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February 2015 | Volume 72 | Number 5
Improving Schools: What Works?
Richard D. Kahlenberg and Halley Potter
The current direction of charter schools
has limited their potential to improve
public education. Here are some schools
that are taking a better approach.
The charter school model is full of promise. Charter schools can reach across neighborhood school attendance boundaries to enroll diverse groups of students. They can give teachers the room and power to innovate. They can be education laboratories that find new ways to reach students, and they can share those lessons with other public schools. This is what Albert Shanker had in mind when, in March 1988, as president of the American Federation of Teachers, he announced his vision for a new kind of public school, which he would subsequently refer to as charter schools.
But charter schools overall haven't lived up to this promise. Research from the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University reveals that only 29 percent of charter schools outperform district schools in math for demographically similar students and that only 25 percent do so in reading (Cremata et al., 2013). More than 20 years after the first charter school opened, charter school results remain mediocre.
Today's charter sector is a far cry from Shanker's original vision. Policymakers and charter school advocates have emphasized competition over cooperation, empowered management over teachers, and prioritized niche markets over racial and economic integration of students. For some high-profile charter school networks, this approach has yielded strong test scores. But for many other schools—as the Stanford University research reveals—the bet has not paid off.
A small but growing number of charter schools are taking different approaches that echo themes in Shanker's original vision and are backed by long lines of research. These schools empower teachers, integrate students, and share lessons with other public schools. These models could provide a new opportunity to leverage the charter school movement to make strides in public education overall.
Research shows that when teachers are engaged in school decisions, a school's climate improves and teacher turnover decreases. In fact, when teachers have more input in key school decisions, teacher turnover can drop from an average of one in five teachers leaving each year to just one in 25 (Ingersoll, 2003). In schools with greater teacher voice, the rates of conflict among teachers, administrators, and students also decrease.
Keeping teacher turnover low and cultivating an atmosphere of trust are important goals because they pave the way for increased student achievement. Recent research on teacher turnover suggests that excessive churn can harm student outcomes. A study of 4th and 5th grade students in New York City found that students performed worse when teacher turnover within their grade-level team was higher (Ronfeldt, Lankford, Loeb, & Wyckoff, 2011). In low-achieving schools, even students with teachers who had stayed at the school were harmed by turnover among other teachers. Strong relational trust among teachers and administrators seems crucial to school improvement (Bryk, Sebring, Allensworth, Luppescu, & Easton, 2010).
In theory, charter schools are in a good position to promote teacher voice and create a strong school environment in which good teachers want to stay. Charter schools can offer teachers the chance to be directly involved in making the decisions that shape their school's future because those decisions are usually made in-house—no district administration is involved.
Charter schools also have the flexibility to try out new governance models and school structures by giving teachers representation on the governing board, shifting the school schedule to guarantee time for collaboration, or even forgoing a traditional administrative model in favor of teacher-run governance. Shanker envisioned that charter school teachers would have union protections but would receive waivers from certain elements of the collective bargaining agreement to give them greater flexibility.
In practice, few charter schools have seized this opportunity to give teachers greater voice. To begin with, only 7 percent of charter schools are unionized (Rebarber & Zgainer, 2014). That might be understandable if charter schools had other strong pathways to promote teacher input, but data on teacher turnover and satisfaction suggest otherwise.
A recent study (Stuit & Smith, 2012) that analyzed federal data from the 2003–04 school year found that average annual teacher turnover was twice as high in charter schools as in district schools: 24 percent of charter school teachers, on average, left their school that year, compared with just 12 percent of teachers in district schools. Although differences in teacher and school characteristics—such as a teacher's experience or a school's student demographics—explained some of this gap, more than half of the gap remained even after accounting for such factors.
Charter school teachers were also more likely than their district counterparts to cite a desire for a better salary and benefits package or dissatisfaction with the school as reasons for changing schools or leaving teaching altogether. Although the most recent federal data suggest that this gap in turnover rates has shrunk, charter schools still experience 17 percent more teacher turnover than district schools do (Goldring, Taie, & Riddles, 2014).
Some charter schools are bucking this trend. Among the minority of charter schools that are unionized, some, such as Amber Charter School in New York City and Springfield Ball Charter School in Springfield, Illinois, have developed relationships between the teachers union and the school administration that offer teachers protection and input while maintaining the flexibility key to the charter school model. A small number of charter schools, including Avalon School in St. Paul, Minnesota, and IDEAL School in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, use a teacher co-op model, whereby teachers share the leadership duties normally assigned to administrators. Some charter schools, like City Neighbors Charter School in Baltimore, Maryland, include teachers on the governing board, have a school schedule with guaranteed time for teacher-administrator collaboration, and use hiring protocols that rely on teacher input.
