Will district schools embrace charter-like reforms?

Burden now falls on local school leaders to deliver results

LONG BEFORE MORE than $40 million was spent last year making the cases for and against charter public school expansion, I was skeptical about using a statewide ballot initiative to decide the question. I believe ballot initiatives are best reserved for instances where the Legislature is flouting public opinion, and that wasn’t so with Massachusetts charters, which were created and then increased several times via legislation. But now that the voters have spoken, the Commonwealth must pursue ways to incorporate the reforms into traditional public schools that have made Massachusetts charters so successful.

The rejection of more charter schools at the ballot box means it could be a decade before we see the kind of growth Massachusetts charter supporters have sought. In the aftermath of Question 2 it is to be hoped that traditional public schools will perceive charters as less threatening rivals and perhaps be more willing to entertain applications of some of the techniques charters have effectively deployed.

After all, charters don’t operate in secret; we know what makes them thrive – school autonomy and accountability. With charter school expansion slowed over the next few years it is incumbent upon traditional public school leaders to consider embracing charter-style reforms. There is precedent for this, albeit limited.

In Boston, we can look to Charlestown’s Edwards Middle School as an example of how charter approaches can be adopted. Under Jeffrey Riley, who currently runs the state receivership of Lawrence Public Schools, Edwards focused on strengthening its teaching corps by using evaluations, upgrading professional development, increasing collaborative planning time, giving the faculty more say in school decision making and actively recruiting the best new educators. Since it functions under a collective bargaining agreement with the Boston Teachers Union, Edwards went out and raised the money needed to finance a longer school day and year.

Instituting these charter-style reforms paid dividends. In just three years, the achievement gap between Edwards and state averages narrowed by 80 percent in English and two-thirds in science. The improvements extended to low-income, special needs, English language learners, African-American, and Latino students, all of whom made real gains.

Sadly, Edwards’s momentum halted after Riley’s departure, but his time there still demonstrates the applicability of charter-like reforms to district schools.

Riley also used charter schools to help him turn around the schools in Lawrence. He transferred management of one particularly troubled school to the Community Group, which runs the highly successful Lawrence Community Day Charter School. MATCH charter public school has also brought its proven, highly successful tutoring program to the city’s schools.

Additionally, the Phoenix Academy Network, with charter schools in Chelsea and Springfield, operates a district school as part of the Lawrence turnaround effort. Phoenix focuses on at-risk youth, including teen parents, the chronically truant, court-involved students, those with special needs, English language learners, and young men and women who have already dropped out. Key parts of the Phoenix model are relentless support and eschewing traditional grade levels based on seat time in favor of a system that allows students to progress at their own pace.

The result of this work has been improved MCAS performance and a 40 percent jump in the graduation rate in Lawrence.

But the Lawrence experience also confirms what we have so often seen over the years. Although the receivership certainly qualifies as a success, the results aren’t as dramatic as occurred at Edwards. One reason is because turning around a district is more difficult than righting an individual school.

All these lessons are important for school and district leaders, particularly those in urban areas who face innumerable challenges. Edwards Middle School taught us that charter reforms can indeed be successfully adapted to traditional public schools.

Efforts like the Springfield Empowerment Zone, a joint effort between the Commonwealth and Springfield schools to provide a group of the city’s schools with charter-like autonomy, is unlikely to have as much upside as top-notch urban charter schools, but it represents a step in the right direction in a post-Question 2 world.

Lawrence reminds us just how demanding district turnaround is, and that starting new schools is often a more direct route to real educational transformation. Traditional districts should show a greater willingness to close failing schools and start from scratch with new ones.

Meet the Author

Tom Birmingham

Guest Contributor, Pioneer Institute
During the charter ballot fight representatives from the traditional urban school districts were clear about their opposition to charter schools. Now, the onus is on those same district officials to demonstrate they can deliver on in-district reforms and results that match those of the charters.

Tom Birmingham is the Distinguished Senior Fellow in Education at Pioneer Institute and co-author of the landmark Massachusetts Education Reform Act of 1993.