December 9, 2006

Charter Schools:

A reader writes:

As you know, I'm on the board of a new charter school in XXX, so this is an issue close to my heart.

High-performing charter schools are frequently accused of achieving their success by taking only the cream of the public-school student crop. But in NYC at least, that's not an option: students are assigned by lottery. There is a degree of self-selection, since you don't get *into* the lottery unless you apply. But there's no qualification for entry other than city residence; from that pool of applicants, the actual enrolled students are chosen strictly at random. The school I'm involved with is 25% special ed, and most of the school is reading well below grade level. I don't think that's the cream of the crop.

There's a bunch of charter schools that have achieved remarkable results with underperforming student populations. So: how do they do it? My own view is that the lion's share of success is due to three factors:

- Disciplined environment. High-performing charter schools take discipline seriously. As a consequence, they don't have the cultures of disorder and even violence (property crime, stabbings, even rapes) that you read about in some regular urban public schools. It's kind of obvious that an atmosphere of chaos makes pedagogy difficult if not impossible. This is a relatively low bar to clear in that what it takes to impose discipline isn't that complicated - it just requires willpower and a relatively free hand.

- Longer school day and year. At our school, the day starts early, ends late, there are classes many Saturday mornings, there's a shorter summer, and there are fewer holidays. That adds up to roughly 50% more class time than at regular public schools. It also means less time for the kids to be getting into one kind of trouble or another. Again, it's kind of obvious that more time in class should get better academic results, particularly if you're dealing with students who start out behind.

- Committed, competent staff. High-performing charter schools have the flexibility to hire and fire pretty much at will, so they can get rid of time-servers and incompetents, and they have school cultures that get teachers to put out a lot of extra (largely uncompensated) efforts. Again, we're talking about clearing a low bar: getting rid of worthless teachers is easier than hiring superstars, and may result in a comparable benefit in terms of better instruction.

On top of all this, each charter layers its own "special sauce" - one school has an "east Asian" theme, and teaches all the kids Chinese and karate; another has a music theme, and has all the kids in an orchestra; another has a purportedly afro-centric curriculum; another teaches Latin; the head-of-school at the school I'm involved in is big on civics and debate - but the particularities of the special sauce don't seem to matter much in terms of outcomes; the sauce is really there to create a sense of identity and mission for the school, which makes it easier to get staff and students to put out more effort for the sake of the team with which they identify.

At bottom, what I think accounts for the success of these schools are all very simple things and are, generally, more a matter of ending really bad practices than of implementing really extraordinary ones.

I *hope* that this is most of what it takes, because if great teachers are essential to producing decent students from underperforming populations, then there's no way to scale the success of these schools, and they are much less interesting (see below). An open question in my own mind is to what degree the deterioration in the quality of education across the board in America is simply due to feminism: highly intelligent women now have many more economically- and socially-rewarding work alternatives to teaching, which in turn must have meant a dramatic decline in average teacher quality.

There are very good questions to ask about the results that these schools deliver, but I don't think the question of whether they are selecting for better students is a key one.

Here are the two that I have been focused on:

- How lasting are the effects? If you have a longer school day and year, you can spend a lot more time teaching to the test, and not have that devour *all* classroom instruction time (which over time is self-defeating), as is happening under the pressure of NCLB at some regular public schools. That will clearly deliver better test results.

Will it result in longer-term gains? More generally, students who may succeed in the highly structured and supportive environment of a high-performing charter school may not function so well once that structure and support are withdrawn, as is the case when students graduate to high school (unless they go to a similarly highly-structured and supportive charter school for high school) or to college and/or the workforce. Charter schools have probably gotten big enough as a phenomenon that we can study the high school, college and early workforce performance (GPA, dropout rate, employment rate, average income, income trajectory, etc) and compare it to similar populations educated in mainstream urban public schools. I would expect the comparison to be positive; the question is *how* positive, how big the return is once you look out 10-15 years.

- How scalable is the model? To the extent that charter schools depend for their success on excellent teachers, the model is not very scalable at all, because there is no plausible mechanism for massively increasing the supply of quality teachers. (The supply could be modestly increased by better pay and working conditions, which charters can provide - high-performing charters tend to pay a better annual salary than the regular public schools, albeit on a per-hour basis they are generally paying *less* because of the longer work day and year); even more important is the freedom from the ed-school cartel and restrictive union rules that productive people tend to chafe against.) To the extent that charters can succeed with average-but-competent teachers, scalability is more plausible, but you still have to ask the question whether charters can succeed without outstanding principals/heads-of-school. You don't need as many of those, but I'm more confident that you can't build a high-performing charter without one. Even if we have (or can obtain) an adequate supply of really outstanding people to run these schools, can the model be scaled financially? Charters frequently brag about doing more with less - achieving great results while getting less public money than the regular public schools. But anecdotally I can tell you that many of the high-performing charters I'm familiar with get significant resources from the private sector, from foundations and/or from sugar daddies with a charitable impulse.

Someone needs to do a study of how significant those resources are, to determine whether the charter model is financially scalable.

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer


Anonymous said...

If the charter model is the ammunition we can most effectively use for killing the NEA, then frankly I don't even care if there turn out to be structural issues with the model that make its most outstanding currently-observed virtues unscaleable. (I'll agree that this is still an open question, although I am more optimistic about the odds than you seem to be.)

Some of the aspects of a charter school's success are vanishingly unlikely to scale badly. And frankly, even the ones that are potentially more subject to scaling problems (such as shortages of top-class teachers and principals) seem hardly likely to do anything other than improve, relative to the current default environment at least.

Frankly, I think your implied standard ("will it, when scaled up to cover every student in America, be as good for those students as it is for its current ones?") is too demanding, not to mention ultimately outside the range of what can be judged accurately in advance. A more reasonable standard would be "will it, when scaled up to cover every student in America, provide a better learning environment for those students and an overall educational structure more capable of learning from its collective mistakes, than the present one?".

In other words, we don't have to get it perfect on the second try either. Just better than we did on the last one. And I don't see any way that the scaling problems with charter schools, to whatever extent they'd emerge in practice as the system expanded, would interfere with meeting that standard.

Anonymous said...

Now that you have comments I just wanted the opportunity to compliment you on how well-written, and well-thought-out some of your reader's comments can be (I refer to the original post on charter schools especially). You're pretty good yourself of course.

Birds of a feather.