Green Dot Public Schools, a unionized charter school network with 21 schools in California, offers a powerful example of how having strong systems for teacher voice can promote organizational strength and student success. The network's founder, Steve Barr, formulated his vision for the Green Dot schools by talking to teachers. "I spent a lot of time listening," he told The Hechinger Report (Carr, 2012). "What seemed to be very consistent with teachers was their inability to have a say in how decisions are made, how money is allocated, and their working conditions."
Barr wanted to create a network of charter schools that would attract high-quality teachers and focus on research and development. Cristina de Jesus, president and chief academic officer of Green Dot, explains that having a union was important "to be able to make apples-to-apples comparisons" between Green Dot and unionized school districts (personal communication, July 10, 2013). If charters are to provide lessons for traditional public schools, those insights are less likely to transfer if labor–management relations are radically different in the two sectors.
Having a union as a pathway for teacher voice has helped Green Dot build effective management policies that teachers support. For example, the network recently created a new teacher evaluation system that incorporates multiple measures of teacher effectiveness, including classroom observations; survey responses from colleagues, students, and families; and growth in student test scores. Introducing a new teacher evaluation system can be divisive, but the process at Green Dot went relatively smoothly and gained wide support among teachers, thanks in large part to the way they were included throughout the policy's development. Union representatives and network administrators worked together to seek input from teachers across the network by inviting them to participate in focus groups, learning sessions, and committees to weigh in on the proposed policies and by paying teachers for their time (A. Zurzolo, personal communication, July 26, 2013).
Green Dot has met its goals for teacher retention. Roughly 85 percent of the teachers return each year. This percentage is greater than the national average for charter schools and on par with the average for district schools (de Jesus, personal communication, July 10, 2013; Goldring, Taie, & Riddles, 2014).
Green Dot's careful attention to teacher voice is also accompanied by strong outcomes for its student body, which is overwhelmingly made up of low-income students of color. 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). Moreover, 86 percent of Green Dot's graduates enroll in college after graduating (Green Dot Public Schools, n.d.).
Just as some charter schools, like Green Dot, are building teacher voice into the core of their model, other charter schools are making integrating students a key part of their mission.
On average, integrated schools—particularly those that bring together students of different socioeconomic backgrounds—produce stronger academic outcomes for students of all backgrounds. Almost 50 years ago, the congressionally authorized Coleman Report found that the single most important predictor of academic achievement is the socioeconomic status of the student's family, with the second most important being the socioeconomic makeup of the school (Coleman et al., 1966). Students generally perform significantly better in schools with strong middle-class populations than they do in high-poverty schools. Virtually all the characteristics and resources that educators talk about as desirable in a school—high standards and expectations, good teachers, involved parents, a safe and orderly environment, a stable student and teacher population—are more likely to be found in economically mixed schools than in high-poverty schools (Kahlenberg, 2001).
Socioeconomically and racially diverse schools also offer important civic and social benefits. Integrated schools help prevent bias and counter stereotypes (Pettigrew & Tropp, 2006). When school settings include students from multiple racial groups, students become more comfortable with people of other races, which leads to a dramatic decrease in discriminatory attitudes and prejudices (McGlothlin & Killen, 2005; Rutland, Cameron, Bennett, & Ferrell, 2005). Numerous studies have found that racial integration in public schools is important to producing good citizens who can thrive in a multiracial democracy (see, for example, Wells & Crain, 1994).
As Justice Thurgood Marshall noted in one desegregation case, "Unless our children begin to learn together, then there is little hope that our people will ever learn to live together" (Milliken v. Bradley, 1974). Research confirms that students who attend racially diverse high schools are more likely to live in diverse neighborhoods five years after graduation (Phillips, Rodosky, Muñoz, & Larsen, 2009).
The charter model could be used to open new doors to integration in public education. Unlike most district schools, charters generally are not bound to strict attendance zones and can enroll students from across a wider area, pulling together students of different races, ethnicities, and socioeconomic statuses. The freedom for charter schools to choose their own educational approaches also presents an opportunity to find pedagogies and curriculums that meet the needs of families and students from a wide variety of backgrounds.
