K–8 Charter Schools: Closing the Achievement Gap
Innovations in Education
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Parents of all income levels and backgrounds face a daunting array of questions as their children approach kindergarten. Will my child learn to read and to solve mathematical problems? Are the teachers well qualified? Even more fundamentally, is the neighborhood elementary school safe?

In high-poverty communities these questions are especially urgent and the school options for families woefully meager. Indeed, traditional public schools have struggled to successfully educate poor and minority students. In high-poverty communities, dangerous conditions can make it hard for students to make their way safely to school, and for schools to attract high-quality teachers. While there have been gains in recent years at the elementary level, white and Asian American students still consistently outperform their African-American, Hispanic, and Native American peers. Students with disabilities and those from poor families lag behind, as do English language learners. 1

But some public schools are successfully tackling the achievement challenge. This guide profiles seven K–8 charter schools that are making headway in narrowing gaps in achievement. It examines factors contributing to these charter schools’ hard-earned successes, highlighting practices that may inspire and inform other school communities as they strive to help all students meet high academic standards. For underserved children, these charter schools offer hope.

School reform efforts across the nation aim to close the achievement gap. The goal? Raise achievement levels and ensure that all students — no matter their race, ethnicity, income level, learning differences, or home language — are well educated and held to a high standard. The first concrete step in this endeavor is identifying where the gaps are and strategizing intervention and approaches to closing those gaps.

As part of the nationwide push to ensure student proficiency in mathematics and reading, achievement data has become more transparent. Specifically, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) requires that students be tested every year using standardized state tests and that results be reported to the public in various ways. In addition to parents receiving test results for their individual students, the public has online access to school report cards showing how all students at the school are performing. This provides powerful tools for comparison among schools within a state. To monitor how students are doing nationwide, educators and policymakers rely on results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests, also known as the Nation’s Report Card, standardized mathematics and reading exams administered to a random sample of students across the country.

Results from the most recent battery of NAEP tests, administered in 2005, are encouraging. Fourth-graders showed consistent gains in reading proficiency and gaps narrowed to the smallest size in history when comparing the achievement of white students to their African- American and Hispanic peers. 2 In mathematics, while the overall achievement gap did not narrow, scores went up across the board. Importantly, average scores for white, African-American, and Hispanic fourth-graders were higher in 2005 than in any previous assessment year. 3

Breaking those overall results down reveals further, more specific gains. Students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch (an indicator of family poverty) had higher average scores in mathematics in 2005 than in 1996. The percentage of fourth-graders performing at or above basic in mathematics increased by 30 percentage points, and those at or above proficient increased by 23 percentage points. Fourth-graders with disabilities had a higher average score, and a higher percentage of them achieved at or above basic in mathematics than in previous assessment years. 4

Positive as these numbers are, the work is far from finished. NCLB mandates that all students reach proficiency in mathematics and reading by 2014. The bar is high. What recent NAEP results show, however, is that by paying attention to the data, and implementing thoughtful, researchbased teaching and assessment practices, schools are empowered to close gaps in achievement and meet NCLB’s goal. 5 In this effort, elementary and middle schools play a critical role, by helping all students to develop a strong foundation in mathematics and reading early on. Within this broad category of schools, those that operate with a charter may have the best chance of making data-driven reforms a reality.

In charter schools, autonomous board members can make decisions quickly and administrators have greater control over school budgets. They can also hire teachers and other school staff who embrace the school mission and, compared to most traditional schools, they can more easily fire staff who are not performing up to par.

The Role of Charter Schools in Closing the Gap

This guide builds on earlier work of the Innovations in Education guides: Successful Charter Schools (2004) and Charter High Schools Closing the Achievement Gap (2006). 6 Charter K–8 schools share some common themes with charter high schools: They are mission-driven, working with a clear and tangible set of goals; they teach for mastery, with tests aiming for in-depth understanding; and they hold themselves accountable for successes and failures. Yet, compared to charter high schools, K–8 charter schools also face unique challenges that are specific to educating elementary and middle school-age children.

