Far from “creaming” the best students from other public schools, charter schools in Massachusetts serve a population of students whose entry-level academic performance is at or below district and national averages, according to the annual report on the state’s charter schools from the Massachusetts Department of Education. After several years, the test results for students in the charter schools are “promising, with many schools showing significant academic gains.”
“While charter schools are still young and are only one of many important reform efforts underway, the evidence so far suggests that the Commonwealth has already reaped many benefits from this small but dynamic initiative,” says Massachusetts Commissioner of Education David Driscoll in an introductory letter to the report, The Massachusetts Charter School Initiative: Expanding the Possibilities of Public Education (1998).
According to the report, most Massachusetts charter schools share four common features–freedom, accountability, innovation, and choice–that cut across the diverse visions driving individual schools, be they back-to-basics “traditional” schools, highly innovative “technology” schools, “performing arts” schools, large “urban” schools, or small “rural” schools.
In analyzing the success of the state’s charter schools, the report provides a lucid and compelling argument for school choice in general. Much of the following summary material is quoted directly from the report.
“Charter schools have the freedom to focus on achieving a singular, unifying vision for education. They have the freedom to be different from one another and from other public schools. They are free from the unrealistic expectation that they must be all things to all people. Teachers in charter schools have freedom to teach in a school whose philosophy they share. . . . Charter school leaders also have freedom to hire the teachers and staff they believe are best qualified and suited for the job, and they have the freedom to fire those who don’t perform. They have the freedom to reward success with merit pay and bonuses.”
“Because there are consequences facing charter schools that don’t perform, accountability is a ubiquitous and powerful force in these schools. There is an emphasis on results, little tolerance for ‘dead wood,’ and an urgency for helping all students achieve. Because students attend charter schools by choice, rather than by assignment, with public money following students to the school, parents can hold a charter school accountable as consumers who will take their business someplace else if they are not satisfied.”
Examples of innovative practices in charter schools include:
- a longer school day and year;
- second language instruction in the early grades;
- portfolio assessment;
- juried assessment;
- flexible scheduling;
- collaborative school governance.
However, the report notes that since these specific practices can also be found in district schools, they are not the key innovation implemented in charter schools.
“The most noteworthy innovation of charter schools is their ability to quickly integrate ideas and ‘promising practices’ into coherent, unified design, with faculty and parents who support and are committed to that design. This is significant because research confirms that the problem of education reform is not a dearth of ideas. To the contrary, it is systemic impediments that make it difficult for superintendents, principals, and others to implement ideas in a comprehensive, coherent school design that is supported by the school’s faculty and families.”
“Perhaps the most revolutionary innovation of charter schools, often overlooked or taken for granted, is the concept itself: extraordinary freedom at the school level and genuine accountability for results. It is this freedom_for_accountability exchange that has the potential to utterly transform public education. With charter schools leading the way, perhaps the day is not far off when all public schools will be given the latitude charter schools enjoy in exchange for real accountability for results.”
“Choice is such a central part of American life that we forget how empowering and motivating it can be to have the ability–and the responsibility–to make a choice about something as important as which school your child attends or what kinds of people you want to work with. At charter schools, parents have the power to choose. They can choose a school that matches their own beliefs about education and the aspirations they have for their children.”
“Choice, of course, necessarily implies that one thing is being chosen over another. As a result, choice means competition, which is a force that often hastens change and improvement in any organization or system. All schools, district and charter, are forced by competition to examine why parents, students, or prospective teachers might be choosing to go to other schools.”
Showing Reform Is Possible
Based on the Massachusetts charter school experience, the report concludes that there may be big advantages for students when two things occur: when standards and accountability are paired with pluralism and choice; and when power is moved from systems to individual schools. At a time when apologists are explaining why so many things can’t be done in public schools, Massachusetts charter schools are demonstrating what is possible in public education:
- Poor, uneducated parents can make good choices about schools.
- Poor, urban students can meet high academic standards.
- Teachers can be treated as professionals.
- Parents can become more involved in their children’s education.
- Competition can cause change.
- Schools can be purposeful, mission_driven organizations.
- School leaders don’t need to be told what to do or how to do it.
- Bad public schools can be closed down.
“In most respects, the Massachusetts charter school law is a model for the nation,” said Seattle businessman Jim Spady, who has been active for many years in attempting to secure passage of a charter school law in Washington state. “The report offers an excellent glimpse at what citizens might expect from the passage of a well_written charter school law.”
The report, The Massachusetts Charter School Initiative: Expanding the Possibilities of Public Education (1998), is available without charge from the Massachusetts Department of Education, Charter School Office 617/727_0075. It also is available on the Department’s Web site at www.doe.mass.edu.