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Seeking a 'Gold Standard' in D.C. Charter Education

Dominic Turner, left, and Steven Fitchett get to work during math class at Washington Math Science Tech.
Dominic Turner, left, and Steven Fitchett get to work during math class at Washington Math Science Tech. (Marvin Joseph/twp - The Washington Post)

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By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 19, 2007

In the charter school movement's endless quest to recruit students, some of the best independent public schools support each other by word of mouth. The KIPP DC: KEY Academy, a high-performing middle school, has sent 15 graduates to Washington Mathematics Science Technology, one of the better charter high schools. But KIPP teachers steer their graduates away from some charter schools.

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"If I said which they were, the principals would kill me," said Susan Schaeffler, KIPP DC's executive director.

Now, some charter leaders in the city that is a national epicenter for their movement are planning to take the next step in this sifting process. They say they want to create a "gold standard designation," to publicly identify for the first time which charters are doing the most to raise teaching quality and academic achievement for low-income students.

Ramona Edelin, executive director of the D.C. Association of Chartered Public Schools, likened the initiative to a certification system to show "what high quality really means in terms of children of color from impoverished backgrounds, which is the vast majority of the students charter schools educate here."

Officials at the D.C. Public Charter School Board, which oversees charter schools, said they have been discussing an annual report card that would play a similar role for the city's 56 charter schools, on 80 campuses, which serve roughly three of every 10 D.C. public school students. Such talk has not gone nearly as far in Maryland or Virginia. There are 31 charter schools in Maryland, many in Baltimore and some in Prince George's County and elsewhere in the Washington region. Virginia has three, none of those in the Washington suburbs.

National charter school leaders say the idea of certifying their best, already used in California, is likely to spread as the 4,000 U.S. charter schools face a strong pushback from traditional public school advocates. National research shows that charter schools on average are no better at raising achievement than regular public schools. But high-performing charter groups such as KIPP, Achievement First, Uncommon Schools, Aspire, YES and Green Dot say they are not average.

Nelson Smith, president of the Washington-based National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, said, "A lot of people who are doing good work in charter schools think their work is compromised when it is associated with an underperforming school." His organization has pushed for certification systems like California's, which has been well received. Charter schools there may seek certification from their state association by submitting evidence of student achievement, ethical leadership, focus on quality and fiscal accountability.

Eric Adler, co-founder and managing director of the SEED Foundation, said he is leery of using test scores to evaluate charter schools such as the SEED boarding school for low-income students in Southeast Washington. But he acknowledged that formal evaluations could prove more useful than word of mouth. "Whatever system is implemented probably could not end up any worse than what people are forced to rely upon right now," he said.

Many of the best-performing charter schools share certain traits. They are small, emphasize good behavior, have longer school days, aggressively recruit good teachers and focus on raising achievement for low-income children as measured by test scores. Leo Linbeck III, a management expert at Stanford and Rice universities, has dubbed them the public, high-impact, low-income, open-enrollment group.

Often, these PHILO schools help train one another's administrators, share information on best practices and recommend one another to parents. It is a kind of quiet coordination that would be considered elitist and impolitic for regular public schools but is possible for independent public schools that write their own rules and want to separate themselves from the pack.

Parents often find it hard to identify the best charters in the District if they are not plugged into the informal networks that tie these PHILO schools together. The D.C. schools Web site gives test data on individual charter schools and regular schools but does not rank them based on achievement.

Naomi Rubin DeVeaux, director of academics for the D.C. pro-charter group Friends of Choice in Urban Schools, recently finished a list of 58 D.C. charter school campuses ranked by proficiency rates on the 2007 D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System tests. In 50, more than half of the students come from families poor enough to qualify for federal lunch subsidies. Several of those are near the top of the list. Experts say low-income students tend to do poorly on such tests because of less emphasis on education at home and less effective teaching in urban and rural schools. So high scores among low-income children stand out.

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