When charter schools first emerged twenty years ago, they represented a revolution, ushering in a new era that put educational choice, innovation, and autonomy front and center in the effort to improve our schools. While charters have always been very diverse in characteristics and outcomes, it wasn’t long before a particular kind of gap-closing, “No Excuses” charter grabbed the lion’s share of public attention. But in this rush to crown and invest in a few “winners,” have we turned our back on the push for innovation that was meant to be at the core of the charter experiment?
It’s become increasingly obvious that charters have hit a wall in their quest to put their students on the path to college.
Of course, the top charter management organizations got this level of attention the old fashioned way: they earned it. The best CMOs—like KIPP, Uncommon Schools, and Achievement First—have done amazing work. The teachers work long hours and do—often quite literally—whatever it takes to give students the kinds of opportunities they’ve had.
But, while charters have made important strides, it’s become increasingly obvious that they’ve also hit a wall in their quest to put their students on the path to college. While the best among them have been able to get more and more students to hit proficiency targets, there are no charter schools—to my knowledge—that have figured out how, at scale, to prepare all students for the rigors of college and careers. Yet,
Perhaps the most seductive trap in all of education reform is the idea of replication. A charter school is high achieving? Turn it into a CMO! A curriculum is achieving big results? Bring it to every classroom in its district! An instructional strategy is clicking with teachers? Take it nationwide! In theory, this makes sense. We should, after all, learn from the best, and if something is working, why not replicate it?
Copying success doesn't always lead to success.
Photo by Andre W.
Too often, though, replication falls short of these high expectations. It ends up more like an old-fashioned Xerox, where each new copy is a little worse than the one that came before.
In education, the Xerox effect often stems from a shift in focus. In the high achieving schools and classrooms so many seek to copy, teachers and leaders work together with their eyes firmly focused on the goal of improving student achievement. In replication schools, however, that focus is too often diverted from student outcomes to the faithful implementation of “proven” programs, systems and tools.
What’s more, feedback in replication schools too often becomes unidirectional and is aimed at how well the program is being implemented, rather than on whether—faithful to the program or not—teachers are
The premise of Paul Tough’s excellent new book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character—that cognitive ability matters, but character traits like tenacity, curiosity, and optimism matter more—is a strong challenge to my long-held notion that, when students struggle, whether in high school or college, much of that is attributable to their lack of academic preparedness. How Children Succeed largely argues otherwise, but there is a brief but fascinating account late in the book that suggests we shouldn’t be too quick to worship at the altar of grit alone.
Is school just like chess? Perhaps not.
Photo by Adam Raoof.
The first half of Tough’s book unpacks clinical research that demonstrates the importance of parents protecting children from adversity in the first years of life. But it is the ability to persist in difficult tasks that ultimately seems to lead to success. Tough’s book, broadly speaking, makes the case that, insofar as there is any formula for success in life, it starts with a child’s need for protective, nurturing parenting, followed by independence and challenge to develop resiliency and “grit.”
A chapter entitled “How to Think” describes in vivid detail the remarkable success of
Robert Pondiscio, a vice president at the Core Knowledge Foundation and editor of its blog, posed an interesting question on Twitter this week:
I’ve seen bad schools with good test scores before. Any good schools with bad test scores?
It’s a timely and important question that gets to the heart of the emerging debate over whether standardized tests can fairly and accurately measure student learning, and whether accountability systems based on their results are too often mislabeling successful teachers and schools as “failures.”
Obviously, no accountability system is perfect, but we can all agree that one that gets it wrong as often as it gets it right is in need of serious reform. But is there any proof that is happening?
No accountability system is perfect, but we can all agree that one that gets it wrong as often as it gets it right is in need of serious reform.
Enter Kristina Rizga, a Berkeley-educated muckraking journalist who recently took the reins as the education reporter at Mother Jones after stints at Wiretap Magazine and AlterNet. In preparation for her new article, “Everything You’ve Heard About Failing Schools Is Wrong,” Rizga spent a year “embedded” in Mission High School in San Francisco. Her goal was to seek a “grassroots view of America’s latest run at school reform,” with an eye towards how we know “when schools are failing,” and whether “the close to $4.4 billion spent on testing since 2002…[is] getting results.” The
About the Editor
Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow
Kathleen Porter-Magee is a Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow and the Senior Director of the High Quality Standards Program at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, where she leads the Institute’s work on state, national, and international standards evaluation and analysis.
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