chartered schools

Helping students choose the right school for them should be celebrated, not hated

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Sep 26, 2019

Success Academy Charter Schools, the New York-based charter school network, is a lightning rod in education. It attracts ardent defenders and adherents and similarly passionate detractors.

Its success—90% of its students test at proficient in reading and 98% do so in math—is striking in its own right regardless of the students it serves. Given that 94% of its 17,000 students are from minority backgrounds, it’s beyond eye-popping.

These realities have helped build a lot of hype around Fordham Institute senior fellow Robert Pondiscio’s new book, “How the Other Half Learns: Equity, Excellence and the Battle Over School Choice,” about Success Academy, for which he gained unprecedented access as an observer of all that Success does to achieve its outcomes.

In a piece for The 74 titled “I Just Wrote a Book About Success Academy. It Does Not Support Your Preferred Narrative. I Hope You Hate It,” Pondiscio described why his conclusions defy easy categorization in the pro- versus anti-charter and school choice debates.

He includes some notes about the factors that complicate choice in education. “Very little in our current policy toolbox allows screening families for ‘culture match’ with a school’s values and practices. The vast weight of education thought and practice frowns upon it, even though it is a standard feature of elite private schools and a de facto feature in affluent ‘public’ districts.”

The observation is in reference to how Success Academy all but creams who it works with as its “staff could not be clearer during the enrollment process that their schools are not for everyone and that there would be no compromises on anything from uniforms and discipline to strict and rigorous demands for parental compliance.”

To be blunt, we don’t acknowledge that certain school architectures might work for students in certain circumstances, but not be right for all students.

And yet, it’s painfully obvious that that is true. We have no problem acknowledging that fact when it comes to students selecting a school specializing in the arts or sciences, but we’re uncomfortable when that reality might extend to other situations.

I find Pondiscio’s observation refreshing. In Disrupting Class, Clayton Christensen, Curtis Johnson and I also addressed this reality—and encouraged society to move beyond it.

Public schools tend to be comprehensive and target all students in a given geography regardless of personal circumstance, we wrote. But not all students bring from home the same preparation to learn. As the diversity of students has increased markedly in the past 30 years, the need for customization has only grown.

There were sound reasons for the rise of a geographic categorization scheme when it arose in the early 1900s when automobiles and mass transit systems were rare. To get to school at all, we needed to assign children to schools within walking distance.

Although this constraint is now largely gone, many areas continue to follow a policy whose implicit assumption is that all children within a given geographic district are best served by one type of school architecture.

When students are in primary schools, sorting them by geography perhaps is logical. One of the basic jobs for which society hires primary schools is to foster democracy by assimilating people into their communities and allowing people from all sorts of backgrounds to mix. There is value in this not only for society but also for the children themselves.

But as students progress in age, geographic categorization makes less sense. Achievement gaps suggest that geographic sorting cannot serve the needs of different types of students. Do we really think that just because someone lives a block away from someone else they automatically have the same schooling needs? Geographic categorization suggests that we assume they do.

If school districts were to frame their task as a continuous search for the best architecture for different categories of students, it would recast how they view charter schools. They could say, in essence, “It’s okay if one type of school does not work for all students. We need different types of schools.”

Districts should see chartered schools as research and development laboratories whose charter, in essence, is to help the district match a school typology with students in a given circumstance.

When the KIPP chartered schools first arose, for example, they represented an example of a new school architecture that achieved success with students who come from homes where fundamental behaviors essential to learning have not been instilled.

KIPP’s architecture included a system for classroom behavior called “SLANT,” which instructs students to “Sit up, Listen, Ask questions, Nod, and Track the speaker with their eyes.” KIPP co-founder David Levin contends that most Americans learn these methods for taking in information early on and employ them instinctively. KIPP students, he said, “Need to be taught the methods explicitly.”

KIPP has longer school days, which are important in its architecture and likely less important in others. KIPP’s structure also requires parents to make a pact with the school that entails a certain level of involvement in their child’s education. KIPP will not admit children whose parents will not meet this requirement because its architecture is not designed to work for everybody—only students in the specific situation described above—not dissimilar from what Pondiscio describes in chronicling who attends Success Academy. A KIPP school is specifically designed to support students from a particular home background, as it integrates functions not associated with a typical school but that are necessary if the school is to successfully educate the students it serves.

Critics rightly point out that KIPP’s architecture is not the answer for many students. Nor is Success Academy’s, as Pondiscio observes. As Julia Freeland Fisher and I wrote in The Educator’s Dilemma, “One of the key criticisms levied against KIPP and similar ‘no excuses’ schools is that KIPP systematically counsels out students who cannot thrive in its environment, which in turn ‘creams’ the top students and inflates academic results.”

The criticism shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. That schools sort students—intentionally or not—based on who they can serve well should be acknowledged. It is folly to accept or reject an innovative school’s architecture on the basis of whether all students thrive within it. SLANT’s methodology would be a waste of time for many students—and a hindrance to their learning.

The fact that some students do not find a “fit” at KIPP schools suggests that some students may seek a less integrated, interdependent school model with fewer intrusions into their afterschool and home lives. For others, KIPP may still underserve their needs for additional supports and structure that are knit together in a particular fashion, which suggests that we may need even more deeply integrated models to support those children.

Rather than view schools like KIPP and Success Academy as competitors that are to be isolated, district schools need to study and learn from the success of these schools so that they can define the circumstance for which each different architecture is a superior solution. This will allow educators to support students in finding a school that is designed for their context—and move beyond today’s flawed way of viewing schools and sorting students.

Michael is a co-founder and distinguished fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute. He currently works as a principal consultant for Entangled Solutions.