Charter High Schools: Closing the Achievement Gap
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Some readers of this guide—especially those who are working in non-charter public schools as well as charter schools—may wonder about the wider implications of the themes that have been presented. The underlying themes of these charter schools are consistent with the principles outlined in the high school reform literature in general and, more specifically, the research on high-performing secondary schools. Such schools are shown to hold high expectations for students; offer rigorous curriculum; provide a range of instructional strategies to engage students and to connect their learning to real-world applications; foster strong connections between students and staff; have strong leadership and a school culture that is mission-driven; create a professional community of learning among staff; and provide additional supports for students who need them.17 Other research underscores the need to make sure graduation requirements and college entrance requirements are aligned.18

One of the more insidious myths about education is that students who have traditionally been characterized as "at risk" cannot mange a rigorous college preparatory curriculum and that if pushed too hard they will drop out of school. The achievement outcomes at these profiled schools refute that belief, demonstrating that when presented with a demanding academic curriculum, high expectations, solid support, and data-driven teaching that is responsive to students' learning needs, traditionally underserved learners rise to the challenge. The high college-going rate of these graduates, many of them the first in their family to seek higher education, also speaks to the value of exposing such students to a broad array of extracurricular experiences—from college tours to summer internships to international travel opportunities—in an effort to level the playing field and provide opportunities for them to expand their cultural capital.

At these schools high expectations are not reserved for students alone. Teachers are held to high standards as well. But like the students they serve, these teachers receive support to help them meet the high expectations. In addition to having the time to analyze and use the data they generate through frequent formative student assessments, teachers are given time to plan, collaborate, and reflect, both within and across departments. They are encouraged to collaborate across departments, an uncommon practice in public high schools. The payoff from these practices is clear in positive student outcomes across these eight schools.

While each of the charter schools introduced here is distinctive in its overall character and none implements the above research-based strategies in precisely the same way, they are all driven to embrace these strategies by the same underlying belief: that what we have been doing is not good enough, that we must and can do better for our adolescent learners. That conviction is evident at every turn. But it is not unique to these schools, nor need be their accomplishments.

It is true that chartering diminishes some of the constraints experienced by other school communities as they strive to implement research-based improvement strategies. Yet state and district policies vary, and they shape the specific context within which any reader must operate. Those intent on reforming their community's secondary schools will want to look carefully at perceived limitations, asking themselves whether the constraints are real or only assumed and, if real, whether they can they be eliminated or, at least, mitigated?

Take, for example, the essential role at these charter schools of a cohesive teaching staff unified in its willingness to "do what it takes" to advance student learning—whether that means teachers being available to help students beyond the close of the school day, using data to guide their instruction, or collaborating with each other to advance their own learning. Building this kind of faculty is certainly easier for a charter school, which is able to hire whomever is best suited to meet the needs of students rather than having to take whichever applicant has the most seniority irrespective of commitment or qualifications. It is also easier to attract highly qualified teachers to work with underperforming students when offering incentives, as most of these schools do by ensuring that teachers have the time and support to plan and learn together and that their students have additional necessary supports beyond skilled classroom teaching.

Having a highly qualified and committed staff is not impossible for non-charter schools; everyone knows of ordinary public schools where extraordinary teachers are working together to ready students for success in college. But those committed to education equity—states, districts, schools, teachers, parents, and other concerned stakeholders—must consider what is needed to ensure that such staffs are in place at all schools, especially at those on the losing end of the achievement gap. They must consider what policies and practices either inhibit or support creation of this type of staff and advocate or make decisions accordingly. And if achievement gaps are to be closed, these stakeholders must apply the same careful scrutiny to all factors known to be supportive of successful secondary schools, examining what needs to be changed and the level of the education system at which the change needs to occur, in order to ensure that research-based strategies for improving student learning are in place across the board. The schools in this guide serve as a reminder of what can happen when they are.

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Last Modified: 11/18/2009