Collaborative leadership up against the charter school cap

Can we develop a smarter way to authorize new charters in the future?

Leaders in Brockton and Fitchburg are distressed by the reaction to last week’s news that charters will not be awarded to applicants looking to open new schools in their communities. This episode is yet another example of how the debate around charters has become toxic.

Having witnessed how hard educators in Brockton and Fitchburg have worked to put in place innovative learning models and how their successes only strengthen their resolve, I have a deep appreciation for how it must feel to be on the receiving end of blanket statements made by candidates and columnists implying that they have failed students. They believe these comments demean their work. They also worry about the impact that this talk will have on their communities—when parents looking for a quality education system hear this background noise and avoid these very residential cities, their neighborhoods and homeowners suffer.

Debate over the fate of the Brockton and Fitchburg charters has centered around how we define low performing districts. We have set an academic standard (tested by MCAS) that all students should be expected to reach and this is essential. However, as long as there is great variation in the types of students different schools serve, there is absolutely no logic in measuring a school’s performance based on the percentage of students that meet this standard at a fixed point in time. The classic example is a school serving many immigrant students. A fourteen-year-old arriving from another country speaking little English will be placed with his peers, but it’s impossible to expect him to pass the same tests at the end of the school year.

That’s why the legislature, following the advice of expert statisticians, chose to use a student growth measure as the means for determining the performance of school districts. Given that both charters and urban districts serve disproportionately disadvantaged students, they each have a real stake in promoting the use of growth measures (when looking at absolute scores, charters are well represented among the ranks of the lowest performing districts in the state). It does no good for leaders who care about inclusive urban education to bemoan the use of growth measures; if anything, they should be crying foul that the student growth measure Massachusetts uses is likely biased toward affluent districts.

All that said, the central question this dustup raises isn’t really about student growth measures. It is can we develop a smarter way to authorize new charters in the future?

When I was in graduate school studying city planning, my professors drilled into me how important it is to bring together a diverse cross-section of the community in any revitalization effort. This theme was so dominant that I thought they were overreacting a bit to the hard-learned lessons of urban renewal. But as I have experienced the work up close, I have gained a much deeper appreciation for why it’s so critical to engage the community and build consensus before taking action. What I’ve witnessed is backed up by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. Their research demonstrates that successful cities are invariably those that work collaboratively to solve problems (the Boston Fed found this so compelling they took the unprecedented step of creating the Working Cities Challenge. Fitchburg was one of the winners).

Given our increasing understanding of how important collaborative leadership and embracing a shared vision is to a community’s long-term success, it strikes me as completely contradictory that the state’s approach to charter school applications takes the opposite approach. Charters are approved without local support and consideration for how the new school fits into a broader local education strategy.

We must appreciate that Massachusetts would not be where it is today without charters. Charter leaders have led the call for standards and “no excuses” accountability systems. They helped reveal unjust socioeconomic disparities and set the expectation that it is the job of urban educators to do whatever is required of them to close achievement gaps.

Meet the Author

Ben Forman

Research Director, MassINC

About Ben Forman

Benjamin Forman is MassINC’s research director. He coordinates the development of the organization’s research agenda and oversees production of research reports. Ben has authored a number of MassINC publications and he speaks frequently to organizations and media across Massachusetts.

About Ben Forman

Benjamin Forman is MassINC’s research director. He coordinates the development of the organization’s research agenda and oversees production of research reports. Ben has authored a number of MassINC publications and he speaks frequently to organizations and media across Massachusetts.

Charters should continue to play an important role in fostering innovation in public education. Around the country, charters are increasingly working collaboratively alongside district schools to support the community’s shared education strategy. Massachusetts’s policymakers should promote this approach while leaving room for rare exceptions, where communities cannot come together to make progress on their educational challenges. The work of the receiver in Lawrence perfectly demonstrates the value of charters as change agents in an integrated district turnaround plan.

Brockton and Fitchburg are not failing. Anyone who looks carefully at the progress they’ve made can tell you that educators in these cities deserve recognition and support furthering their good work.