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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  1. Milton Friedfman preferred tuition vouchers to charter schools for precisely this reason. He expected that system insiders (e.g., the NEA/AFT/AFSCME cartel) would lean on legislators to tighten the leash on charter schools. The same objection applies to tuition vouchers, of course, but not with the same strength, since charter schools start life on a shorter leash.

  2. That may be a big part of the decision by the NEA and allies to take a hard line on vouchers and a relatively less forceful opposition to charters.

    Trouble is, charters are less intimidating to parents and politicians then vouchers and so are more easily embraced. That helps develop a constituency outside the policy-wonk orbit supportive of substantive reforms like charters and by implication vouchers, which is a new force in the public education policy debate.

  3. Chartermom says:

    Here in NC charters are free to choose the curriculum they will use BUT the students must take the state created and mandated end of grade exams which are curriculum based and not standards based. As a result most charters have reverted to teaching some form of the state curriculum. To me the state’s requirement has always felt like telling a teacher/class/school that they can teach any language they’d like — but the exam will be in French.

    And to make matters worse, charter opponents then complain that charters haven’t worked because they have not been experimental enough.

    Given that NC uses a testing paradigm I’ve never thought it unfair to require charters to use tests as part of the accountability scheme but I always thought there should be some flexibility on the tests used — charters should be able to choose from nationally normed standardized tests.

  4. Bulls#%t! In Texas ANYBODY with a high school diploma can teach in a charter school.

    There’s one lie. I wonder how many more I’d find if I read the rest of this propaganda piece?

  5. And unlike many people who post at this site, here is the actual proof:

    The minimum qualification under state law for a teacher at an open-enrollment charter school, other than a special education or bilingual education teacher, is a high school diploma.

  6. Mike, the study says that certification requirements are waived for charter teachers in Texas. So there’s no “lie.”

  7. Charters are particularly burdened in the area of teacher certification; thanks to NCLB’s “highly qualified teachers” mandate

    The use of “burdened” is pretty clear.

  8. (Mike in Texas): “Bulls#%t! In Texas ANYBODY with a high school diploma can teach in a charter school. There’s one lie. I wonder how many more I’d find if I read the rest of this propaganda piece?”

    Uh, Mike: (from the report, Texas) “State certification requirements waived for charter school teachers.”

  9. (Mike): “Charters are particularly burdened in the area of teacher certification; thanks to NCLB’s ‘highly qualified teachers’ mandate. The use of ‘burdened’ is pretty clear.”

    “Burdened” is a generalization over all charter schools. It admits exceptions. No lie.

  10. The idea that charter schools will be freed by hiring people who can’t pass the CSETs (or equivalent) is pretty funny.

    I’m not a big fan of teacher credentialling, but the idea that the poor charter schools can’t find adequate teachers among that pool? Please.

  11. Malcolm,

    Perhaps instead of saying “lie”, which implies there was intent to deceive from the truth, I should have used “invented”, since this “study” is a work of pure fiction, with made up categories and “scores” which supposedly would make a school better.

    Heck, my home state of Texas got 10 points for not requiring charter teachers to even have a college degree, oh excuse me, freedom from the “burdens” of teacher credentialing.

    Here’s the defintion of “burden” from

    that which is borne with difficulty; obligation; that which is carried; load

  12. As always, “What works?” is an empirical question which only an experiment (in public services, a federal system or a competitive market) can answer. Charter schools provide policy test beds.

    Across US States, school district size is negatively correlated with NAEP test performance and positively correlated with per-pupil budget. Since NCES will not make available to independent researchers raw data on individual students, schools, or school districts, I had to use indirect measures to get at this result. I suspect that the peak median score/$per-pupil would occur somewhere around 3000 students. Percent of districts which require PRAXIS or the NTE is not positively correlated with NAEP scores. Percent of districts which require a test of literacy and numeracy is positively correlated with NAEP. I suspect that the PRAXIS or NTE requirement implies a College of Education credential.

    As the report to which Joanne alludes indicates, freedom is multi-dimensional. restrictions on charter schools are burdens. One of these restrictions (i.e., “burdens”) is a teacher credential requirement.


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