Charter schools and the limits of human capital

Steven F. Wilson

KIPP KEY Academy in Washington, DC. North Star Academy in Newark. Roxbury Prep in Boston. Amistad Academy in New Haven. These, and perhaps 200 other high-performing schools nationwide, are the bright lights of the charter movement. Despite social and economic disadvantages, their students not only trounce district peers on state tests, but top statewide averages, and, in some cases, surpass students from surrounding affluent suburban districts.

Inevitably, the question turns to scale. To narrow America's shameful achievement gaps, we would need thousands more such schools. Will that prove impracticable, because the schools rely on scarce resources, particularly teachers who themselves benefited from elite educations?

To explore the question, I turned to a locale well known for its concentration of strong charters: Boston. The city is host to the Academy of the Pacific Rim, Boston Collegiate, Roxbury Prep, Excel Academy, and a cluster of other star schools. Of 17 charter schools in the city, seven are posting striking results on the state's MCAS test. All but one school hews to something like the KIPP model: Driven and highly-educated teachers lead their students in a rigorous academic program, tightly aligned with state standards, that aims to set every child on the path to college. The approach has been dubbed "No Excuses" schooling because teachers adopt high expectations for their pupils and stoutly reject explanations from any quarter for low achievement, whether a child's excuse for failing to complete an assignment or a district apologist's appeals to demographic destiny. (David Whitman calls schools like these "paternalistic.")

There is no evidence that the seven charters enroll a demographically different population from the Boston Public Schools (although they may benefit from more motivated families, and the selection effects of student attrition await study), and the schools (with one exception) operate at sharply lower cost than the district.

But turning to human capital, I found that more than half of these schools' staff members had attended elite undergraduate institutions (Barron's "most competitive" rank, which includes the Ivies, top liberal arts colleges, and first-tier state schools like UCLA), and fully 82 percent had attended at least a "very competitive" college (Barron's second-highest rank). That compares with just 19 percent of public school teachers generally.

It's not surprising that No Excuses schools recruit from America's best universities; their teaching jobs are incredibly intellectually challenging. These schools rely on nearly heroic efforts by teachers because they inherit students who have been promoted from grade to grade without mastering essential skills at each grade level. Each child presents his teacher with accumulated learning deficits that impede the acquisition of further knowledge and foster a growing disaffection with schooling. Identifying and then filling these gaps across a class of twenty-five or more students, rebuilding their motivation to learn, and freeing them of destructive habits, while also ensuring the mastery of new, grade-level material, is indeed an extraordinary undertaking--all the more so when teachers are left to devise their own approaches.

So let's return to the scale question: how many of these academically gifted teachers are there? Each year, about 142,000 students graduate from highly selective postsecondary institutions (Barron's top two ranks). Even if one in every ten of their graduates entered teaching for two years (the average tenure at many no-excuses schools) before moving onto other careers, they would provide for only six percent of the 438,914 teachers currently working in the 66 member districts of the Council of Great City Schools (CGCS). Simply put, we might have enough of these teachers to staff a few hundred more No Excuses schools, but not a few thousand more, and certainly not enough to reach every disadvantaged child in America.

Another approach would be to develop school models that would be effective with a more broadly available pool of capable career educators, such that teachers with competent academic preparation, working a sustainable work week, could achieve gap-closing results with disadvantaged urban students. If teachers were provided a powerful instructional system--school culture-building tools, placement tests and guides for class formation; a sequential, content-rich curriculum tightly linked to state standards and taught to mastery; frequent electronic assessments and feedback loops; detailed pacing charts, and so on--then skilled career educators of varying backgrounds might be able to achieve results similar to those posted by the No Excuses schools.

One organization, SABIS, has tried to do just that. (A disclaimer: I have licensed the SABIS educational system in New York City.) The SABIS International Charter School in Springfield, Massachusetts enrolls 1,500 students in kindergarten through the twelfth grade. For the past seven years, every graduate has been admitted to an institution of higher learning. Two key NCLB subgroups, low-income students and black students, have by the tenth grade closed the proficiency gap with their peers (all incomes) statewide. SABIS Springfield's results do not depend on faculty with exceptional educational backgrounds working unusually long hours. Career educators work an eight hour, five day work week, and turnover is low. The autonomy the school enjoys as a charter has permitted it to adhere rigorously to the SABIS model for more than a decade.

Both paths to scale should be vigorously pursued, of course. Legislative action should be taken to encourage highly educated students to go into teaching, especially in urban and rural schools. Certification requirements that require scads of ed school courses should be dropped and starting teacher pay increased. Teachers should be rewarded for their performance in the classroom, not for their seniority or degrees earned. Requirements and incentives, whether statutory or contractual, to reduce class size should be eliminated; there is no empirical evidence to support them and hiring more teachers depresses teacher pay.

At the same time, policymakers and philanthropists should invest in the development of tools that foster teacher effectiveness, including "school designs" that work with mere mortals. While early sponsors of such designs like New American Schools failed to demonstrate strong and consistent academic results, the reason for their failure is now well understood--and avoidable. We now know that precise adherence to a design is essential to achieving consistently strong results. Obstacles in law and policy that degrade implementation quality--such as the prohibition on charter operators holding charters directly--can and must be removed.

Closing the achievement gap needn't await wholesale social transformation. We must overcome human capital constraints. And with ingenuity and action, we can.

Steven F. Wilson is the president of Ascend Learning and a senior fellow at Education Sector. He can be reached at stevenfredericwilson@gmail.com. This essay is drawn from an American Enterprise Institute working paper.

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