Districts, charter schools and the chartering process: Quality, not type, is what counts

On Tuesday, Bellwether Education hosted a lively panel discussion about Andy Smarick’s new book, “The Urban School System of the Future.”

In its wake, Emma Brown of the Washington Post wrote an article about the panel titled, “Can traditional school systems be replaced by charters?” Unfortunately the Washington Post is asking the wrong question. As Smarick argues in his book, it is the process of chartering that can revolutionize urban public education, not charter schools themselves.

Smarick’s analysis shows that the performance of traditional district schools and charter schools (as well as private Catholic schools) fall, predictably, on a bell curve. There are some great charter schools, some middle performers, and some poor performers. Same goes for traditional public schools. Same goes for Catholic Schools.

The performances of traditional district schools and charter schools typically follow similar curves. (Much research has been done on private Catholic schools serving urban districts, which also, as Smarick documents, follow a similar trajectory.) 

Rather than battle over which sector’s bell curve is (ever so slightly) further to the right, Smarick suggests we use the process of chartering to replicate and expand the schools in the far right tail of the bell curve, regardless of school type, and phase out those in the far left tail of the bell curve.

His call is not necessarily for more charter schools, it is for more quality schools managed by operators that get results for kids.

His call is not necessarily for more charter schools, it is for more quality schools managed by operators that get results for kids – a process for which chartering, with its emphasis on performance evaluation, closure of poor performers and replication of strong ones, offers an effective blueprint. In some cities, like Charlotte, the operator getting results may be the school district. In other cities, like Chicago, that operator getting the best results may be a charter management organization like the Noble Network.

Few places take a citywide, sector agnostic approach to growing the footprint of their best schools, but organizations like the Philadelphia School Partnership (PSP) are courageously trying to change that. PSP searches for high performing schools regardless of sector and invests in their expansion. Two of their more recent investments have been to fund the addition of a grade to a high-performing neighborhood elementary school and to fund the creation of a new middle school in partnership with a successful district magnet school.

We need to stop asking, “Which side are you on?” when it comes to schools. School quality – not school type – is the criterion we should use to ensure we’re providing better opportunities for all kids.

Learn more about the foundation’s work to provide quality school options.

Read more posts by Joe Siedlecki.