New Grades On Charter Schools

In order to create some good ones, we're going to have to live with some lemons

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The two most common criticisms about charter schools are that A) many of them aren’t that good and B) the good ones can’t be replicated to serve enough kids to really make a difference. TIME got an exclusive first look at the most comprehensive evaluation of charter school networks ever, and although the study, which will be released on Nov. 4, underscores the challenge of creating quality schools, it also makes clear that it is indeed possible to build a lot of schools that are game-changers for a lot of students.

The study, conducted by Mathematica Policy Research and the University of Washington’s Center on Reinventing Public Education, examined networks of affiliated charter schools, which in the education world are referred to as charter school management organizations (CMOs). There are more than 130 of these non-profit networks serving about 250,000 students nationwide. I was on an advisory board for the early conception and design of this study, the goal of which was to better understand how CMOs operate and how effective they are. The study is filled with valuable data about how CMOs manage their teachers, how much funding they get and how they use it and what kinds of students they serve. But I’m focusing here on student achievement, which is, of course, the most contentious issue in the national debate about charter schools.

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Of the 40 CMOs that were selected for inclusion in the study for various reasons, including having a minimum of four member schools, 22 networks had sufficient data for the student-achievement analysis, which looked at three years of middle-school performance. The study found that, in general, students at charter-network schools outperform similar students at traditional public schools, although sometimes not by very much. But that overall average masks an enormous variation among different CMOs. High-performing CMOs are so effective they are providing the equivalent of three years of schooling for students every two years. But CMOs at the low end are so bad they are effectively costing students a year of learning every two years. Bottom line: 10 of the 22 CMOs are outperforming their public-school peers in math and reading, in some cases substantially; eight are middling; and four are serious laggards.

These findings challenge long-held claims of both charter critics and proponents. Contrary to conventional wisdom, growth need not come at the expense of quality. Some of the larger networks are also the best performing. But the study also shows clearly that not every charter school network is a KIPP. The success of KIPP, which has grown to more than 100 schools that other studies show have overall strong performance, obscures the CMO landscape. KIPP has become to charter schools what Coke is to soft drinks — a ubiquitous shorthand covering a wide range of flavors and off-brands. As the new study shows, not all of the quarter-million students in CMOs are getting a high-quality experience.

This variation points to the most complicated question the study raises. How much risk and failure are we willing to tolerate to create much better schools for students who don’t have them today? Or, put another way, if I told you there was a way to create 10 outstanding networks of schools for students who lack decent educational options now but that the cost of doing this would be the creation of four lousy networks of schools, would you take the deal?

Critics of charter schools say this choice is a false one and that we should instead focus on improving existing schools. But their argument ignores the immediacy of educational failure. We’re talking about communities where public schools are not failing just a little but where the catastrophe of broken lives unfolds every school year, places where less than half of high schoolers graduate and where fewer than one in ten students finish college by their mid-20s. And let’s not forget, despite all the noise about turning around persistently failing schools, that successful turnarounds are like snow leopards — more mythical than actually observed.

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Charter proponents also disagree with the lose-some-to-win-some premise. Their main argument against it is that bad charters can be shut down. It’s true that this does happen — government officials have refused to renew some charters — but it’s proving to be more difficult in practice than in theory. There is an old saw in education that closing a school is like moving a cemetery: you get very little help from the inside. Charter parents and teachers often resist school closures just like their counterparts in the traditional system, and today there are not enough effective — read strong — charter school authorizers around the country.

So although better policies would help some on the quality front, and we do need to be more serious about shutting down under-performing charters, at some level creating some lemons is the price of innovation and progress. If we’re serious about creating much better schools than the ones we have today, we must become more comfortable with this risk. Safe but mediocre is more palatable for politicians and school officials, but it doesn’t work for kids or in the long run for our country. We should be cognizant of the costs of school failure for students but equally aware of the steeper price of failing to innovate. More important than any other finding in this new study is its takeaway that the cost of creating some exceptional schools is going to be the creation of some bad ones, too.

Disclosure: I am affiliated with the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington and have consulted for Mathematica. Bellwether also works with the funders who commissioned the study.