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Charter Schools Chase Elusive Formula for Education Reform

by Charlotte Dean, published

charter schools and education reform Credit: hxdbzxy /

One month ago, Summit Preparatory in Redwood City, California graduated its seventh senior class with 98 percent college enrollment, a large proportion of them first generation college attendees. The class processed along with beaming families and their faculty mentors approached the podium to say their goodbyes.

At least two wept mid-speech, speaking of parenting lessons learned early, obstacles overcome together, and how the family waiting for them at school guided them to the graduation stage. Most memorable, every mentor called their mentees family.

At Summit, new freshmen are sorted into stable, four-year mentor groups. For most, these tight groups of twelve will have one educator to organize, inspire, and parent for all four years. Homework must be done before leaving, in-group traditions must be cultivated, and empathetic connections must be made between all participants. Adolescence isn't any easier, but maybe school can be with a mentor and several peers in support along the way.

Summit is a "high-performing" charter school in terms of graduation rates and college admissions. It's rare in that it performs not only better than local public schools, but surpasses private alternatives too. Their location is wedged between a low and middle income area of the Silicon Valley, both filled with families without a budget for private school, but with a sinking feeling about their child's college prospects should they go to a public school.

The lottery process for a rare successful charter school is harrowing. If a school receives more applicants than spots available, it is required by law to conduct a lottery. Unlike other lotteries, winning inspires not screams of joy, but gasps of relief, and losing entails not a shrug, but disappointed sobs. For many kids, a chance at a healthy atmosphere and a college fast track comes only once.

The charter school formula (publicly funded, privately run) gives freedom for successful systems like Summit Prep to flourish above federal education requirements. Unfortunately, it also gives room for flawed systems to launch and fail, contributing to a high rate of charter school turnover in all 27 charter states. This creates an education market as volatile as tech start-ups, trampling students and confounding the data needed to improve curricula.

The latest report on nationwide charter school performance by CREDO shows inconsistencies, varying widely between states and even -- in California especially -- between counties. The sheer variety in the data means the national average for scores show no statistically significant improvement or decline compared to their public counterparts. In many cases, charter improvements are logged only because local public scores worsened.

These statistics leave no conclusions for both supporters and opponents of charter schools. However, as pointed out by political commentator Matthew Di Carlo, the most significant variable between disparate charter schools is -- besides state to state differences in oversight -- the charters themselves. The most important point is some charters work and some simply don't. The corresponding debate will have to be carried out exhaustively, state by state and county by county.

California's data is a microcosm of the national reality: charter school success is variable, hard to measure and harder to predict. So why has Summit propelled past other institutions like the KIPP schools? What does one school do right and the other do wrong?

Many are convinced that the liberalization of curriculum and method that characterizes a charter school is the key to shaking up the inertia of the stressed public system. Many others believe charter schools are not worth the money, insisting that relinquishing control over education opens the way for well-meaning but incompetent educators to tinker with time-tested systems of learning. Both are compelling, but we still lack a comprehensive study bridging that distance between realities and uniting us in our common purpose: effective education.

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