Most charter schools, however, have not actively worked toward socioeconomic and racial integration. Research from the Civil Rights Project found that charter schools are more likely than traditional public schools to be urban, majority low-income, high-poverty, or racially isolated for minorities (Frankenberg, Siegel-Hawley, & Wang, 2010). Some charter schools have tailored their model with one cultural or ethnic group in mind—from Greek-focused schools in Brooklyn, New York, to Hispanic-focused schools in Denver, Colorado (Mulvey, Cooper, & Maloney, 2010).
But a growing number of charter schools are intentionally seeking diverse student enrollment and developing education models to support the needs of all students. Some charter schools, like Blackstone Valley Prep Mayoral Academy in Rhode Island and High Tech High in California, achieve socioeconomic and racial diversity by enrolling students from across a region. Others, like Larchmont Charter School in Los Angeles, California, have opened in a diverse neighborhood and instituted weighted preferences in the lottery to help maintain diverse admissions.
In DSST Public Schools in Denver, Colorado, diversity and academic achievement go hand-in-hand. The charter school network currently includes eight middle and high schools, which use a combination of income- and geography-based lottery preferences to achieve diverse enrollment. CEO Bill Kurtz (2011) explained why integration is part of the network's model: "All students—minority, white, high-income, and low-income—are far better prepared to succeed in college when they have been given the opportunity to learn and work with diverse peers." As of 2014, DSST operated five of the top six public schools in Denver, according to the district's school performance rankings (Colorado Department of Education, 2014).
Among DSST's achievements is operating a successful middle school in a school building with a notorious reputation for failure. Denver's Cole Middle School was shut down by the state of Colorado in 2004 and reopened by the KIPP charter network in an attempt at school turnaround, but KIPP backed out after just two years (Anderson & DeCesare, 2006). A few years later, DSST Public Schools opened DSST: Cole Middle School in the old Cole Middle School building.
Rather than just enroll students from the low-income, high-crime neighborhood surrounding the school, DSST: Cole Middle School also enrolls additional students from across Denver. Although the school has a relatively high level of poverty compared with some of DSST's other campuses—77 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch—poverty is much lower than at the feeder elementary school, in which 94 percent of students are eligible (Colorado Department of Education, 2013).
So far DSST's integrated model is working at Cole, which was the top-ranked middle school in the city in 2011–12 and continues to earn strong marks, ranking 10th of 27 middle schools in the state (Colorado Department of Education, 2012, 2014).
A third direction for charter schools that has the potential to improve outcomes across district and public schools is a return to the focus on collaboration rather than competition between district and charter schools. In contrast to Shanker's original vision, a competitive model emerged during the 1990s and ultimately dominated.
In 1996, James Goenner, president and CEO of the National Charter Schools Institute, suggested that "charter schools are a vehicle for infusing competition and market forces into public education, a proven method for responsive change and improvement" (p. 32). There is little research evidence, however, that competitive effects created by charter schools have spurred improvement in district schools (Wohlstetter, Smith, & Farrell, 2013).
The best chance of using charter schools to improve other schools may lie in partnerships and pathways for collaboration. In Spring Branch, Texas, a partnership between the school district and two charter networks, KIPP and YES Prep, has resulted in a program in which administrators from a district school and a charter school located in the same building collaborate on planning and professional development.
City Neighbors Charter School in Baltimore, Maryland, not only emphasizes both teacher voice and student diversity, but also has created opportunities for collaboration with other schools. It's part of the Northeast Schools Alliance, a partnership among three schools in northeast Baltimore: a charter school (City Neighbors); a district public school; and a private parochial school. Funded by the Goldseker Foundation, the partnership facilitated joint marketing and mutually beneficial neighborhood projects and sparked a Progressive Ed Summit. Now an annual event hosted by City Neighbors, the summit convenes teachers from district, charter, and private schools to participate in professional development, share best practices, and form new connections.
The charter school model holds great promise for developing education innovations and improving the quality of public education overall, but the current direction of the charter school sector toward a few narrow approaches cuts short this potential. If more charter schools begin to use their flexibility of governance and enrollment to find new ways of giving teachers input in school decisions and enrolling integrated student bodies, we could see exciting new models unfold. By building bridges between charter schools and district schools, we can use these insights to maximum effect.
Author's note: Portions of this article were reprinted by permission of the publisher. From Richard D. Kahlenberg and Halley Potter, A Smarter Charter: Finding What Works for Charter Schools and Public Education. New York: Teachers College Press. Copyright © 2014 by Richard D. Kahlenberg and Halley Potter. All rights reserved.
