To me, the key finding in the recent report by Progressive Policy Institute (PPI), A Tale of Two Systems: Education Reform in Washington D.C., is not that charter schools are outperforming district schools in D.C. What is important is the WHY.
As David Osborne writes in his report, charters are excelling not because their people are somehow better than those in the District of Columbia Public School (DCPS) System. “They excel because their governance framework—which includes school autonomy, full parental choice, and serious accountability for performance—is superior to the more traditional DCPS approach,” Osborne says.
He continues, “It creates an environment in which the extraordinary measures necessary to effectively educate poor, minority children are not only easier to implement, they are virtually required if schools are to survive.”
It is hard for average Americans to get their thoughts around systemic change, which is what this governance issue is all about. We could have the best teachers on the planet in the DC schools, but if the learning structure doesn’t allow them to exercise their leadership in ways they know work, they can’t get the results they seek.
So what are the biggest governance differences between chartering and the traditional district system? Osborne names four. Here are the first two:
Freedom to Employ Staff. The charter school has the freedom to do what is best for the children, even when that conflicts with adult interests. They can hire teachers they believe can best help children learn. They can also contract with organizations to operate schools (such as nonprofit KIPP– Knowledge is Power Program) and have them develop the staff and employees. If the staff doesn’t perform, the DC Charter Board can close schools—and they have; almost five schools have closed per year since 2009. District schools rarely close, even if they perform poorly. There is too much political pushback.
Greater Diversity of Choices. District neighborhood schools have to appeal to everyone. Charters are all schools of choice, so they are freer to specialize. Charter schools include bilingual schools, residential schools, schools for overage students, schools for students in foster care . . . and schools that haven’t been invented yet.
Perhaps the most significant difference between chartering and traditional districts is autonomy that allows the “Freedom to be Better.” Check out Thursday’s blogpost.