better on average, but not because existing schools are getting dramatically better; it is largely driven by the closure of bad schools.

At the same time, many traditional district public schools routinely outpace both neighboring charter schools and their peer district schools in student academic outcomes. And districts such as Boston are moving to provide traditional school leaders with many of the same autonomies granted to charter schools.

And then there are the innovative private and parochial schools in almost every American city that are changing the education and life trajectories of disadvantaged children. For example, the Epiphany School, an independent, tuition-free middle school in Dorchester, has an impressive track record of learning success among students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, including the 30 percent of its students who are involved with the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families.

In other words, factors besides whether a school is a charter or not are at least as critical to its success. Researchers point to several aspects, including skilled instructional leadership; a qualified, critical mass of committed and collaborative teachers; ongoing professional development and continuous improvement; research-based curriculum; engaged parents, and a caring school culture that promotes high expectations for all students.

Schools that demonstrate these factors yield positive outcomes and draw families. They should also both attract the attention of education leaders, elected officials, teachers’ unions and parents and inform how we invest education dollars.

How might this work? One local organization has an answer. Founded and supported by the Lynch Foundation, the Boston Schools Fund has a singular, ideologically agnostic focus:  “to increase the number of seats in high-performing district, charter, and Catholic schools.”

The BSF pursues this goal by vetting schools across the city from all sectors, selecting those that have proven student outcomes and demonstrate the capacity – through strong leadership, culture and organizational assets — to expand their number of seats and thus their impact. Selected schools then receive financial and technical assistance in support of this expansion.

So far BSF has selected seven Boston schools — two district, one Catholic and four charter — to participate in the fund. By 2020, BPS hopes to add 7,000 seats to these and other high-performing schools.

BSF is now also pursuing a second strategy, one focused on talent development. The fund is partnering with education schools and nonprofits to develop innovative ways to recruit, train and retain highly skilled school leaders and teachers to work in and across all Boston school settings.

In one sense, the focus on charter school expansion is an easy, “quick fix” approach to education reform – i.e., imagining that all it will take is more charter schools. Efforts to improve the factors such as school leadership, teacher skill or school culture that result in strong schools – and to assess which schools have these factors in place – are more complex and time-intensive.

The BSF realizes it has its work cut out for it. It remains to be seen if the fund’s strategies can move the needle and significantly increase the number of quality seats for Boston students. But if we want great classrooms for all children, we would do well to recognize, strengthen and scale any and all schools that are successful — and focus less on a school’s ideology and operational structure.

Jacob Murray is the faculty director for professional education at the Boston University School of Education. Follow him on Twitter @jake_murray44.


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