Dave Steele

The Impact of Charter Schools

The promise -- and problems -- of America’s most popular alternative to public schools can be seen in Milwaukee.

By - Nov 27th, 2012 08:34 am

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.

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Categories: Education, Politics

11 thoughts on “Education: The Impact of Charter Schools”

  1. Paul says:

    I taught at a charter school in Milwaukee. I was not the kind of teacher I had hoped to be. I struggled with classroom management and ultimately burned out after 3 years. But the school was a disaster. Resources were non-existent. I had to find textbooks and other materials on my own. I was not given a syllabus. I was made to teach courses I was not certified in and had little knowledge of. There was hardly any oversight. Communication between administration and staff was fractured at best. Merit pay would have made no difference. It probably would have made it worse. Sure there are success stories, but in my experience most charters are similar to the one I taught at.

  2. Steve Duncan says:

    Interesting article. It would have been a bit more balanced if you had acknowledged the advantages that charter schools enjoy over public schools, such as not having to perform the same standardized testing/NCLB requirements, being able to “dump” undesirable students but retain the funding received for them, and not being required to take students that require services they don’t offer – i.e. special needs.

    What are the differences in student population characteristics between the “star” charter schools and public schools in terms of special needs, involved parents, etc?

    Charter schools cannot claim superior results until they demonstrate them with the same students, requirements, and funding as public schools.

  3. Katrina says:

    Another pointless article by someone who has no experience teaching or working in a school. I can make stuff up too but who would believe me? The same people who think this has something to contribute.

  4. Jay Bullock says:

    @Steve Duncan: You seem to be confusing charters and vouchers. It is voucher schools that can use unlicensed teachers, do not have to offer special education services, or take all the same assessments that public schools do. Charter schools, like Milwaukee College Prep mentioned in the article, are public schools that must serve special education students and follow other NCLB and state of Wisconsin rules.

    @Dave Steele: You may be interested to know that, in the discussions with neighborhood parents and other interested parties, almost no one is asking that Bay View High School become a charter school.

  5. Bill Sweeney says:

    @Dave Steele: You write that most children at MC Prep come from the neighborhood. I would be curious to know how long MC Prep has been operating, and what the exact demographics have been, ie, how many students are from the immediate neighborhood, how many require special education services, and what has been the turnover rate.

    There is an article in the 11/19/12 New Yorker which is a profile of Diane Ravitch, author among other books of “The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education.” She was a neoconservative and served as Asst Secretary of Education in the senior George Bush Administration. At one time, she supported charter schools, but became disillusioned with what was happening with education with the advent of the junior George Bush administration. “Ravitch thinks that public education has been undermined by an exaggerated negative critique of the schools. ‘American public schools as a whole are not failing,’ she says.” “Public education is under attack by the forces of privatization, by people who make false promises,” she said, and “drain students and funding away from public schools.”

    My own 2 cent contribution for improving MPS would be to make a far greater emphasis on early childhood education. Someone I know who has spent her life working in early childhood education was telling me that by ages 3 and 4, the difference in the amount of vocabulary known by children raised in impoverished families vs those raised in middle class families is dramatic. Early childhood is a time when the brain is growing rapidly and children are open and avid to learn new things. That’s where the emphasis and resources should be placed.

  6. Dave Steele says:

    @ Bill and Steve

    Here’s a bit more background on MC Prep that addresses your specific questions about the school’s student population. These data come from the school’s accountability report from UWM, available here: http://www4.uwm.edu/soe/centers/charter_schools/phase2/upload/2011-12-Acct-Report-MCPS.pdf . Reports for the other UWM Charter Schools are available at the same place.

    As you probably know, schools typically measure how many students are economically disadvantaged by the percentage of those who receive free or reduced price lunch. In 2010-11 77% of MC Prep-36th Street’s students received free and reduced price lunch, compared with 82% for MPS as a whole.

    In 2010-11, 8.3% of MC Prep – 36th street’s students were identified with special needs, compared with 19.5% for MPS as a whole.

    The school’s turnover rate, or “retention” rate from one school year to the next, was 85% in 2010-11, compared to 71.5% for MPS.

