Charter Schools: Being Seen Through the Eyes of a State

Published March 1, 2006

Managing Editor’s note: This is the third of a seven-part series showing why charter schools do not have the freedom needed to create significant educational improvements through innovation.

The first few years at Moreno Valley High School (MVHS), a charter school in Angel Fire, New Mexico, were rough. There were discipline problems, controversy in a conservative community over the innovative and liberal atmosphere at the school, and various failures to conform to state requirements.

Charter schools have exactly the same reporting requirements to the state as do school districts. But while districts have a full-time central office staff devoted to maintaining long-established reporting systems, charter schools often have volunteer or part-time personnel struggling to create new, unfamiliar systems while also engaged in other duties.

At MVHS, there were mysterious bugs in the software that prevented the timely reporting of student data to the district. On one occasion, founder Michael Strong placed state-required tests in a closet, thinking they were to be administered in February, as all previous state-required tests had been, when in fact they were to have been administered in November. The lapse resulted in the school receiving a low rating on the state report card.

MVHS received citations in its audit for items such as providing a faculty member a three-week travel advance rather than the legally mandated two weeks (the staff was trying to save money by purchasing an advance ticket) and not submitting a purchase order prior to ordering materials–a state requirement that is often difficult for charter schools to meet because they desperately need to purchase numerous items quickly merely in order to function.

Dinged in Audits

From the district’s perspective, the most controversial audit mention–which the auditor did not note as a formal finding because she was uncertain of its legal status–was that charter school board members had contracted with the school. Public school law prohibits school board members from contracting with the district. But under charter school law, many charters explicitly require employee representation on the charter board. This appears to be a legitimately gray area; 18 months after MVHS requested a formal ruling to clarify which law applied, the state legal counsel had still not made a decision.

Strong never intended to require teachers to teach to state-mandated standards. His strategy as a pedagogue had for some time been to focus primarily on developing a culture of learning and intellectuality. To measure results, he favored Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) and Advanced Placement (AP) test scores. Because they are the most important objective measurements for admission into elite colleges, they are also highly respected in the private school community.

Taking AP tests in high school is one of the best predictors of success in college; but preparing students to do well on the SAT and AP tests is entirely different from preparing them to do well on state-mandated tests.

The safe strategy for preparing students to do well on state-mandated tests is to teach to the test, especially in the age of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). While preparing students to perform well on SAT and AP tests by developing a culture of intellectuality might result in Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) as mandated by NCLB, it might not. In the age of NCLB, focusing on SAT and AP performance is not prudent; that is not the way the state “sees” academic performance. Indeed, the SAT and AP achievements of MVHS were and are perfectly invisible to the state of New Mexico.

Discourages Creativity, Variety

In national rankings of education performance, New Mexico typically shows up somewhere between 47th and 50th, depending on the measure used. One might hope and expect the state would be highly interested in raising academic performance. And, indeed, the rhetoric of politicians is consistent with this expectation.

But NCLB has imposed harsh consequences on states that do not measure academic performance against state standards. For several years there has been a national “standards movement” resulting in hundreds of committees (at least one per academic discipline in each state) meeting to pound out “academic standards.”

NCLB, based on research that concluded teaching to explicit standards was a good thing, institutionalized this approach. At a cost of tens of millions of dollars, states contracted with testing companies to produce custom tests that measure progress against state standards. There is now a major national commitment to measuring academic progress against state standards by means of these custom tests.

Socratic Tradition Works

But what if that is not the only way to measure academic progress? The Socratic Practice approach Strong developed focuses on close reading of sophisticated prose, followed by a Socratic discussion. The close study of difficult texts has been a fundamental component of many educational traditions, including Jewish, Chinese, and some Christian sects, for thousands of years, and the discussion of ideas in texts has a similar hallowed lineage.

Moreover, if one examines the verbal portion of the SAT, especially the newer version in which the analogies section has been dropped, the ability to read and interpret sophisticated prose is largely what is being tested. The ability to read at a college level is a crucial prerequisite for success in science courses as well as humanities.

If one cares about long-term educational success, progress on the SAT verbal test is arguably one of the best measures available. But while SAT math scores have been improving nationwide, the verbal scores remain flat. One might expect a more Socratic approach would be highly valued.

Michael Strong ([email protected]) is CEO and chief visionary officer of FLOW, Inc.,, a group working to achieve world peace, prosperity, happiness, and sustainability in 50 years.