Charters need 'real autonomy'

We need to hold charter schools accountable for results, writes Michael Petrilli on Flypaper. But that requires giving charters “real autonomy” to get the job done.

That freedom is being chipped away in many cases, concludes a Fordham study conducted by Public Impact. State-by-state information is here.

We estimate that the typical charter school in America today enjoys a middling level of autonomy – one we equate with a C-plus at best. Charters are particularly burdened in the area of teacher certification; thanks to NCLB’s “highly qualified teachers” mandate, many states are forcing charters to hire certified teachers even if they are officially supposed to have real freedom in the personnel domain.

Schools had the most control over “curricula, school calendars, teacher work rules, procurement policies and staff dismissals.”

“There need to be financial controls, civil rights protections, and up-to-snuff special education services,” writes Petrilli.  But charter schools aren’t going to offer real alternatives if they are re-regulated to look like other public schools.

Free To Lead, another new study, looks at autonomy in five highly successful charter schools. The study, also by Public Impact, was conducted for the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools.

The seven types of autonomy revealed are: freedom to develop a great team, freedom to manage teachers as professionals, freedom to change (or not to change) curriculum and classroom structure; autonomy in scheduling, financial freedom, board freedom to focus on education and freedom to define a unique school culture.

In one charter school, fifth graders started the year at a third-grade reading level. The principal was able to redesign the school day to include two reading periods and a writing class every day. Kids caught up and moved ahead. Another charter leader hired a former NASA scientist to teach science, even though he wasn’t certified. He turned out to be a great teacher.

As I’ve said before, schools that experiment need to keep asking: Is it working? How can we do better?

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