Innovations in Education: Successful Charter Schools
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I am pleased to introduce the third publication in the Innovations in Education series: Successful Charter Schools. This series, published by my Department's Office of Innovation and Improvement, identifies concrete, real-world examples of innovations flourishing throughout this great land in six important areas: public school choice, supplemental educational services, charter schools, magnet schools, alternative teacher certification, and school leadership.

Twelve years after the first charter school was launched, the charter school movement is now entering its adolescence. Like many pre-teens, it's had its share of growing pains, but I am confident that it is about to hit a growth spurt. That is because charter schools are enormously popular with their primary clients-parents and students-and because they are starting to show promising results in terms of student achievement. The basic tenets of charter schools-give them room to be innovative, hold them accountable for results, and let parents decide if they meet the needs of their children-are perfectly aligned with the historic No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), which also focuses on accountability for results in return for more flexibility, and with providing more options for parents than ever before.

One of the promises of charter schools is that they can serve as laboratories of innovation-they can be public education's "R&D" arm. Because they have greater autonomy than traditional public schools, and since they tend to attract pioneering educators, they can try out new approaches to education that, if proven effective, can be transplanted back into the larger public education system. It is in this spirit that we highlight eight of the most successful charter schools in the United States.

These schools were chosen after an exhaustive national search. They were primarily selected because they have demonstrated success over time in boosting student achievement. Surely many more charter schools could have been identified, and these should not be considered "the best" charter schools in the nation. Nevertheless, they are among the best, and each has much to teach other charter schools-and traditional public schools-about teaching and learning, management strategies, staff development, and many other topics.

One of the most striking features of these schools is their diversity. While they are all producing impressive results-and meeting the "Adequate Yearly Progress" requirements of NCLB-they span the educational spectrum. Some are fairly traditional, with a laser-like focus on the basics. Others are much more open-ended and "progressive," with a more flexible approach to learning. None of these schools is a "testing factory," a stripped down place with no art, music, or time for community. This is an important point, because critics of NCLB-and of standards, testing, and accountability more generally-have voiced concerns that a focus on student achievement will lead schools to do nothing but teach reading and math. These eight schools demonstrate the fallacy of that argument. Excellent schools have always focused on delivering a well-rounded education. Certainly that's the kind of education the children of our nation's elite have always enjoyed, and it's the kind of education all of our children deserve.

I congratulate the schools highlighted herein and urge all educators to consider whether the practices described can help your school serve its students better. Let me finish by quoting one of the slogans of the KIPP Academy Houston-which I am proud to have helped get off the ground: "If there's a better way, we find it." What a wonderful outlook for our entire public education system-and what a fitting description of the ethos of charter schools.

Rod Paige, U.S. Secretary of Education
June 2004

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Last Modified: 06/23/2009