This is the second in a series of essays marking the twenty-fifth anniversary of America’s first charter school law. These commentaries are informed and inspired by our forthcoming book (co-authored with Bruno V. Manno), Charter Schools at the Crossroads: Predicaments, Paradoxes, Possibilities, to be published in October by Harvard Education Press. We kicked off the series by paying homage to the trailblazers of chartering. Here we address its diverse models and their varying success.

Supporting charter schools requires tough love. It isn’t enough to create them and let kids attend them. They also need to be run with integrity; their books need to balance; their pupils must be safe; and above all, their academic achievement has to be strong, especially when gauged by student growth.

Some of America’s highest-achieving schools are charters, but so are some of its worst. Averaging across all 6,800 of them, some critics declare that their performance is roughly equal to their district counterparts. But such a superficial analysis ignores their variability—the reality that they range from dismal to superb. Let’s look a little more closely.

State variance

A quarter-century in, charter schools are still absent from seven states, and seventeen other jurisdictions have fewer than fifty each. Forty-four...

Louisiana has decided that all New Orleans charter schools now overseen by the state’s Recovery School District will be placed under the control of the local school board.

The new law was advanced by leaders I admire. It accomplishes the invaluable goal of giving the city’s voters more control. It also has a number of very smart provisions to protect school autonomy and preserve parents’ ability to choose from a variety of schools. Neerav Kingsland supports the plan and explains its many valuable components. Robin Lake and Ashley Jochim have a smart, measured assessment, and AEI has a short, prudent analysis. This New York Times article explains the law’s logic, and this Times-Picayune article offers valuable context.

However, if I were in the Louisiana legislature, I would’ve voted against it. In my view, it undermines the most important reform of the post-Katrina era and sets an unfortunate precedent for other cities. There are ways to return control to the voters while maintaining NOLA’s status as America’s most promising city for K–12 transformation.

The real story of NOLA’s decade of reforms isn’t just that most of its public schools are now charters. It’s that NOLA separated...

A new policy brief from the National Alliance for Public Charter schools takes up the contentious issue of “backfilling”—the practice of enrolling new students when existing ones leave. Should charter schools be engaged in backfilling? If so, when do they enroll those students? At prescribed entry points? At will? Or never?

The paper highlights a range of existing approaches to backfilling taken by states, authorizers, and charter operators. Massachusetts passed legislation requiring all charters in the state to fill any vacancy up to February 15 except seats in the second half of a school’s grade span. For example, if a Bay State K–5 charter school has a vacancy in grades K–2 before February 15, they are compelled to fill it; if a seat goes empty in grades 3–5, it’s at the school’s discretion. Washington, D.C. is playing with a new funding model that creates strong financial incentives to backfill. “The goal is to allow for multiple membership counts at all public schools so schools can be compensated for the students currently enrolled, as opposed to those who never showed up or who left mid-year,” the report notes. At the authorizer level, Indiana’s Public Charter School Board requires charters to use...

As regular readers know, I’m in the middle of a series of posts exploring how education reformers can work to improve learning besides pushing for policy changes. One way is to spur “disruptive innovations” that target students, parents, and/or teachers directly.

Clay Christensen and his acolytes would surely disagree with my use of that term. His definition goes as follows: “A process by which a product or service takes root initially in simple applications at the bottom of a market and then relentlessly moves up market, eventually displacing established competitors.”

I’m ambitious, but not quite that ambitious. Sure, I’d love to disrupt the traditional education bureaucracy and replace it with a system of high-performing charter schools. That might be doable one day—at least in our major cities and inner-ring suburbs, where student need is greatest, the population is dense, and existing district schools are the least defensible. But in America’s affluent suburbs, exurbs, small towns, and rural areas, I think the “system” is here to stay for the foreseeable future. There’s just not enough appetite in those places for something very different.

What I’m interested in today is how to work around that system and cut out its middle men (and women), such...

A recent report by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) investigates San Diego Unified School District’s (SDUSD) new graduation policy requiring students in the class of 2016 and beyond to receive a passing grade on a sequence of college preparatory courses (commonly called the “a–g” sequence, with each letter referring to a different subject area). This aligns the district’s graduation requirements with admissions eligibility at California State University (CSU) and University of California (UC) member schools, which officials hope will increase rates of college entry and completion—especially for underrepresented communities.

Authors collected data from student administrative records and conducted a comparative analysis to evaluate the likely impact of the new policy. They used students who graduated between 2011 and 2015—who completed the courses that are now graduation requirements—as a baseline for measuring the impact of the a–g sequence on course-taking patterns, graduation rates, and eligibility to attend schools that make up the CSU and UC systems. Researchers also examined the course sequence’s effect on college access for historically underachieving subgroups in the class of 2016. They used individual student’s grade-six characteristics to determine the likelihood of completing the a–g sequence and then compared these estimates to each student’s actual a–g...

