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Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Guest Post: How Authorizers Can Create High-Quality Charter Schools

How does the work of charter school authorizers help create high-quality schools? This is the core question to be explored Wednesday at a summit, Accountability and High Quality Charter Schools: Policies and Practices to Strengthen the Sector, sponsored by the National Charter School Resource Center. PCSB deputy director Naomi DeVeaux and I, along with others from the charter authorizer world will take part in the summit to discuss challenges, strategies, and opportunities related to establishing and maintaining high quality charter schools. 

The goal of the event is to explore the variety of approaches being used by charter authorizers across the country to maintain high standards for student performance and to support underachieving schools in moving towards higher achievement.  

Coincidentally, this week also marks standardized testing for DC students, the annual process of determining the quality of learning for both charter and traditional public school students in grades 3 through 8 and 10.  At PCSB, where we use a Performance Management Framework (PMF) to measure school performance, charter schools that score high on the DC assessment typically fall into the Tier 1 category, and schools with lower test scores receive either tier 2 or tier 3 rankings. 

In the most recent PMF assessment, about a third of our schools achieved a Tier 1 ranking, with close to half landing in Tier 2 and, happily, only a small number of schools landing in the lowest level, Tier 3.  These rankings areas impact the assessment of schools under quality review by the charter board as well as those up for renewal of their 15-year charters, with a variety of consequences including possible school closure.

It is notable for this discussion that the DC charters receiving Tier 2 or Tier 3 rankings represent a wide range of school missions and academic programs, including schools that provide traditional college preparatory or STEM curricula, schools that focus on language and cultural immersion, schools with a vocational training focus, and schools for students that have not succeeded in traditional learning environments.  This diversity, while a welcome and much needed feature of the charter movement, also represents a challenge in terms of ensuring that PCSB can fairly and accurately assess the value of individual school programs and the impact these schools have on learning outcomes for our students.

According to the National Association of Charter School Authorizer’s (NACSA) 2012 Principles & Standards for Quality Charter School Authorizing, a charter authorizer’s primary focus should be on setting and maintaining high standards for charter school performance.  To this end, an authorizer should:

  1. Set high standards for approving charter applicants.
  2. Maintain high standards for the schools it oversees.
  3. Effectively cultivate quality charter schools that meet identified educational needs.
  4. Oversee charter schools that, over time, meet the performance standards and targets on a range of measures and metrics set forth in their charter contracts; and
  5. Close schools that fail to meet standards and targets set forth in law and by contract.

The high stakes challenge of capturing the quality of learning in charter schools, both here in Washington DC and across the nation, mirrors the content of this week’s accountability summit and is a subject worthy of continued discussion by all in the charter school community, including school leaders, parents and students. 

It is the responsibility of the PCSB, and all charter authorizers, to ensure that our charter schools fully deliver on the promise of providing superior options and outcomes for all of our students. To get there, we must demand more of ourselves, including taking a close look at our strategies for determining the value of schools that represent diversity – both in the missions represented in their school programs and in the students attending their schools.  I look forward to this week’s conversation.

Posted by: Darren Woodruff, PCSB Vice Chair at 5:28 p.m.
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