What’s the Role for Charter Schools?

Posted by & filed under CGR Staff, Rochester Business Journal.

Kent GardnerWhen Eva Moskowitz chaired the Education Committee of the New York City Council, she demanded to know why Mayor Michael Bloomberg and NYC Schools Chancellor Joel Klein didn’t do a better job improving public education. Rochester Schools Superintendent Jean-Claude Brizard, then a regional superintendent in the NYC schools, remembers his own time on the Moskowitz hot seat. A New York Magazine profile describes her as having “grilled and filleted” administrators in a series of 100 hearings in 2002.

Bloomberg called her bluff. “If you think we’re doing such a bad job, why don’t you give it a try?” So in 2006 Moskowitz founded the Success Charter Network with the first Harlem Success Academy.  The network now runs four schools in Harlem with another three approved for the fall. Moskowitz plans to increase the network to forty schools.

The network is living up to its name: When Harlem Success Academy’s first crop of third graders took the state’s math and reading tests, they did very well—a 95% pass rate in reading and “extra terrestrial” in math, beating all but seven elementary schools in NYC and every third grade in Chappaqua, Mamaroneck & Rye, tony NYC suburbs in Westchester County.

Moskowitz’s achievement is the subject of a film recently screened at The Little titled The Lottery. The film follows four families who seek to enroll their children in one of the Harlem Success Academies. The hopes and dreams of the parents and their children makes for heartbreaking drama.

The film draws also attention to the kind of opposition Moskowitz has generated. This is worth a separate essay—and I won’t attempt to approach the subject in this column.

Let’s go back to “first principles” and ask what the charter movement can and can’t be expected to accomplish. Three studies of charter schools have been released within the past year.  Taken together, they are revealing.

Stanford University’s Center for Research on Educational Outcomes (CREDO) released a study of charter schools in 15 states and the District of Columbia and reported that charters outperformed traditional public schools about 17% of the time but underperformed traditional public schools 37% of the time. Results varied by state with charter schools in Arkansas, Colorado (Denver), Illinois (Chicago), Louisiana, and Missouri outperforming comparison schools while in Arizona, Florida, Minnesota, New Mexico, Ohio, and Texas, charters underperformed traditional schools. CREDO also reports that students in poverty and English Language Learners both do better in charter schools.

A study of NYC charter schools conducted by Caroline Hoxby (also at Stanford) through the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) found that students enrolled for grades K through 8 in charter schools significantly outperformed both their comparison group and traditional public school peers, closing “86% of the ‘Harlem-Scarsdale achievement gap’ in math and 66% of the achievement gap in English.” The NBER study compared students who were selected for the charter lotteries with students whose names were submitted to the lotteries, but were unsuccessful and remained in traditional public schools.

Just a few weeks ago, Mathematica Policy Research (MPR) released a study of student achievement in 22 Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) middle schools. MPR found that “For the vast majority of KIPP schools studied, impacts on students’ state assessment scores in mathematics and reading are positive, statistically significant, and educationally substantial.”

What light does this shed on the charter school question? And what is the question? The naïve question, I think, is “Do charter schools outperform traditional public schools?”—the question that the CREDO study attempted to answer. When CGR was staffing the Rochester Charter Schools Committee and local attorney Robert Brown was VP of the Rochester Board of Education, Rob asked, “Are we [the Board of Education] the problem here? Is a charter school a good idea simply because we’ve eliminated a layer of coordination and management?” His question was, of course, rhetorical. Simply eliminating a layer of management is not going perform miracles. In fact, one of the challenges to the charter school model is that each school is, in effect, a self-contained district with all of the challenges that implies.

The charter idea—first posed by the late Al Shanker when he led the American Federation of Teachers—is that charter schools are permitted to try new approaches to education, but will be closed if they fail. From this perspective, the apparently conflicting results of the CREDO study on the one hand, and the NBER and MPR studies on the other, begin to make sense. CREDO found that some states—likely those with more effective oversight or more rigorous accountability—were building networks of schools that did outperform traditional public schools. The NBER study found that charter schools in NYC—where failing charters are closed—have also been successful. And finally, the MPR study of KIPP schools is the most encouraging: Here we have an approach to public education that is replicable. KIPP’s founders figured out how to create a successful school—then repeat their success again and again. Using similar approaches, Uncommon Schools, the Success Charter Network and others have performed the same miracle.

Charter schools still enroll only a fraction of schoolchildren in our cities—3% in NYC, for example. What about the rest? The charter school will improve overall educational outcomes for America’s children only if a) charter schools serve as a proving ground for different approaches to K-12 education, AND b) what is learned in charter schools is applied to traditional public schools. In the question and answer session following the screening of The Lottery, Superintendent Brizard was asked that question—What does the Harlem Success Academy experience mean for his efforts at the Rochester City School District? While some leaders of traditional schools attempt to discredit or diminish the record of charter operators like the Success Charter Network or Uncommon Schools (operator of Rochester Prep Charter School), Brizard did not. He believes that the accomplishments of these operators are real. The challenge is applying the lessons to Rochester’s traditional public schools. Brizard’s creation of “autonomous schools,” his emphasis on empowering principals, and ideas for teacher preparation all draw from the charter school experience.

Kent Gardner, Ph.D. President & Chief Economist
Published in the Rochester (NY) Business Journal July 9, 2010