The Impact of Charter Schools
The promise -- and problems -- of America’s most popular alternative to public schools can be seen in Milwaukee.
Located on a little-traveled block in the Metcalfe Park neighborhood, Milwaukee College Prep-36th Street has emerged as one of the city’s biggest success stories. The school’s students, most of whom come from low-income families and live nearby, post standardized test scores that exceed the average for students throughout the state, including the middle-class majority. Students’ year-to-year growth in achievement here is comparable to that of schools in middle class communities. And the number of students the school retains from year to year is higher than what is typical in Milwaukee Public Schools, a significant fact in a neighborhood where students move often.
In a city where success in K-12 education is the exception, great schools do exist, often hidden in plain sight, offering hope that the challenges facing Milwaukee’s schools and their students can be overcome. MC Prep-36th Street is a public school, non-selective, with no admissions requirements. But it is an independent non-profit organization, existing outside of MPS, and run on a contract, or charter, with the UW-Milwaukee. All charter schools in the city are independently operated by non-profit organizations, and most are chartered through MPS, though 11 have charters with UWM and 7 are chartered through the City of Milwaukee.
Nearly every big city in the US today has at least one success story like MC Prep, which explains why charter schools are increasingly held up as a promising reform strategy. Charter schools have bipartisan support; they are embraced by Republican and Democratic governors alike, and have taken center stage in the Obama administration’s education reform agenda. Started in Minnesota 20 years ago, they now number about 5,600 in 41 states.
Charter schools are based on the premise of a grand bargain between public school districts and those that seek to experiment with new approaches to educational challenges. Formalized through a contract, charters have the freedom to do things other public schools cannot, such as extend the school day, offer merit pay for teachers, or make faster adjustments to curriculum and instruction. In exchange for this autonomy, their contracts hold them to specific academic outcomes.
When all goes well, successes like MC Prep emerge. When things don’t go well, schools do no better, or do worse, than their traditional public school counterparts. Charter contracts in Milwaukee typically run for five years; schools that fail to meet their performance benchmarks are subject to being closed.
The amount of autonomy different charter schools are given varies widely by how their contracts are structured. Of the 50 charters currently serving the city of Milwaukee, 22 are chartered through MPS and hire unionized employees. The remainder, chartered through MPS, the City of Milwaukee, or UWM, hire non-unionized teachers and have greater flexibility in budgeting, curriculum and instruction.
In 2011-12 about 10,000 of Milwaukee’s students attended charter schools, and the sector is poised for rapid growth in the coming years. MPS superintendent Gregory Thornton has publicly embraced charter schools as a way to bring new quality options into the system; the district recently added two additional MC Prep locations as charter schools. And national charter networks, which in years past were largely shut out of Milwaukee, are now welcomed by the city’s charter authorizers, funders and business community. The most prominent of these national networks to come to Milwaukee is Rocketship Education, a San Jose-based network of high-performing charter schools that plans to open in Milwaukee next year and expand eventually to 8,000 students.
But much like the city’s voucher schools, charters vary widely in quality. The list of charters in Milwaukee that have been closed over the past decade is a long one, arguably longer than the list of successful ones. According to the most recent national study, 17 percent of charters throughout the U.S. outperform the traditional districts they reside in but 37 percent perform worse.
In Milwaukee, 25 percent of independent charter schools and 31 percent of unionized charters meet the state’s new benchmarks for overall quality, compared to 24 percent of MPS schools. Most do no better, or no worse, than MPS as a whole.
The logical question, then, is: what are the great schools doing, and how can we get every school to do that? To put it differently: aren’t the successes of MC Prep, and other excellent schools, including traditional ones in MPS, replicable?
The answer to these questions is complicated, because education is a complicated business. A particular approach, curriculum or instructional method might work wonders in one classroom, but fall short in another. Reaching students and helping them achieve at their fullest potential is both an art and a science.
Nevertheless, an emerging set of national best practices points to success in helping low-income students residing in urban areas achieve at high levels. These practices include; (1) building a positive school culture where high achievement and expectations are the norm; (2) open communication and trust between parents and teachers; and (3) an overall ethos of tailoring instruction to each student.
Ultimately, however, the difference between success and failure often comes down to leadership. Great school leadership can inspire a staff, students and their parents to strive for success.
But while we have all been conditioned through Hollywood movies to see great leadership coming from one dynamic person, we must remember that leadership often resides in groups of people working toward a common vision. To be truly successful, a vision of excellence must be shared among teachers and staff, parents and community members. This vision must ultimately be set and guided by a board of directors, who are responsible for hiring and evaluating the leadership, setting priorities, and bringing resources to the school. Truly great school leadership cannot emerge without this critical, and often overlooked, component.
Extraordinary leaders in MPS, charter schools and voucher schools have done amazing things to break the mold in urban education. But extraordinary people, are, by definition, in short supply. Perhaps the single greatest lesson we can take from those successful schools like MC Prep is how to build organizations that support and encourage excellence over the long term through wise governance.