Selected readings on US charter schools
American students’ scores on a test given to 15-year-olds around the world have stagnated over the past several years. Lowly Vietnam beat the U.S. in science and math, according to results released this week.
But among U.S. states, Massachusetts students trailed only Shanghai, Hong Kong and Singapore in reading literacy on the PISA test. They were seventh in science and 10th in math.
Setting, and sticking to, high standards have led to internationally competitive academic achievement, said J.C. Considine, spokesman for the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
The results are not surprising, said Jim Stergios, executive director at Pioneer Institute, a private, nonpartisan research group.
“We have consistently performed at the highest levels internationally for a number of years now,” he said. “We’ve known that, over the last 15 to 20 years, we have moved from an above average state to the highest performing state in the country, and we’ve also know that we’re internationally competitive. The PISA test just confirms this.”
So how does Massachusetts do it?
In 1993, the state adopted education reforms that raised standards and accountability. High school sophomores are required to pass tests in English Language Arts, math and science, for example.
“Each time we’ve developed standards we’ve called on teachers, school and district leaders, to help us with that process,” Considine said. “We are getting valuable input from classroom teachers on what they think students should know and be able to do.”
The state keeps schools accountable through a five-point accountability system that allows teachers, district leaders, policymakers, business leaders and parents to know how well their school was doing, he said.
Schools get rated on a scale of one to five, after considering factors such as student achievement, student growth and achievement gaps. The lowest 20 percent of schools score at least a three; schools rated four are “underperforming,” and schools rated five are taken over by the state.
Schools rated four and five get increased attention from the state and individual districts, which set the schools on a three-year path to “accelerated achievement,” Considine said.
While many states have adopted A-F grading scales for schools, which often results in heated debate over which factors should be considered, Massachusetts schools are held accountable by simply making student performance data public, Stergios said.
“What it does is it gives pure student performance data to the public, so there’s no political shenanigans that anyone can perform with the data, which often happens with an A-F grading system,” Stergios said.
The state also employs a teacher-certification program and evaluation process, more rigorous than other states.
To become certified, aspiring teachers must pass licensure tests and meet other requirements, Considine said.
“We think those are pretty rigorous tests of aspiring teachers,” he said, though he was unable to compare them with other states.
The state’s teacher certification test focuses less on pedagogy and “soft skills” like establishing self-esteem in the classroom, instead determining whether aspiring teachers know the content they’ll be teaching, Stergios said.
“If you’re a student, you have to study Algebra 1 in eighth grade. Well, if you have an eighth-grade math teacher, you have to prove that you know that,” he said. “Our test focuses almost exclusively on content knowledge. That has made our teacher corps far better than the teacher corps in many other states.”
The teacher evaluation process sets a high bar for tenure-hopeful teachers and helps them hone their skills.
“It’s not meant to be a punitive ‘gotcha’ system, but to support the development of all our teachers,” he said. “It also sets a high bar for tenure,” Considine said.
The state’s constitution prohibits school vouchers and may prohibit tax-credit scholarship programs, so school-choice advocates have pushed for charter schools. Nearly 20 percent of urban students attend charters, and the vocational technical schools and inter-district choice programs, allowing students to attend schools in neighboring districts if they aren’t happy with their own, are flourishing, Stergios said.
Boston is home to some of the highest-performing charter schools, and the state’s charter schools are also held to high standards.
When the state board grants a charter the school has five years to demonstrate results. If it’s successful, the charter can be renewed for another five years.
Not every state that authorizes charter schools is willing to close down low-performing charter schools — but Massachusetts does.
“We’ve closed down over a dozen charter schools,” Stergios said.
Charter schools have helped students in districts with lower-quality traditional public schools, Stergios said.
“These schools demonstrate over and over again that the connection between poverty and educational attainment is not one that is deterministic. They have the same kids as the Boston Public Schools. There are high percentages of minority students, high percentages of poor kids, kids who receive free lunches through federal programs, of the same economic stratum — and they’re doing exceedingly well,” he said.
Boston is a large district, he said, and it doesn’t have the resources to address challenges students in poverty are struggling with.
“They need additional attention, programs crafted with them in mind,” he said. “That takes experimentation in charter schools, and that’s not something a large district can do.”
Source: Watchdog.org – by Mary C. Tillotson