Are 'Uncool' Cities Just Waiting for Their Own Supermen?

Are 'Uncool' Cities Just Waiting for Their Own Supermen?
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Crossing guard Amy Scown stops traffic outside the Compass Academy Charter School, Wednesday, March 4, 2015, in Odessa, Texas. (AP Photo/Odessa American, Courtney Sacco)

Being “uncool” and passive might be hurting some cities more than they realize.

In the gear-up toward 2016, all eyes are on the biggest, broadest education initiatives: a No Child Left Behind rewrite, the Common Core State Standards, standardized testing. Yet with those expansive measures came substantial indignation among those on the right, who abhor even the hint of a federal finger on education. Active parents who live in communities with public schools they deem unsatisfactory are increasingly seeking more options to give their children access to a better education. Those choices vary from charter schools to private school vouchers, among others.

But cities that have the fewest resources and exhibit the greatest need for charters – schools that are publicly funded but privately managed and operated -- might be the ones that are seeing them the least.

Cities that aren’t “cool” or outside big magnets like Los Angeles, New York City, and Washington, D.C. struggle to attract talented educators and charter networks with good reputations, and a “cargo cult” mentality keeps those cities thinking that a high-performing charter group will just come to town, Alex Medler, vice president of policy and advocacy for the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, said at a February Education Writers Association seminar panel on charter accountability.

“It’s not about attracting the best charter management organizations,” Medler said. “It’s about growing your own good organizations…. You can’t just keep waiting for top charters to move in.”

A human capital dimension for “uncool” cities makes that still harder to do, when a critical mass of enthusiastic young, talented educators flock to attractive areas and don’t even give other cities a second glance, said Margaret Raymond, director of Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes. The “buzz” of young people doing great things keeps funneling people into the same places.

New Orleans, for example, has seen great success in its charter system over the last decade, as young talent rushed to the city to take part in restoration efforts after Hurricane Katrina devastated the area in 2005. That community of education-centric support isn’t seen in comparatively uncool cities like Hartford, Philadelphia, and other suburban and rural communities.

“The concentration of that kind of energy and labor drops off pretty quickly as you go to other markets,” Raymond said. “No one’s lining up to go to Detroit.”

Now, nearly a quarter century after the first American charter school opened in Minnesota in 1992, 2.9 million students are enrolled in 6,700 public charter schools across the country. In the 2014-2015 academic year, 348,000 more students attended public charter schools than in the previous year, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. Charter students comprise about 6 percent of America’s nearly 50 million public school students. Still, more than 200 charter schools were closed that year for various reasons, including low enrollment, financial troubles, and low academic performance.

Increasingly, charter schools are being scrutinized for the exact problem for which they’re supposed to be a solution: poor student outcomes. And how, exactly, to deal with those schools that do not meet expectations has become a key public concern.

NACSA aims to close 1,000 of the country’s lowest performing charter schools and replace them with 2,000 new ones through a rigorous approval process. But Warren Simmons, executive director of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University, warned against the disruption closures have on communities with high concentrations of charter schools. This is where charter and traditional education leaders ought to come together, Simmons said, to create support systems that foster successful charter schools.

But year after year, tax dollars that are going into improving failing schools have not yielded substantial results. Further, CREDO research shows that a charter school that is failing by year three of its life will only continue to fail.

“We have plowed so many billions of dollars into so many thousands of strategies over so many decades [to fix failing schools,]” Raymond said. “I understand the desire to maintain cohesive communities and continue support for schools, but what I don’t know is, after all of this, we still don’t know how to take a failing school and make it better. Then what is it that we’re supposed to do?”

So charter success starts from the ground up. Charter authorizers, Medler said, are often the “weak link” in the states where charters are most problematic. Therefore, hold charter authorizers accountable for only licensing schools that have demonstrated a true commitment to educating and producing high-achieving students. Then compound that with clear, written expectations in every contract between the authorizer and the school, so a bilateral agreement makes it transparent to all parties what the repercussions are for failure to produce results, Raymond said.

“We have been quite permissive about slapping hands when we find these things, or letting it play out in the press instead of taking immediate action,” she added.

And in communities with thinner resources, charter schools haven’t been more creative about how to increase bandwidth, Raymond noted. To ensure a stronger and seamless launch, new charter schools should hire its executive leadership team a year or two before the school opens and spend that time embedding that team in an existing high-performing charter school acting as an incubator – allowing the new team time to learn to work together as well as learn strategies from an established institution.

“Local capacity is absolutely the solution,” Raymond said.

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