Family and employer values should guide charter school evaluations

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Joe Nathan, Ph.D.

While well intentioned, Fordham’s new report, Three Signs that a Proposed Charter School is at Risk of Failing, risks being a step backward for the charter movement. The study’s design misses several important aspects of the public’s attitude toward schooling, predictors of adult success, and advances in tools to assess a school’s impact. Policymakers and authorizers should be asking at least four key questions as they assess currently operating, and proposed new chartered public schools. Here’s a brief overview, and then the question.

Overview

From the beginning, Minnesota and many charter laws have included as one of their purposes to, as Minnesota puts it: “measure learning outcomes and create different and innovative forms of measuring outcomes.”

However, the report judges new chartered public schools in four states solely on “school-level student growth and academic proficiency data” on standardized tests. Researchers found that “student-centered” schools, such as those using a Waldorf or Montessori model, tend to struggle on these measures in their early years. Other forms of impact on students were not included.

The report prefaces the analysis with an acknowledgement that child-centered schools “aren’t ‘failing’ in the eyes of ... parents who choose them [and] may not care if they have low ‘value added’ on test scores.” And it cautions that any use of its results “to automatically reject or fast-track an application” is a “misuse.”

That’s critical. Ignoring that caution would severely limit the quality and range of the schools that are opened and permitted to continue. Serving students well means using gathering and sharing a variety of information about schools and students, not just how well they score on standardized tests.

Perhaps, in future reports, Fordham can describe outstanding chartered and other public schools that use multiple measures. Multiple measures can provide a more comprehensive view of what schools are helping young people accomplish.

Four key questions for policymakers and authorizers to consider

First, and most importantly, shouldn’t they recognize that the public wisely cares about much more than a school’s “value added” on standardized tests? The 2016 PDK Education Survey, for example, found that more than 75 percent of the public rated several things as “extremely/very important for schools,” including “developing good work habits, providing factual information, enhancing critical thinking, preparing (students) to be good citizens, and preparing students to work well in groups.”

These are also the skills that America’s employers are seeking in recent college graduates, according to a 2016 study. More than 80 percent said they look for “evidence of leadership skills on the candidate's resume, and nearly as many seek out indications that the candidate is able to work in a team. Employers also cited written communication skills, problem-solving skills, verbal communication skills, and a strong work ethic as important candidate attributes.”

Second, what are the best measures to predict success as an adult? One of the most powerful studies I’ve read in my forty-five-year career was published by ACT. Their researchers asked which of four factors best predicted success as an adult: high grades in high school, high grades in college, high scores on their test, and participation in debate, speech, drama, and student government.

ACT found that participation in those extracurriculars best predicted success in adulthood, as they defined it. Part of a school’s evaluation should therefore be the percentage of students involved in these programs.

Third, given that schools in a democratic society are not just places to prepare students for work, don’t we want young people to graduate schools with the tools and attitudes needed to be active citizens? A recent Education Commission of the States report, Mapping Opportunities for civic education, describes many benefits for preparing students, “not just for college and career, but also for citizenship and full participation in democratic life.” ECS documents that well developed engagement and service learning programs lowered dropout rates, reduced achievement gaps, improved school climate, and strengthened relationships between schools, students, parents, families, civic organizations, and community partners.

Finally, fourth, policymakers, educators, and authorizers should ask: “Do strong assessments exist beyond standardized tests that could help assess what’s happening with students in a school?” Fortunately, the answer is “yes.” For example:

Fordham wisely urges authorizers not to reject certain educational models outright. Still, by focusing on test scores alone, the analysis sends the message that it is acceptable to continue relying on standardized tests as the central way of measuring a school’s quality.

Strong reading, writing, and math skills are vital. But Americans wisely want more from their schools. Students, the charter movement, and the broader society will gain if we:

  • Recognize the importance of assessing a broad array of skills and knowledge, not just those that are measured by standardized tests.
  • Refine and encourage use by states and authorizers of valid assessments that measure a broader array of skills and knowledge.
  • Support and encourage development of schools, chartered and otherwise, that help students develop many strong skills and broad knowledge.

Chartering has grown in part because it builds on the fundamental American values of choice within some limits, and the belief that those creating new products and services should expect to be judged on results. We wisely don’t judge cell phones, computers, other technological innovations, or fundamental freedoms like free speech on just one measure.

Relying primarily on standardized tests to evaluate chartered public schools is the wrong direction for this movement.

Opportunities to innovate and discover helped make the US a world leader. That energy should be a central part of chartering.

Joe Nathan, Ph.D., helped write the nation’s first charter law and has worked with the National Governors’ Association, governors, and legislators in more than thirty states to help develop, refine, and strengthen their charter laws. Professional, parent, and student groups have given him awards for his work as an urban public school teacher, administrator, researcher, and writer. He directs the Center for School Change. Email him at [email protected].

The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the author and not necessarily the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.