  7. Dave Steele says:

    @Bill, I completely agree that early childhood education is the most neglected area in all of K-12 education. Study after study has shown how children growing up in poverty or in households without educated parents enter school with a higher hill to climb than their peers. States and school districts that have gone after universal early childhood education have seen benefits down the line in terms of closing gaps in achievement between income and racial groups.

    Here’s a very interesting “This American Life” segment on this topic that talks about the resistance to universal early childhood education, not just because of the cost, but because of a perceived threat to parental control:


  8. Bill Sweeney says:

    @Dave Steele, Thanks for the links. The This American Life segment was all the more fascinating in that it happened in Oklahoma, one of the most conservative states in the US. The part about the support from the business community reminded me of the report put out by The Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, “The Economic Power of Early Childhood Education in Wisconsin,” by Rob Grunewald and Don Bezruki. I don’t know how to do links, but if you have not already read it, you can find it on the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute website. Perhaps you could write more about this in one of your columns. It seems to me that support for doing more to promote and enable early childhood education is something that people of all political persuasions could get behind. “In the cold calculus of economic analysis, repeated studies have not only confirmed the long-term value of early childhood education, but its economic payback has been estimated as high as $16 for every $1.”

    The report about MC Prep was also very interesting. A couple of minor observations. It makes you want to stand up and cheer to read about the energy and dedication that they seem to bring to their task of educating young people, including K-4. I say this as someone who has read similar inspirational proposals and reports, and felt how much I would like to work in a place like that, and then realized that I did work in the place the report was describing. Still their results appear to be very impressive as you say. One graph suggested that they tend to hold back a few students in K-4, suggesting perhaps that the children could have benefited from a Head Start type program, but then did not hold back students from K-5 on. For School Core Values, they state, “Students don’t fail, schools and teachers do. All students can succeed at a high rate of academic success and social skill.” I was glad to see that they include Fine Arts and Physical Ed, but I don’t understand why they have French as a foreign language. Why not Spanish which is much more practical with a goal of adding Chinese at a later date? There were 96 suspensions, mostly for “disrespect” in the 2010/11 school year, but no expulsions which is good. The student enrollment by zip code suggests that students live in various areas of the north side, but maybe I am reading that wrong.

    Anyway, thanks for doing this column.

  9. Leslie Polson says:

    I subbed in a charter school and had more discipline problems than any other school I had ever been in. I was surprised that when I went to give a test one of the students wallked out and told me that she was not supposed to be under any stress so she would not take the test. Mmm. She was going to call her mother to make sure that I knew that she was not ever supposed to take an exam. I asked the principal for some help as I had never encountered this in my 20 years of teaching for others. I went back to the traditional school and have never encountered this type of behavior. I wonder if others have had experience like this in charter schools?

  10. Debbie Downer says:

    Leslie, I have had the same experience, except it has been at choice, charter and MPS schools with a majority of African/American students (black or whatever the PC term is these days). My experience has been since moving to Milwaukee in 1996. I have worked in South Milwaukee, Cudahy, Germantown, southside of Milwaukee as well as the inner city. The difference in behavior of students compared to Black students is 180 degrees. Don’t get me wrong… I love teaching I love kids. I live in the hood. I am just being honest. The problem is the lack of having mature parents. When a 17 year drop out is sending her/his child to K5, not having a read a book or taught the alphabet, no great teacher can help. The problem is too big. Not all children learn the same way or at the same rate and that is why our schools will continue to fail.

  11. Frederic Willert says:

    Dave –

    I’m a retired elementary grade school instructor and principal. I’ve been involved in metric education for the past 43 years -writing pro metric articles, conducting workshops, wrote a metric curriculum – the only one that exists, written hundreds of letters, etc. in trying to generate metric interest, etc. The teaching of the metric system as it relates to the mathematics curriculum is the best thing that could happen to mathematics. As it is now, it can never happen – continued no interest, dislike for no obvious reasons, apathy, non willingness to investigate. Yet, we have a nation of teachers, all levels, who know literally nothing about teaching the system. I can go into any school, work with teachers and improve any school’s math program. Eventually, our economy will improve with metric as its forerunner.

    Wanna talk? My address is 2820 – 38th Street, Two Rivers, WI 54241

    Frederic Willert

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