The Challenge Ahead

The Challenge Ahead

The new CREDO study on charter school performance was released two weeks ago, and it continues to make a big splash. It included great news about the strength of charter performance in producing better results overall in reading and closing the achievement gap for African-American and Hispanic students. While it was the primary focus of a single session at last week’s Alliance conference, the study had countless mentions in dozens of other sessions.  It also found its way into the remarks of plenary session speakers including Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

Does the CREDO study show the progress and potential of the charter school sector? Yes. Does it show that we have it all figured out? No. It does show what works about the charter model of accountability and what still needs work. And as we dug into the details, we saw that it is clear that strong authorizing is the key lever for improvement.

As Duncan noted, “We know that state policy and authorizing policies matter—and they matter a great deal to charter quality for children. States that were not careful about authorizing charters and let weak operators remain open year after year have a lot of low-quality charters. There are too many charters where students actually learn less than their counterparts in traditional public schools…If there is a silver lining in the poor record of these states and authorizers, it is that lawmakers are now reforming state regulation and laws to improve charter quality and make charters more accountable.”

States that have good authorizing generally have good charter schools. Those that need to improve their charter schools generally need to improve their authorizing.

One-third of the improvement in charter school performance in this study was caused by the closure of 8 percent of the schools that were in CREDO’s 2009 study. The 2013 report concludes “the use of the option to close schools represents the strongest available tool to improve overall sector quality for the time being.” This statement aligns with a central tenet of NACSA’s One Million Lives campaign.

Duncan noted that the CREDO report analysis tells a good news-bad news story. He’s right. Despite the overall progress we’ve made, CREDO found that nearly 700 charter schools are still performing below traditional public schools in reading, and more than 1,000 are performing below traditional schools in math. Those numbers are strikingly similar to NACSA’s finding last fall that 900 to 1,300 charter schools were performing in the bottom 15 percent of their state’s accountability system. CREDO found that these low-performing charter schools do serious damage to the sector’s performance. According to CREDO, closing 1000 of the worst schools would significantly increase the average learning taking place in the rest of charter sector. While it’s unclear whether the majority of those at last week’s conference agree, we must turn quickly to this task.

The study reinforces the need for greater care and skill in deciding who opens charter schools and in supporting their critical early growth. In launching our campaign last fall, we stressed that both parts of the authorizing spectrum must be brought into play if we are to improve the lives of one million children: closing 1000 low-performing charter schools and opening 2000 great new schools in their place. CREDO’s report further underscores the urgency of this campaign.

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