Collaboration in Civic Spheres

UW report: charter schools part of the learning gap solution

by Kyle Kim August 4th, 2011

SUMMARY: Incorporating high-performing charter schools in public school districts can help overcome the achievement gap between minority and white students, according to a paper released by the University of Washington’s Center On Reinventing Public Education. Many charter schools across the nation have demonstrated a replicable and sustainable model for fostering high academic achievement in urban schools where disparate gaps existed based on race and income. Some of the approaches that have worked are longer school days, intensive tutoring and assessment, mandating quick phone responses by staff to parent question and concerns, and tying receipt of the high school diploma to acceptance by a four-year college.

BACKGROUND: Portfolio districts pursue an emerging strategy that incorporates different types of practices used by traditional and charter districts and nonprofit organizations to close achievement gaps in urban, low-income schools. Traditional school districts that attempt sweeping educational reform often see minimal change due to the lack of procedural flexibility, the report states. The Portfolio School Districts Project of the UW’s Center on Reinventing Public Education, upon which the paper is based, is funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Carnegie Corporation of New York, and the Joyce Foundation. The project is researching districts employing the portfolio management strategy for education reform. The project also convenes a network of portfolio district leaders to support and learn from one another. Locations of school districts participating in the portfolio project include Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York City and Washington D.C.

KEY LINK: “Eliminating the Achievement Gap: A White Paper on How Charter Schools Can Help District Leaders,” Center On Reinventing Public Education, University of Washington, June 2011.

KEY STRATEGIES AND RECOMMENDATIONS: The center admits charter schools are not a silver bullet solution for closing the racial achievement gap in urban schools. However, traditional district schools lack the flexibility and experience “extreme difficulty” in bringing systemwide, dramatic improvement to urban settings where achievement varies widely by race and income, the report argues.  A number of high-performing charter school networks have built replicable models for successful minority or low-income student performance:

  • Seventy-five percent of students at Rocketship Education in San Jose are considered low-income; yet the school’s academic performance rivals, and in some cases outperforms, the highest-achieving school districts in California. Rocketship Education’s first two schools have proficiency rates of over 80 percent in English Language Arts and over 90 percent in Math. Rocketship schools use a combination of online learning labs, intensive tutoring and assessments, plus a major emphasis on school culture and parent involvement, and more in-classroom time.
  • Success Charter Network in New York City created a directory network by giving parents the contact information, including cell phone number, of every Success staff member in the school building, with the stated expectation of quick responses to questions and concerns. Success Charter Network family members have read over a million books with their children in lieu of student fundraising drives.
  • The Texas-operated YES Prep charter school system, which serves the low-income community, requires its students to be accepted into a four-year college as a prerequisite to graduating high school. Families and students at YES Prep receive college tours, a senior summit, and college application and enrollment support.
  • West Denver Prep’s typical school day starts at 7:30 a.m. and ends at 4:30 p.m., which gives its students 25 percent more instruction time compared to neighboring schools in Denver. Longer work days in traditional district schools violate union rules and many are unable to couple extended times with more effective teaching to close learning deficits, according to the report.
  • Acknowledging the full extent of the learning gap between race and income is key for strategic portfolio management. Other steps include incorporating charter school networks, ditching failing traditional solution models, transparency in individual school performance, and setting clear, realistic performance goals.

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