Do we need a new charter revolution?

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, over the next few years, as statewide assessment and accountability systems align to the Common Core, charters are going to be held accountable not for catching kids up, but for adequately preparing them for what comes next.

To its great credit, this is something that KIPP readily admits, citing college completion as one of their biggest challenges. Perhaps less publicly, nearly everyone I know who works at the top CMOs would acknowledge that, while they may have figured out some ways to close proficiency gaps, they have yet to figure out how to both catch students up and adequately prepare them for college. And this challenge is likely to become more and more obvious as Common Core implementation gets underway.

It’s a shame, though perhaps not a surprise, that these raw, honest conversations—which get to the heart of what is driving the entire education reform movement—mostly take place in hushed tones behind closed doors, outside the spotlight. After all, charter schools and their leaders are under siege almost daily, their motives questioned and their flaws viewed under harsh public scrutiny.

The challenge is that charters may have reached a point where, in order to break through the wall they’ve hit and take their performance to the next level, they need to enlist the help of a greater number of outsiders. They need to earnestly listen to more critics (friendly and unfriendly) who can do for charters what charters did for traditional districts over the past two decades—highlight what’s not working and propose new, often very different solutions to common problems.

Yet, when you are on top, you have every incentive is to listen only to those who are bought into your success. Why give air time to those who might want to see you fail? as a result, some of the biggest CMOs—intentionally or unintentionally—have surrounded themselves with likeminded educators who are more likely to tinker around the margins of their beliefs and model than to suggest the kinds of bold changes they need to take their game to the next level. These organizations—or groups—have their own conferences, journals, professional development, teacher preparation programs, research institutes, lobbyists, and all the other trappings of a well-resourced industry. They can now succeed as organizations whether or not they succeed in their missions.

Enter Carol Burris.

Burris is a public school principal, author, and, by all accounts, a vocal critic of education reform in general and of the instructional and curricular practices of “No Excuses” charter schools in particular. She’s perhaps an unlikely place to turn for advice on how No Excuses charters can improve their craft, but that may be exactly what makes her right for the job.

Earlier this year, in a post on Valerie Strauss’s blog, The Answer Sheet, Burris published a damning critique of a “model” video that was posted on the Relay Graduate School of Education website. It was a post that far too many charter supporters probably ignored or tuned out, assuming it was no more than the idle ranting a charter foe looking to undermine the work of these hard working, gap-closing leaders.

The truth, however, is that her critique was exactly right. The lesson, which was pitched as a model of “rigorous classroom discussion,” included low-level questions, inadequate wait time, and was generally rushed and superficial. (After Burris’s post, Relay changed the name of the video, acknowledging that it was not a rigorous discussion, but leaving it up as a model of “culture of support.” They would have done better to really listen to Burris’s critique and to take it down entirely.)

Opening the Common Core
Opening the Common Core.

Her most recent book (coauthored by Delia T. Garrity), Opening the Common Core: How to Bring ALL Students to College and Career Readiness, is equally thoughtful. The entire book is worth a read. While I certainly don’t agree with all of it (I am generally skeptical of constructivist pedagogy, and I might push on the details and direction of some of the model lessons, for instance), Burris’s thoughts on accelerated instruction and planning for “critical thinking” are spot on. In fact, as I read them, I was surprised at how closely her work resembles the goals of the major CMOs. For starters, at its core, the book promotes the idea that exposing all students to a rigorous, content-rich curriculum is the backbone to any effective reform strategy. And while Burris and Garrity acknowledge the importance of helping students master critical thinking and other skills, they recognize that skills mastery can only be accomplished in the context of learning rich content.

More than that, the authors’ description of “accelerated instruction,” is thoughtful—and more closely resembles what schools like KIPP are trying to achieve than most would think. It is grounded in three key principles:

  • Maximal use of instructional time
  • Spiraling curriculum to reduce redundancies
  • Exposing all students to the kind of content-rich, rigorous curriculum that has traditionally been reserved for “gifted and talented” students.

I’m sure charter leaders reading these goals would find themselves nodding in agreement more often than not. After all, maximizing every moment is precisely what charter teachers are trying to do with their relentless focus on systems, routines, expectations setting, and on. While Burris and Garrity may take a different tack, they share the same goal. Their thoughts on how to use assessment (formally and informally) to spiral curriculum, eliminate redundancies, and accelerate learning are strong, and their push to eliminate ability grouping and tracking as a way to put all students on the path to college is thought provoking. Given how intentionally Burris and her fellow educators are trying to achieve the same goals as many “No Excuses” charters, the fact that they approach the problem from a very different perspective could undoubtedly contribute to the conversation among charter leaders about how to better help students “climb the mountain to college.”

Of course, Burris and Garrity’s book is not the kind of “how to” guide that educators can take an implement tomorrow. But it offers some different solutions and some thoughtful guidance about how a school could rethink how curriculum, assessment, instruction, planning, and support intersect to help all students meet the rigors of the CCSS.

Unfortunately, the debate over school change and education reform has become so polarized that people are painted neatly into boxes and told that they are either “in” or they are “out.” And because Burris is ideologically aligned with some of the harshest and most vocal critics of ed reform, her book is unlikely to be read by those of us who believe in the power of (thoughtfully developed) accountability and choice. But for those eager to figure out how to help all students meet the content and rigor demands of the Common Core, Burris’s latest book makes it clear that we may be drawing the fault lines in exactly the wrong places, and closing ourselves off to precisely the kind of pushback that could help us all do better.

More By Author

Related Articles