For another example of collaboration between district and charter schools, read the online-only article "How a Portfolio of Schools Meets Students' Needs" by Christine Campbell.
Anderson, A. B., & DeCesare, D. (2006, September 18). Opening closed doors: Lessons from Colorado's first independent charter school. Denver, CO: Augenblick, Palaich, and Associates, Donnell-Kay Foundation, and Piton Foundation.
Bryk, A. S., Sebring, P. B., Allensworth, E., Luppescu, S., & Easton, J. Q. (2010). Organizing schools for improvement: Lessons from Chicago. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Carr, S. (2012, April 3). Q&A with Steve Barr. The Hechinger Report. Retrieved from http://hechingerreport.org/content/qa-with-steve-barr-lessons-from-charter-schools-in-l-a-and-new-orleans_8236
Coleman, J. S., Campbell, E. Q., Hobson, C. J., McPartland, J., Mood, A. M., Weinfeld, F. D., & York, R. L. (1966). Equality of educational opportunity. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, Office of Education, National Center for Education Statistics.
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Frankenberg, E., Siegel-Hawley, G., & Wang, J. (2010). Choice without equity: Charter school segregation and the need for civil rights standards. Los Angeles, CA: The Civil Rights Project.
Goenner, J. N. (1996). Charter schools: The revitalization of public education. Phi Delta Kappan, 78(1), 32–36.
Goldring, R., Taie, S., & Riddles, M. (2014, September). Teacher attrition and mobility: Results from the 2012–2013 Teacher Follow-up Survey: First look. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics.
Green Dot Public Schools. (n.d.). Results. Retrieved from www.greendot.org/page.cfm?p=1650
Ingersoll, R. M. (2003). Who controls teachers' work? Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
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Kurtz, B. (2011, December 9). Why should we care about integrating schools? [blog post]. Retrieved from Good at www.good.is/posts/why-should-we-care-about-integrated-schools
McGlothlin, H., & Killen, M. (2005). Children's perceptions of intergroup and intragroup similarity and the role of social experience. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 26, 680–698.
Milliken v. Bradley, 414 U.S. 717, 783 (1974) (Marshall, J., dissenting).
Mulvey, J. D., Cooper, B. X., & Maloney, A. (2010). Blurring the lines: Charter, public, private and religious schools coming together. Charlotte, NC: Information Age.
Pettigrew, T. F., & Tropp, L. R. (2006). A meta-analytic test of intergroup contact theory. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 90(5), 751–783.
Phillips, K. J. R., Rodosky, R. J., Muñoz, M. A., & Larsen, E. S. (2009). Integrated schools, integrated futures? In C. E. Smrekar & E. B. Goldring (Eds.), From the courtroom to the classroom: The shifting landscape of school desegregation (pp. 239–270). Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.
Rebarber, T., & Zgainer, A. C. (2014). Survey of America's charter schools 2014. Washington, DC: Center for Education Reform. Retrieved from www.edreform.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/2014CharterSchoolSurveyFINAL.pdf
Ronfeldt, M., Lankford, H., Loeb, S., & Wyckoff, J. (2011, June). How teacher turnover harms student achievement (NBER Working Paper No. 17176). Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research.
Rutland, A., Cameron, L., Bennett, L, & Ferrell, J. (2005). Interracial contact and racial constancy: A multi-site study of racial intergroup bias in 3–5 year old Anglo-British children. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 26, 699–713.
Shanker, A. (1988, March 31). National Press Club speech. Retrieved from http://reuther.wayne.edu/files/64.43.pdf
Stuit, D. A., & Smith, T. M. (2012). Explaining the gap in charter and traditional public school teacher turnover rates. Economics of Education Review, 31(2), 268–279.
Wells, A. S., & Crain, R. L. (1994). Perpetuation theory and the long-term effects of school desegregation. Review of Educational Research, 64(4), 531–555.
Wohlstetter, P., Smith, J., & Farrell, C. C. (2013). Choices and challenges: Charter school performance in perspective. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.
Richard D. Kahlenberg is a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and author of Tough Liberal: Albert Shanker and the Battles over Schools, Unions, Race, and Democracy (Columbia University Press, 2009).
Halley Potter is a
fellow at the Century Foundation and a
former charter school teacher. They are
of A Smarter Charter: Finding
What Works for Charter Schools and
Public Education (Teachers College
Copyright © 2015 by Richard D. Kahlenberg and Halley Potter
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