Supporting and Attracting Nontraditional Charter Schools (Report Review)

Standardized or Customized? How Charter School Authorizers Can Better Support Diverse, High-Quality School Options. Ashley Libetti, Juliet Squire, and Justin Trinidad, Bellwether Education Partners: September 2, 2020.

The growth and evolution of America’s public charter schools movement represent a compelling narrative in American education, as Hillary Clinton noted in 1999 when she declared in a speech to the National Education Association convention that,  “When we look back on the 1990s, we will see that the charter school movement will be one of the ways we will have turned around the entire public school system.”

The ingenuity of high-performing charter schools resides across a broad swath of qualities, such as private-sector human resources practices, strategic professional development for educators, and data-driven instructional practices.  The resonance of distinctly inspiring missions and visions in many of the nation’s top charter schools also serve as strong attractors for families and educators alike.

The enduring impact of the latter is clearly on the minds of the Bellwether Education Partners team behind this latest, impressive report.  “We worried that the trend toward increasingly standardized authorizing practices would stymie the diversity of models in the charter sector and limit families’ choices,” the authors explain.

As charter school authorizers around the country – the authorities responsible for approval and oversight for charter schools – have become more experienced and guided by best practices in the field, their operating practices have come increasingly standardized. As the authors describe, the more standardized authorizing practices become, the more challenging this can be for the most innovative school models.

Dual-Language Immersion, Montessori, Technology-infused personalized learning, and project-based or even Exploratory Learning charter schools models are some popular examples of such schools.  From my own experience as an authorizing board member, some favorite innovative examples include a demonstration school for the Center for Inspired Teaching’s visionary professional development model, a powerful “high school of the future,” Washington Leadership Academy, which incorporates compelling personalized learning and social justice pedagogies, and DC International School, an International-Baccalaureate-for-all school where educators teach core content in three different languages, stand out.

So how can authorizers reverse this potential trend, and encourage the highly-innovative models that make their sector so magnetic for so many members of their communities?

Encouraging school-specific and mission-specific metrics in how their schools are evaluated for performance in school accountability systems is one promising suggestion.  In some jurisdictions, state accountability frameworks permit this sort of flexibility, and the authors of this report nod approvingly at such innovative measurement systems.

Other direct and indirect levers authorizers use in their work present additional possibilities, as this astute report describes.  Authorizing board and staff working to build relationships, sometimes along with local philanthropies, to encourage outside-the-box either through recruitment of outside operators or support for local education leaders, can also be particularly impactful.

Congratulations to this talented team of researchers for producing this ambitious project, which also includes toolkits for both charter school operators and authorizers.  The roster of experts they consulted in its design offers a compelling glimpse into a braintrust willing to work hard for the success of this crucial work.

As America’s public charter school movement prepares for its second quarter century in these most uncertain times, we can certainly hope this Bellwether report serves as the opening bell to a chapter of important reflection and meaningful action to continue cultivating the very best of a movement that has shown to be as effective as it remains innovative.