Failing Public Schools: Should They Learn From Thriving Charters?

What makes a charter school succeed and how exactly can we transfer these ideas to failing public schools?

These questions are examined in Roland G. Fryer's widely talked about report, “Learning From the Successes and Failures of Charter Schools.” Fryer is the CEO of EdLabs and an economics professor at Harvard University, the report was published as part of The Hamilton Project (the Brookings Institution).

The report has been touted as a great way for modeled successful charters to “cross-pollinate” with failing public schools. Critics, however, have said charters are being favored as education policy over reforms that might be more cohesive with the traditional public school system.

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Fryer studied data from 35 charter schools of varying success levels in New York City to determine what separated the high achievers from those that failed. What he discovered was intriguing. The usual measurements, such as class size and amount spent per student, were not as important to reading and math scores as other school-wide implemented practices. In fact, Roland determined that the charter schools with evidence of the highest achievement consistently maintained these five factors:

Focus on human capital: “Effective teachers and quality principals are the bedrock of public schools.” Using student data to drive instruction: Set up an assessment system where students themselves help establish year-long goals. High-dosage tutoring: Intensive tutoring on site. Extended time on task: More days and hours for class time. Culture of high expectations: School-wide and individual goals clearly established for achievement, plus plenty of visible college materials.

According to The Hamilton Project brief which accompanies this report, this kind of research is important not only for lifting charter schools to greater levels, but also to help failing traditional public schools: “Notwithstanding the difficulties and uncertainties surrounding charter schools, two things are certain. First, some charter schools drastically improve student achievement. Second, the practices that distinguish these high-performing charters from their low-performing counterparts can be implemented in traditional public schools. While some of the factors require more restructuring than others, all of them hold the potential to help turn around America’s flagging education system.”

Fryer has implemented these reforms in demonstration schools in Houston and Denver. Thus far, the results are good: math and reading test scores went up in the 2010-2011 school year, there were fewer pregnancies and incarcerations, and students were more likely to have taken the SAT and plan to attend college.

While this is solid, methodological research that may have great bearing on public education—both charter and traditional—some people have balked at its premise. “It’s disappointing that someone like Roland Fryer, an amazing scholar and academic, focused only on charters when he could have looked at all schools,” says Anne O’Brien, the deputy director at Learning First Alliance.

O’Brien says Fryer’s research is important and that charter schools provide a wonderful opportunity to study education reforms. But she says she—and other scholars—do not think all lessons learned from a charter school can be so easily transferred as Fryer (who does state in his report that the goal is not “to replace public schools with charter schools”) suggests.

“You cannot simply import something that has been learned in a specific context, and high performing charters and networks studied in a report like this do have a particular context,” she says. “They are filled with seats by lotteries, parents must sign them up and win a spot and they must commit to volunteer. It’s not the same type of environment as in typical public schools. Plus there are [different] government issues, charters might not be unionized, teachers might receive higher or lower pay, the calendars can be set differently and charter can be funded with more flexibility.”

O’Brien says too often people get excited by successes in charter schools, but neglect to understand that these differences can hinder making a transferable leap. She says she wishes more people were studying high performing typical public schools and coming up with a similar list as Fryer did.

“It’s important to learn from the charter schools—and there is so much you can learn—but if you are interested in reforming traditional public schools and you know there are some performing as well or better as charter schools within the same constraints and environment, why not look at those?”

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Kristin Kloberdanz is a freelance writer based in the San Francisco Bay area. She has written for Time, the Chicago Tribune and about everything from economic crises and political snafus to best summer beach reads.