UW News

June 29, 2011

High-performing charter schools can help close achievement gap, report finds

UW News

Robin Lake

Robin Lake

Evidence is mounting that urban school districts can help close educations achievement gap by drawing upon the experiences of high-performing charter schools, according to a new white paper from the UWs Center on Reinventing Public Education.

There is a key role for charter schools, the paper states, because some high-performing networks are demonstrating that they can reach scale and help raise student achievement.

In their paper, authors Robin Lake — the centers associate director — and Alex Hernandez pull from the experience of charter networks such as Rocketship Education in San Jose, Calif., where its first two schools serving low-income students are demonstrating proficiency at 80 percent in English language arts and 90 percent in math.

The authors propose that the key unlocking effective solutions to the achievement gap problem is for districts to adopt a “portfolio” strategy that includes charter schools to help overcome the political dynamics that can slow reform efforts. Cities as different as Denver, New Orleans, Los Angeles and New York have adopted portfolio strategies that rely on charter schools that have effectively replaced some low-performing district schools and delivered good results.

Portfolio management is where districts manage a portfolio of diverse schools that are administered in many ways — including through traditional district operation, charter operators, and nonprofit organizations — and hold all schools accountable for performance.

In 2009, the center launched the Portfolio School Districts Project to help state and local leaders understand practical issues related to the design and implementation of the portfolio school district strategy, and to support portfolio school districts in learning from one another.

“Using charter schools to replace the worst-performing schools provides proof points that show what can be done in high-poverty schools and creates pressure on teachers unions to agree to charter-like flexibilities in more schools,” the authors state.

Lake and Hernandez discuss how these successful charters focus on school culture and parent involvement, use an extended school day, employ ongoing diagnostics and interventions, and provide intensive professional development. They also outline 10 steps a district should take to initiate a portfolio management strategy.

In their conclusion, they observe that “School board members and superintendents who are serious about addressing performance problems that have plagued districts for decades can’t afford to pass by proven solutions for students simply because they are called charter schools.”

Eliminating the Achievement Gap: A White Paper on How Charter Schools Can Help District Leaders is available at the Center on Reinventing Public Education website.