A new study by Pat Wolf and a few of his graduate students is a formal meta-analysis of the impacts of voucher programs on math and reading achievement. It attempts to set the voucher record straight in the face of conflicting messages coming out of academia, think tanks, and the press.

The authors go through a litany of prior reviews of voucher achievement effects and deem them insufficient, primarily because they include less rigorous studies or omit relevant, rigorous studies. Moreover, they result in divergent conclusions, vacillating from no effect to positive effect to a mix.

Wolf’s meta-analysis, however, includes only experimental studies or randomized control trials—the “gold standard.” They include all such studies ever conducted on voucher programs (both inside and outside the United States) that focused on participant effects and measured test score outcomes in either math or reading, which they found primarily through a comprehensive search of library databases and Google Scholar. (Studies that used outcomes such as graduation rates and college attainment were excluded, as were those not published in English or with English translations.) Included programs could be publicly  or privately funded, or funded indirectly via tax credit scholarships. Ultimately, nineteen studies representing eleven programs met these...

Last week, we received eleven responses to Fordham’s third annual Wonkathon prompt on ESSA and parental choice:

Many observers credit No Child Left Behind with contributing to the significant expansion of parental choice in American education over the past fifteen years. It wasn't necessarily the school choice provisions contained in the law (which were limited and poorly designed), but what its passage did to shine a spotlight on school failure and create a sense that better schools were desperately needed.

Likewise, some in the school choice movement are disappointed that the new Every Student Succeeds Act doesn't do much legislatively to promote choice. But are they overlooking the law's potential? What do you think are the "sleeper provisions" of ESSA that might encourage the further expansion of parental choice, at least if advocates seize the opportunity?

This year’s posts offered a wide range of great ideas from some of the wonkiest wonks in education reform. The competition was close, but there can only be one Wisest Wonk.

Without further ado, the winner of Fordham’s 2016 Wonkathon is Christy Wolfe, whose “School choice and Section 1003(b): It's in there!” came in with 19 percent of the...

M. René Islas and Joy Lawson Davis

It is disheartening that, in 2016, the recognition of gifted students of color may be more dependent on the race of their teachers than their demonstrated abilities. But for those of us in the trenches of gifted education, it is clear that students’ race or socioeconomic status far too often dictate whether they will be identified and served as gifted learners. Of students enrolled in gifted programs, only 9 percent are black, whereas more than 60 percent are white. This is unacceptable.

For decades, our nation has done a poor job of prioritizing the identification of gifted students across the board. As the 2015 State of the States in Gifted Education highlighted, too few teachers receive any substantive preparation in working with gifted students before entering the classroom, and professional development support focused on gifted education strategies is minimal. If few teachers are trained to recognize the signs of giftedness, high-ability students are at a disadvantage. This is particularly true of black and Hispanic students and those of modest means, who may lack the academic and psycho-social supports to aggressively pursue the necessary services.

This study raises some interesting findings about the value of a teaching corps that reflects the diversity of...

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which was signed into law by President Obama in December, has been hailed as a bipartisan effort to fix the most problematic provisions in NCLB.

Two oft-repeated criticisms of the old law were that it forced unfunded mandates onto schools and that its focus on reading and math achievement narrowed curricula. Congress responded by rolling dozens of federal grants into one block grant program called the Student Support and Academic Enrichment (SSAE) grant.

The SSAE grant is billed as a flexible funding source intended to empower states to improve student academic achievement by increasing capacity. In order to receive SSAE funds, states are required to submit applications to the department and then distribute the majority of funds to local districts through another application process. The activities that local districts are entitled to use SSAE funds for fall into three categories: efforts to promote a well-rounded education, safe and healthy students, and the effective use of technology. (These were also the areas of focus of the preexisting federal programs that were rolled into this block grant.)

The amount allotted to each state will depend on annual appropriations. According to the Foundation for Excellence in Education, if the...

John Thompson

Back in April, Mike Petrilli criticized the way that the U.S. Office of Civil Rights (OCR) investigates racial disparities in school suspension rates. Mike seemed to support the use of data to inform policy making, though he opposed the OCR’s form of data-driven accountability. That is constructive, but his charge against the OCR—blaming it for problems that have been decades in the making—is not.

For support, Mike cites an OCR complaint against Oklahoma City Public Schools (OKCPS) that was recently settled. He writes:

At the heart of the federal case was the fact that African American students are 62 percent more likely to be given in-school suspensions in Oklahoma City than are white students.

That was it. As far as I can tell, nobody found instances of black youngsters being penalized more harshly than white kids for the same infractions….In Oklahoma City, African Americans are three times likelier to live in poverty than are whites. We should be surprised that Oklahoma City’s racial disparity in school discipline rates isn’t larger.

So now Oklahoma City will suspend fewer students, putting student learning and safety at risk, because nobody was willing to challenge the federal government’s questionable...