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

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.

"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.

The top school on DeVeaux's list is Washington Latin, in Northwest, with one-tenth of its students from low-income families. KIPP DC: KEY Academy, which is 81 percent low-income, ranks second. Washington Math Science Tech, serving entirely low-income families, ranks sixth, and SEED, 74 percent low-income, comes in 14th.

Robert Cane, executive director of Friends of Choice in Urban Schools, said he would not oppose establishing a gold standard for charter schools. He said DeVeaux's analysis shows charter secondary schools "blowing the [traditional] D.C. schools out of the water," particularly among those that serve many low-income families. D.C. charters with a majority of low-income students have, on average, reading and math proficiency rates of about 40 percent, twice as high as traditional D.C. public schools with similar percentages of low-income students, according to data analyzed by DeVeaux.

Perhaps KIPP's most impressive statistic is that the 1,400 students at 28 KIPP schools nationwide who have completed three years of the program gained an average of 24 percentage points in reading and 39 in math. Those gains were on standardized tests given at the beginning and end of each year by KIPP teachers, not by government evaluators. States usually test once a year and don't track individual student progress.

Critics of KIPP and other charter schools say self-evaluations can be distorted. They also say charter schools might have the advantage of attracting the most energetic and attentive low-income parents, who take the trouble to move their children out of regular schools. They say that could make it easier for charter schools to raise student scores.

Edelin, the D.C. charter schools association director, said a gold standard for charters should go beyond test scores. In a recent draft proposal, her association calls for evaluations to consider "teacher qualifications, student/teacher ratios, fiscal soundness [and] parent and teacher satisfaction," among other factors. She said the association also wants to look at graduation and college-enrollment rates.

Schaeffler, the KIPP director, said that although KIPP schools are doing well on the D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System exams, those tests are "very hard to use as something to determine a school's overall performance."

Sarah Hayes, principal of KEY Academy, said differences between schools can be seen just by watching. Last year, while Hayes waited in the office of another charter school to see a teacher she wanted to hire, she observed repeated signs of disorder that would not have been tolerated at her school.

"The principal came down to make announcements, and a kid stuck out his foot and tripped the principal," she said. The principal "didn't do anything about it. I had a hard time just sitting in that school."

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