Last week, I wrote about the “Struggling Schools and the Problem with the ‘Shut It Down’ Mentality.” The post seemed to strike a chord, so I would like to encourage my readers to consider the same framework for struggling charter schools. Most people who follow research on charter schools would agree that there is little evidence that, on average, students in charter schools gain any more than similar children in non-charters. Charter advocates admit this to be true, but point to positive effects documented for outstanding charter networks, such as KIPP, and often vow to “weed out” failing charters from their ranks.
Opponents of closure of traditional public schools seem to accept this tough love approach for charters. I would like to suggest that their circumstances, and solutions, are more similar than some may think.
Unfortunately, “weeding out” (i.e., shutting down) ineffective charters is no easier than shutting down ineffective non-charters. In both cases, there may be a reasonable rationale for closing down the worst of the worst, but not only is closing any school financially and politically wrenching, a recent study of closing public schools found that students from the closed schools perform worse than similar children for a year or more and then end up doing no better. School closure (in charters as well as non-charters) must be an extreme solution in extreme circumstances to keep the system honest, but if other solutions exist, they should be tried first.
There are other proven solutions for failing schools. The Best Evidence Encyclopedia lists all sorts of reading, math, and whole-school reform programs with excellent evidence of effectiveness in both traditional public and public charter settings. The U.S. Department of Education’s Investing in Innovations (i3) program is funding the development, evaluation, and scaling up of proven programs of all kinds. All of these programs should work in charters as well as they do in any other schools, and there are already some charters (in addition to KIPP itself, which has a large i3 grant to scale up its leadership model) using the programs in partnership with i3 programs.
The charter movement has become increasingly courageous and open in admitting problems within its own membership, but weeding the charter garden is not the only way forward. Charters getting subpar outcomes need professional development and proven programs, and a renewed commitment to make a difference, just like traditional public schools that are struggling. Even a small part of the substantial private as well as government funding supporting the opening of new charters could be set aside to help all charters improve instruction, curriculum, and outcomes, and the entire charter movement, not to mention hundreds of thousands of kids, could greatly benefit.
Disclosure: Robert Slavin is the Director of the Center for Research and Reform in Education, which hosts the Best Evidence Encyclopedia, and the co-founder of Success for All, which received an i3 grant and operates in approximately 100 charter schools nationwide.