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Analysis: Public education could learn from charter schools

Analysis: Public education could learn from charter
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[Editor’s note: This story originally was published by Real Clear Education.]

By David Griffith & Victoria McDougald
Real Clear Education

As the pandemic continues to ravage the nation’s schools, there is an urgent need to consider how best to support America’s teachers who are working to make up for the lost instructional time.

Research shows that the quality of a school is largely determined by the quality of its teachers and that teachers tend to become more effective with more experience. Yet oddly, charter schools with less experienced teachers are often more successful than their traditional public school peers when it comes to boosting the achievement of disadvantaged students. So, what’s their secret?

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According to a new study conducted for our organization by George Mason University’s Matthew Steinberg and the University of Pennsylvania’s Haisheng Yang, charter networks are succeeding with “a fundamentally different approach to human capital” that enables their teachers to be more effective than their counterparts in traditional public schools despite being less experienced—at least in the Keystone State, where the study was conducted.

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On average, they found teachers in Pennsylvania charter schools are more effective in English language arts, but less effective in math. Yet teachers in charters that are part of larger, multi-school networks are more effective in both subjects.

Examples of such networks in Pennsylvania, which are typically run by non-profits, include the nationally recognized Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) and Mastery Charter Schools (which serve a predominantly African American population), and ASPIRA (which serves a predominantly Latino population). As the country’s oldest and largest charter network, KIPP operates 255 schools in 22 states and serves over 100,000 students annually, but the typical network is smaller. For example, Mastery operates a comparatively modest 24 schools, which enroll approximately 14,000 students in and around Philadelphia and Camden, NJ.

Notably, novice teachers in these networked charter schools aren’t that much higher performing than novice teachers in traditional public schools. Yet these same network teachers improve far more quickly than teachers in traditional public schools or standalone charter schools—especially in math.

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Although it’s difficult to say exactly why that improvement is occurring, key components of the charter network model include recruiting bright young people, making sure they start their teaching career with a strong curriculum and then helping them hone their craft by connecting them with top-notch instructional leaders—often drawn from the ranks of the organization’s own high-performing teachers—who can provide personalized feedback and guidance. (Unlike Pennsylvania’s traditional public schools, charter networks in the state also promote many of their most effective teachers into such leadership roles.)

In general, charter networks are also less bureaucratic and politically hamstrung than traditional school districts. And unlike “standalone” charters, where teachers often find themselves with little support, networks that oversee multiple schools can achieve helpful economies of scale, as well as greater capacity and expertise. In short, the charter network model itself may foster a unique combination of nimbleness, capacity, and mission-driven culture.

Because of the pandemic’s devastating impacts on students—and disadvantaged children in particular—the next few years will be a critical period for public education. Yet where there is a challenge there is also opportunity. We, therefore, urge leaders from across the political spectrum to take this opportunity to learn from the most effective charter networks about how to accelerate teacher improvement in the months and years ahead.

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