Charter School Confidential

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 3, 2006 10:57 AM

I don't think there is a more important story in this new year of 2006 than what happens to the country's growing charter schools.

At my newspaper, which leads the league in national political stories, such a statement is heresy. The big education news here in Washington is supposed to be the fate of the No Child Left Behind law, a favorite battleground for the vicious press release wars that employ a lot of people in town.

But no matter what happens to the federal law, we are going to continue to try to improve schools in this country, one way or another. I would prefer to spend my time looking at the most interesting and encouraging efforts to do so, and that means checking on the charter schools -- independently run public schools -- since they have the most freedom to innovate.

There are only about 3,000 of them in the country, barely 3 percent of the total number of public schools. But that number is getting larger, getting near the one million student mark. Each charter school story has something to teach us, since they are almost all founded by great educators who had some ideas they just had to try.

Two new books look at this phenomenon from very different angles. Joanne Jacobs' "Our School: The Inspiring Story of Two Teachers, One Big Idea, and the School that Beat the Odds," ($16.47 on amazon.com) spends a year at Downtown College Prep, a charter high school for low-income kids in San Jose, Calif. Jacobs is a journalist, a former columnist for the San Jose Mercury News, and the book is a lively tale of teenage angst and classroom drama. Steven F. Wilson's "Learning on the Job: When Business Takes on Public Schools," ($29.95 on amazon.com) focuses on the educational management organizations (EMOs) that run many charter school groups. Wilson is now a senior fellow at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, but he used to be an entrepreneur and once started his own chain of for-profit charter schools for the inner city. That company failed financially, providing some of the best stories in his book.

Like my favorite charter school book, Jonathan Schorr's "Hard Lessons," you can dive into either of these volumes and get an immediate sense of the passion that leads educators to stick their necks out so far. I like the fact that both authors are very clear about the difficulties these teachers face, and refrain from cant and puffery (with the exception of Jacobs' subtitle, likely forced on her by her publisher.)

They have much good advice for others who might want to try starting their own schools. Wilson looked at several charter school groups, including Edison Schools, Chancellor Beacon Academies, Sabis, National Heritage Academies and the Knowledge Is Power Program, and found few that followed his first recommendation: focus every school's organizational culture on instruction, data and results.

"While the EMOs all promised academic excellence, their schools were often run by people whose primary focus was not the quality of instruction," Wilson said. "Few were fluent in the instructional programs on which they relied. Most offered blithe claims that 'things were going well,' but very few could coherently cite test results in support of them, let alone real-time data that revealed which classrooms and grades had gained traction with an instructional program and which others were as yet languishing."

At the end of her book, Jacobs lets Downtown College Prep founders Greg Lippman and Jennifer Andaluz confess how nave they were about the level of instruction their students could handle. "We thought we'd get everyone to calculus as seniors," Andaluz said. "It was just a matter of engaging kids, motivating them." But when a math teacher discovered one ninth grader could not multiply 3 times 4, he had to bring in oranges to demonstrate. "They can't multiply," he said, "so that's where I'm going to start."

They couldn't read much either. "We didn't understand how time-consuming remediation is," Lippman said. "We were going to require all juniors and seniors to take AP classes. By not having remediation in place at the beginning, we set them up for failure."

Jacobs provides many hopeful stories of students who improved remarkably, and in her appendix helpfully describes exactly how to start a charter school. Wilson is similarly upbeat, praising KIPP's test score success and emphasis on strong principals and Edison's courage in tackling 20 schools in Philadelphia and finding ways to raise achievement.

But both recognize the bittersweet feeling that comes with the exhaustion of educating children who, as Jacobs puts it, "were growing up in homes where the TV was blaring all day, and nobody ever read a book or had a conversation."

Wilson says his firm, Advantage Schools, opened too many schools too quickly. Contractors did not get paid. Teacher paychecks had errors. Required reports were late. When Wilson hired a chief operating officer from a large health care company to end the chaos, the new man hired administrators who knew nothing about schools, and the situation got worse.

But just before he and his partners sold the company to a competitor, he said, they "caught a glimpse of what might have been." On average their students were learning faster than their peers nationally, and he wondered how far they would have gotten if he could have made the company work.

In this new year for charter schools, we will be seeing more studies of average charter school results vs. average regular school results, each interpreted in a different way, each used to reach some political conclusion. I would prefer to keep visiting the schools themselves, in person when I can, or through good books like these when possible. Nearly every charter school is guided by experienced teachers' hard-won knowledge of something that works. They don't all get it right, but put the best parts together and we may get something we like.

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