Since the first charter school legislation was passed in Minnesota in 1991, the number of schools nationwide using this governance model has grown rapidly. By the 2006–07 school year, 40 states and the District of Columbia had adopted charter school laws. That same school year saw the opening of 381 new charter schools in 31 states, an 11 percent increase over the previous year that brought the total number of charter schools nationwide to almost 4,000, serving about 1,150,000 students. 7

The popularity of charter schools may result in part from their ability to innovate to meet students’ needs. In some instances, charter schools have put reforms into place before traditional public schools in their states have been able to do so. Such is the case with one of the schools profiled in this guide, which set up a full-day kindergarten program before its home state made such a program mandatory. Students’ needs drive the programs of the schools highlighted in this guide. Although charter schools are eligible to receive federal funding for such programs as special education, the state funding varies according to state charter school legislation. Thus, some charter schools receive less per student funding than their traditional public school counterparts. 8 Several of these featured schools have implemented innovative funding solutions, including parent donations and securing need-based grants, in order to offer prekindergarten programs that enabled them to begin working with students as early as possible.

Even with more limited state and district funding than is typically available to traditional public schools, charter schools are in a unique position to help further national gains in student achievement. Like all public schools, under NCLB they are held accountable for results, and if a charter school does not deliver on its education promises, it can lose its contract to operate. Yet, charter schools are free to choose their teaching approaches, rather than having to follow district curricula requirements, and to offer grade configurations (e.g., K–8, 5–8, K–12) less typical of traditional public schools, which tend to be configured as elementary (i.e., K–5), middle (i.e., 6–8), and high school (i.e., 9–12). 9 Charter school leaders have greater control of their budgets, class and school size, and the length of the school day and year, and they have more discretion when making hiring and firing decisions. Increased autonomy can make it easier for a charter school to integrate community services and resources, including philanthropic investment, into school programs. Significantly, compared to traditional public schools, charter schools tend to serve a proportionately higher number of low-income and minority students, the precise population of students targeted by school reform efforts. 10 While there remains room for progress, these schools are more successful than traditional public schools in hiring staff that reflect the diversity of their student populations. For example, in 1999–2000, traditional public school staffs averaged 8.9 percent African-American teachers, while African-Americans made up 15.5 percent of charter school teaching staff. 11

Although academic achievement data comparing students in charter schools to those in traditional public schools show mixed results, research indicates that charter schools are well positioned to demonstrate more success after the start-up phase. In one study, charter schools that had been open for at least nine years showed an advantage over their neighboring traditional public schools. Hoxby’s 2004 nationwide study found that 10 percent more charter school students demonstrated proficiency on state reading and mathematics exams compared to students in nearby traditional public schools. 12 But test results alone do not give the whole picture. Assessment data have limitations, a 2006 study suggests, often ignoring indicators, such as safety, teacher quality, class size, grade configuration, exposure to content, instructional support, parent satisfaction, attendance, and other measures—all areas where charter schools may be positioned to innovate and excel. 13 Indeed, when these school climate and governance variables are factored in, charter schools appear to demonstrate a better attunement to student needs and greater success in meeting them.

A close look at the individual missions of successful charter schools highlights their focus on tailoring programs for the communities they serve. Many charter schools aim to level the playing field for students from low-income and minority backgrounds. Others work explicitly to prepare every student for college and beyond. Such customized approaches are not informal. The schools profiled in this guide operate with a clear mission, defined intentions, and thoughtful goal setting. In so doing, these successful schools have created innovative models that are reducing the achievement gap.

The Charter Schools Featured in This Guide

The seven schools featured here vary considerably, reflecting their sensitivity to the unique communities they serve. One serves kindergarten through sixth grade, three offer K–7 programs, and two serve kindergarten through eighth grade. The seventh is a middle school, offering grades 5–8. Three include prekindergarten programs, six offer full-day kindergarten, and one is expanding to create a high school. Five are located in large cities, and two schools are located in the relatively small cities of Phoenix, Ariz., and Pueblo, Colo. They range in size from 114 to 1,100 students. Six of the schools serve populations that are 96 percent or more students of color. Students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch account for at least 60 percent of each student body, and at three of the schools, they account for over 90 percent of the student body. One school uses a dual-language approach, by which a Spanish-speaking teacher works concurrently with an English-speaking teacher. At one school, 92 percent of students are English language learners. Three schools offer special education services to 10–12 percent of their students, with all seven having moderate to low percentages (under five percent to 12 percent) of students in special education programs.

