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Monday, March 04, 2013

Accountability and DC Charters: Why We Use the PMF

There was a time in DC, not too long ago, when a parent who wanted to compare two charter school programs was out of luck. Sure they could visit the school, talk to the teachers or other parents, or look up test scores on their own. That put the burden solely on busy parents, and perhaps was not the most effective way to measure how charter schools stacked up against each other. It's a demonstration of how the uniqueness of the charter movement can be both a strength and a weakness. 


PCSB, a nationally-recognized high-quality charter authorizer, saw its responsibility in providing parents with a clear measure of school performance.   We developed a tool that would measure how well students were being taught to read and write, how much they grew academically, how often they came to class, at what rate they reenrolled, how many took college entrance exams like the SAT and finally, what percent successfully graduated from high school. These kinds of indicators are central to what parents want to know about a particular charter school.  They don’t replace the soft stuff.  Parents still need to judge whether a school is the right fit for their child.  But they allow parents to rapidly compare dozens of schools across factors which are directly related to the key question on any parent’s mind:— if I send my child here, will he or she be successful?


We called this tool the Performance Management Framework (PMF).  We developed it in close collaboration with the charter schools.  Consequently, it has largely been accepted by our 57 charter schools, and the broader community as a valid means of comparing charter schools to each other. It may not be comfortable to see how your school measures up to peers, but PCSB no longer found it acceptable to say that it was impossible to compare apples to oranges to bananas. They are all fruit.


Mark Lerner of the Examiner suggests that perhaps the PMF has run amok and is need of a moratorium, because it has become, in his words, the single focus of charter school accountability as a sole driver of charter school closures. "A lack of top tier quality seats means we may end up sending the most vulnerable students back to the same schools charters were meant to supplant."


Mark conflates two issues when he makes this suggestion.


The first is to trot out the old, and largely discredited idea, that one should not close a low-performing school because other schools in the neighborhood are no better.  Such an approach is the very definition of setting low expectations. To follow it would condemn our city, and our city's children, to decades more of poor schools and poorly-prepared students.  The waste of human potential implied in Mark’s approach is heartbreaking to contemplate.


The second is to argue, incorrectly, that the PMF has somehow become the sole standard by which closure decisions are made.   The law establishing charter schools in DC is very clear that the standard for closure is whether or not a school has met the very goals it committed to in its own charter.  That has always been our standard for closure.  The PMF is a guide to school quality; it is not an arbiter of school closings.


True – many schools are considering incorporating the PMF as their charter goals.  As described above, the PMF was developed by the DC charter community and incorporates in one simple measure many aspects widely accepted as indicators of school quality.  Adopting the PMF as a school’s charter goals aligns these and makes PCSB’s authorizing function far less intrusive.


Other charter schools that were facing closure committed to ambitious turnaround plans – and the PMF is an objective way of measuring the success of these plans.  But the ultimate legal standard for closure of a charter school is simply whether or not the school did what they said they would do.


There was a lack to top tier quality seats before the PMF was put into place; its use simply highlighted several education inequities.  


But the PMF has done more.  It has given parents a quick guide to school quality – and let them vote with their feet.  And it has provided clarity to school leaders and local boards of trustees  as they focus their resources on school improvement.

Charter school quality has risen every year and remains far higher than the state average.   Higher charter quality, combined with a revived and stronger DCPS, have created a renaissance in public education in our city.  For the first time in 50 years there is sustained growth in public school enrollment.  Parents are choosing quality.  Mr. Lerner should as well.

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