I had the opportunity to attend a meeting sponsored by KidsOhio lead by a true champion for children in Ohio – Mark Real. KidsOhio and the Columbus Foundation invited education “stakeholders” to hear the results of a RAND evaluation of Charter Schools in eight states across the country. The stakeholders included foundations, State elected officials, Columbus School Board members, representatives of the Ohio Department of Education, the Ohio Federation of Teachers as well as the State Board of Education. Ron Zimmer, Co-Author lead the discussion. Two panelists responding to the findings included Jennifer Smith Richards, Education Enterprise Reporter with the Columbus Dispatch and Scott Stephens, former Education Writer for The Cleveland Plain Dealer and currently Senior Writer for Catalyst-Ohio. Mr. is also a former education for the Cleveland Plain Dealer and covered charter schools when they were first authorized in Ohio. The meeting was well attended and I sensed genuine interest on the part of all who attended.
There are four main findings to the report:
1. Charter schools are not skimming the highest-achieving students from traditional public schools, nor are they creating racial stratification.
2. On average, across varying communities and policy environments, charter middle and high schools produce achievement gains that are about the same as those in traditional public schools.
3. Charter schools do not appear to help or harm student achievement in nearby public schools.
4. Students who are attending charter high schools were more likely to graduate and go on to college.
Mr. Zimmer was quick to qualify the data saying that this is an average of the data collected across eight States. Each State has its own legislative restrictions to authorize charter schools, and each has different funding allocations as well. These differences will affect the quality of charters. There is a very broad spectrum of quality among charters schools, much of which is attributed to authorizing rules.
The research finds that, for the most part, all charter schools take children who have some of the lowest performance scores anywhere. The truly impressive outcome of the meeting was to hear from the RAND researchers and from the panelists themselves that there are several charter schools in Cleveland that are “extraordinary” and reporting remarkably successful results. These include the E-Prep Charter School and Success Prep. They found that these schools succeed because they make the investment in training the principals and teachers. Marshall Emerson, the outstanding director of the E-Prep trained for one-year at the Boston-based Building Excellent Schools. This organizations was funded initially from the Walton Family Foundation and has produced some of the finest leaders of charter schools across the country. Building In Excellent Schools has demonstrated tremendous success in many States across the country. In my opinion, the State of Ohio – including the ODE, the legislature and the Governor would do well to allocate funds to send a core group of promising school leaders to attend this one year program to support charter schools in the State. After five-years foundations could support an evaluation of the outcome of these schools compared with their public school peers and measure the outcome. Such a project could be a great opportunity to learn from investments in education.
The audience was respectful. I felt as though I was in a room with people who were confused with the findings. Ms. Smith-Richards commented that she has been covering the charter school movement since its inception. Initially there was overt hostility toward charters on the part of the education community, but it is her sense that people are now more open and interested in the results of charter schools. Mr. Stevens admitted that laxity on the part of the authorizing bodies resulted in a proliferation of charters schools in Ohio. As he stated, “Some began with well-meaning people who wanted to respond to the education but realized two-years into it that quality schooling is harder than one might initially think!” Clearly one has to know what they are doing.
Interesting to the discussion however is the recent opinion on charter schools from Ohio Federation of Teachers Director, Sue Taylor. Ms. Taylor did not attend the meeting but representatives from her department did. Her May 2009 letter to President Obama excoriates charters schools claiming they have by an large, failed in the State of Ohio. You can read the excerpt from the letter at the OFT website. As a funder, it is disheartening to see how far this organization will go to deliberately mis-represent facts to move a political agenda. It is equally disturbing to me to see how much power organizations like this have to thwart truly innovative programs in education.
I would love to see her do a public debate on the findings, not to mention address the enthusiasm of Cleveland Browns player Jason Wright.
The report indicated that there is an increase in the amount of virtual or e-schools in Ohio which is having an influence on both charter and Public Schools. The speakers encouraged those in the audience to read carefully Clayton Christensen’s book Disrupting Class. Clearly people in the room do not know what to make of this disruption and few really understand electronic curriculum and schools.
The most important statistic for anyone interested in education is finding number 4. Why is it that charters across the board have greater success in having students not only complete high-school but complete college! Complete is the operative word here because as we know young people get into college but too many find they are not prepared for the work and wind up dropping out.
RAND wants to explore the reasons why charter schools appear to produce better results for students to stay in school. I think foundations would do well to continue to fund these types of studies.
For a State that is focused on increasing the number of College graduates, this fact warrents investments in schools that show promise to deliver on those goals.