Each school has adapted to serve its community. All seven offer an extended day and longer school year than their local district schools, while one operates on a year-round schedule. Six of the schools use assessments on an interim basis to monitor how students are doing and what needs to be retaught. Four of the schools are still run by the founding principal, two are led by "turnaround" principals with track records of success at other schools, and three were started by husband- wife teams. The school leaders know their students personally and understand the cultures of the families they serve. One school uses a developmentally based curriculum, structuring grades according to each child’s developmental level, rather than his or her age.

Collectively, these schools have a clear vision of what constitutes excellent teaching. All teach for mastery, doing "whatever it takes" to help students reach proficiency, rather than merely covering the curriculum. Each has found a way to help students meet high standards while nearby public schools have struggled and sometimes failed in this endeavor. (For comparison data, see the school profiles in Part II of this guide, starting on p. 35.)

The schools highlighted in this guide were identified through a multistep selection process, described more fully in Appendix A, that considered a number of factors, among them, overall achievement levels and test scores in comparison to similar schools in the same city or state. An external advisory group of charter school researchers, charter school practitioners, and representatives from various organizations working to support charter schools helped guide the development of a research-based conceptual framework used to analyze candidate schools and to inform site selection criteria.

To be considered for the guide, a school had to show solid evidence of effectively closing the achievement gap among different student subgroups. Based on state standardized test data, "closing the gap" is defined as students outperforming local district public schools that serve a similar population of students in mathematics and reading. Alternately, it may mean that certain subgroups—including African-American and Hispanic students, special education students, English language learners, and students that qualify for free or reducedprice lunch—are exceeding state averages in mathematics and reading. In cases of schools with internally diverse populations, closing the gap means that students of different subgroups are achieving on par within the school. Schools included in this guide must have met adequate yearly progress (AYP) benchmarks for at least the past two consecutive years. Additionally, at least half of the students at a school must qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, be of a minority status, or both.

Each profiled school received a two-day visit during which researchers spoke directly with teachers, students, parents, administrators, and members of the governing board, both individually and sometimes in focus groups. Illustrative materials, such as the artifacts highlighted in this guide, were collected from all sites.

This is not experimental research that can make causal claims about what works. Readers should judge for themselves the merits of these practices and reflect on why the practices are working in these specific contexts. These descriptions do not constitute an endorsement of specific practices or products. However, this descriptive research process has revealed that while there are differences from one school to another, it is the similarities among the schools that may prove helpful for others looking to close the achievement gaps among their own students.

Common themes found at these highlighted charter schools include:

Closing the Achievement Gap — Each of these schools is closing the achievement gap by outperforming local district schools serving a similar population of students, or by meeting or exceeding the state testing averages in mathematics and reading.

Mission-driven — These schools create a shared vision with school leaders, teachers, parents, and students all relentlessly focused on ensuring student success.

Teaching for Mastery — Teachers are not simply providing a rigorous curriculum. They are expected to teach for understanding. The use of interim assessments helps teachers monitor student progress in mastering concepts and standards and makes them aware when reinforcement is needed.

Positive School Culture — Each school creates a safe learning environment and a strong school culture built around the education vision, creating a unique, focused community. School staff respond to students’ academic and social needs and take responsibility for doing whatever it takes to ensure student learning.

Families as Partners — Schools engage parents in a variety of ways, such as requiring them to sign off on nightly homework and participate in school decision-making. Many also partner with community resources to provide parents with ongoing adult education opportunities.

Holding Themselves Accountable — These schools tend to be well run, with active governing boards that generate creative solutions to challenges and empower administrators to implement decisions promptly. They are fiscally resourceful, ensuring that every dime is well spent in support of the school’s mission.

Innovating Across the Program — They have flexibility that traditional public schools often do not have to create a longer school day or year, design unique staffing arrangements, involve community organizations, and make budget decisions that advance the goals of their school.

Continuous Professional Learning and Improvement — These schools are committed to ongoing internal professional development, often arranging time for teachers to work collaboratively. Coaching and training are provided, and all staff members are engaged in continuous professional learning.

Part I of this guide explores these common themes in more depth. To illustrate the points more fully, sample materials collected at the school sites are presented in accompanying figures. This cross-site section ends with a discussion of implications.

Part II is intended to provide the reader with a holistic "snapshot" of each school. The individual school profiles in this section were based on observations and interviews, and they offer a view into how each school is making headway at closing gaps in student achievement. A brief profile or narrative of each school brings together important contextual information about each school, its history, and key features. These profiles provide a more comprehensive understanding of each site.

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Last Modified: 11/17/2009