The report card came in on Thursday afternoon in the way of the 2018 PARCC assessment scores and the findings were frankly anemic. It was actually a sad day. As the Washington Post’s Perry Stein reported:
“D.C. Public Schools outperformed charter schools on the 2018 PARCC test. Overall, the traditional school system showed greater improvement over 2017 and had a higher percentage of students meeting or exceeding expectations on the tests.”
How in the world could DCPS, dysfunctional from the loss of its most recent Chancellor, embroiled in a high school graduation controversy, and reeling from accusations of residency fraud at one of its most prominent institutions, top the collective standardized test scores of D.C.’s charter schools? After all these are the entities that are free from the constraints of the regular schools to hire their own staff, set many of their own operating rules, design the curriculum, and establish their own goals. They are provided freedom to innovate in return for being accountable for their results to the DC Public Charter School Board. In order to reach kids that traditional schools have not, almost all of them have longer school days, smaller class sizes, and describe themselves as extremely tight-knit communities. Charters are recognized as paying particular close attention to the needs of their students and families because their revenue stream is dependent upon how many children are sitting in its classrooms each October. With an ecosystem like this in place for over 20 years, and with the exception of one campus a lack of teacher union representation, these nonprofits should be soaring way above the clouds academically compared to the bureaucratic DCPS. What is going on?
Well I think I know the answer. We have a problem with the way we are conducting our local movement. Here are the issues.
First, the charter school facility problem is proving to be intractable. We are so fortunate to have Building Hope and other like-minded groups here and banks that now actually have some understanding of charter school finance. However, it is still, after two decades, much too difficult for a charter to obtain a permanent home. In fact, the task is almost impossible. The hunt for a building is a tremendous distraction from educating our scholars, and is restricting the replication of high performing schools that could help more kids. I do not accept that with so many smart people invested in this cause that a solution to this issue cannot be found.
Second, we desperately have to rethink the PCSB mantra that charters must be “Tier 1 on day 1.” The pressure to be atop the Performance Management Framework rankings is driving schools to what Jeanne Allen, the founder and CEO of the Center for Education Reform calls “isomorphism.” Ms. Allen defines isomorphism as “the process that forces one unit in a population to resemble others who face similar environmental conditions.” The phenomenon is resulting in charters looking more and more like the traditional schools already failing our children, and is causing them to shy away from true innovation.
The PCSB must be a true partner in reversing this trend. Some crucially important steps are needed such as:
- Holding off PMF tiering a new school for two years instead of one,
- Giving CMOs that replicate a one-year hiatus for the entire system and not just the new campus,
- Significantly reducing the reporting requirements of the schools it oversees,
- Simplifying the new school application process, and
- Redesigning the PMF to emphasize student growth over absolute test scores.
Charters enroll some of the most difficult to teach pupils. Forty-eight percent of the kids in these schools are classified as at-risk. Many live in poverty. Almost all enter these schools years behind their age-appropriate grade level. Yet, with all of these mighty challenges, some leaders are stating that it appears that the PCSB is running their schools in place of themselves.
Charters are really at a critical juncture. As evidence for my conclusion consider that just last week, Democracy Prep PCS, which is located in Ward 8 and enrolls 656 students with a wait-list of 111, announced it was abandoning the District rather than face a five-year charter review. This is exactly the opposite of what our city needs. We desperately want high performing charter networks moving into the nation’s capital, not the other way around. But they don’t want to come. It is too difficult to find a place in which to operate and the regulation is overbearing.
There is no time to waste. The times call for exceedingly bold actions.