What Makes a Charter Smarter?

A new article in the journal Educational Leadership raises some tough questions for America’s charter schools. Authors Richard D. Kahlenberg and Halley Potter ask why an education model designed initially around innovation and collaboration has failed to produce the kind of transformative change expected from these reforms. Citing a discrepancy between the original charter vision laid out by former American Federation of Teachers president Albert Shanker and current practices at many of these schools around the country, Kahlenberg and Potter note that fewer than 30 percent of charters today outperform district schools in math or reading.

There are myriad reasons why the charter sector, as a whole, has failed to surpass district schools in all measures of academic achievement. Under the best of circumstances, public education is a complicated endeavor with countless moving parts and continually evolving theories around student learning, pedagogy, and assessment. Add to this a persistent crisis of poverty, combined with a long legacy of institutional neglect in many communities, and you begin to understand why so many well-meaning reformers have tried, and failed, to fill the cracks in America’s battered education system.

Room for Growth

Kahlenberg and Potter spotlight three areas where charter schools are falling short of their potential, before turning their focus to a handful of schools that are getting it right: “Policymakers and charter school advocates,” they write, “have emphasized competition over cooperation, empowered management over teachers, and prioritized niche markets over racial and economic integration of students.”

On each of these points — collaboration, teacher voice, and student integration — the authors demonstrate how far charter practices have drifted from the way such schools were meant to operate.

Yet, as Kahlenberg and Potter point out, there are bright spots on the charter schools landscape. Around the country, several committed organizations are pointing the way towards a “smarter” charter model more closely aligned with the movement’s founding mission.

  • In Denver, Colorado, DSST Public Schools is taking steps to enroll a socioeconomically diverse student body, confirming how integration can improve student outcomes and reduce discriminatory attitudes and preferences.
  • In Baltimore, the NorthEast Schools Alliance brings together charter, district, and private schools to share best practices and collaborate on professional development.
  • And, in Los Angeles, Green Dot Public Schools is empowering teachers to engage meaningfully in school decisions, becoming a national example of union-management cooperation.

A Partnership for Success

Albert Shanker believed that unions have a key role to play in the operation and oversight of America’s charter schools. Unfortunately, this ideal hasn’t kept pace with reality: today, only 7 percent of charter schools are unionized. As Kahlenberg and Potter point out, the absence of real opportunities for teacher input in the decision-making processes at their schools has significant negative implications both for teacher turnover and student success. According to a recent report, charter schools experience 17 percent more teacher turnover than traditional district schools do.

By contrast, Green Dot was built around the input of teachers and staff who founded its first school in 1999, and it currently operates 21 fully unionized schools in Los Angeles. Green Dot’s new teacher evaluation system was ratified through lengthy discussion between union representatives and network administrators; Green Dot teachers have a say in how their schools are run, and they stay in these schools at rates that exceed national charter averages for teacher retention.

“Green Dot’s careful attention to teacher voice is also accompanied by strong outcomes for its student body,” write Kahlenberg and Potter. “Across the network, graduation rates at Green Dot schools are nearly twice as high as the average in neighboring schools (74 percent versus 42 percent).”

Not only does this model boost morale and student achievement, it allows Green Dot to engage in the kind of innovative, collaborative problem solving that charters were always intended to inspire. As Green Dot Public Schools California CEO Cristina de Jesus notes in the article, Green Dot’s close partnership with the teacher’s union allows the organization to make “apples-to-apples comparisons” with neighboring schools, offering lessons in management policies and teaching practices that are truly transferable to other traditional school districts.

Common Ground

Green Dot rejects the competitive ethos that has soured dialogue among those who share a common goal: to provide a high quality education for all of America’s school-age children. From community engagement to college persistence, Green Dot is working with peers in both charter and traditional school districts to identify practices with the promise to raise student achievement.

Preparing students for college, leadership, and life requires many things: dedicated teachers, ambitious students, committed parents. And, as Kahlenberg and Potter make clear, it also requires the evolution of better, smarter charters.


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