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Successful Charter Schools: What Can Teachers Learn from Them?

Successful charter schools

According to recent research referred to in the New York Times, successful charter schools in Massachusetts have a common philosophy: "high expectations and high support." Professors at Berkeley, MIT, and several other highly respected universities examined Massachusetts charter schools and determined that at the best ones, teachers expect students to perform well and give them the time and tools to do so. These charter schools, which operate as innovative schools within a larger public school system, regularly outperform the more traditional schools in the state.

The Findings

What makes this research so important is not only the results, but the thoroughness of the study. Generally speaking, the jury is still out on the overall effectiveness of charter schools throughout the country. On the other end of the spectrum is a recent report in the Washington Post that lists many of the problems that have plagued less successful charter schools over the years, including factors ranging from a lack of academic and financial accountability to the failure of students to perform as well as their public school peers.

But since newly appointed Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos describes herself as a supporter of charter schools, it would seem that the Massachusetts findings are particularly timely in terms of charter schools' value, sustainability, and impact. Based on the research results, a strong case could be made that high expectations and high support should be the mantra for all schools.

Do Charter Schools Deliver?

When charter schools were introduced in my state, I explored the possibility of establishing a pre-K charter school with integrated special education with my area superintendent. I worked with a group of energetic, committed teachers who were excited about the possibility of trying something new and innovative. We ended up not having the resources to pull it together, but while exploring the idea, I researched the possibilities and potential problems of charter schools in general. While the opportunity to innovate is enticing, providing "high support" often means a longer school day and greater preparation. The best charters, as the research suggests, employ teachers who believe in continuous improvement not only for their students, but for themselves as well.

Other reports underscore the idea that teachers must be comfortable with frequent evaluations by administrators and peers—unlike my first school, where classroom observations were so rare that as the principal, when I walked into a classroom, everything stopped and the teacher asked if I "needed something." The intense teaching experience in a charter is extremely rewarding, but it can also be exhausting. Also, generally speaking, charter schools often can't compete with traditional schools in terms of salary and benefits. Still, many find that the freedom and opportunity to innovate at charter schools provide a different kind of reward.

Significant resistance to charters still exists. Charters take money from traditional public schools and appear to have less accountability. They accept few children in special education and raise concerns about a two-tiered education system. And it's notable that, despite the positive results of some Massachusetts charters, a state referendum to increase the number of charters was soundly defeated last November.

Still, we cannot ignore the fact that many big-city public schools don't always provide the education children deserve. Charter schools may be the answer for some students or teachers, but as they currently exist, they're certainly not for everyone. Their successes, however, are worth studying to find the solution for the challenges public schools face.