Free to Learn: Lessons from Model Charter Schools

Lance T. Izumi and Xiaochin Claire Yan
Pacific Research Institute

Essays, books, and newspaper articles on high-performing charter schools are increasingly available (for example, see here), and welcome. As charter schools' funders and supporters look for ways to grow the movement to scale, the lessons learned from schools that work are invaluable. Free to Learn will be welcomed by many for its honest look at seven high-performing charters in California and what they're doing right. More interesting, however, is chapter nine, "Deep Throat Tells All," which tells the story of how Oakland's oldest charter school (Oakland Charter Academy) duped the experts who focused overly much on data into thinking the school was succeeding. The whistle-blower is none other than OCA's new principal, Jorge Lopez. Among the methods the school used to keep its test scores high before his arrival, Lopez reports, were well-known gimmicks (the school didn't test every child, especially those who were low achievers) and lesser-known tricks (OCA had a feeder school, International Community School, whose high-performing students came in and made OCA look better than it was). Lopez searched beyond the bottom-line numbers when he was being hired, however, and noticed that while ICS students did well when they first arrived at OCA, by the end of their first year in the school their scores were in free-fall. Further, he also noted that despite the school's high-flying scores, OCA had never met No Child Left Behind's adequate yearly progress requirement. When he queried the governing board as to why AYP had not been met, the members reportedly responded, "What's [AYP]?" The list of follies goes on. In the this-would-be-funny-except-that-its-true category, the book details how parents "ran" the school - going so far as to lock out a principal they didn't like. Note the authors: "Although statistical data on student achievement is important when analyzing school performance, there is always the caveat that statistics can sometimes be deceiving." Indeed. You can read about one of the good schools here, but you'll need to order the book if you want to read about Lopez and OCA.

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