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Duncan: Charters Have Role in Turnarounds


From guest blogger Dakarai I. Aarons:

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan this morning asked charter school operators to play a major role in turning around the nation's lowest-performing schools.

"Today, I am challenging you to adapt your educational model to turning around our lowest-performing schools. I need you to go outside your comfort zones and go to under-served rural communities and small cities," he said to the attendees of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools' ninth annual conference, which kicked off this morning at Washington's convention center.

While Duncan praised charters, he said the charter school movement has real work to do on improving accountability for its schools, calling out states with laws he said provide "minimal" accountability, such as those in Arizona, Florida, Ohio, and Texas. He also cited a new report by Stanford University researchers that found a wide range of quality among charters.

"The charter movement is putting itself at risk by allowing too many second-rate, and in some cases, third-rate charter schools to exist. Your goal should be quality, not quantity."

Duncan's speech was the third of four speeches he is doing on the "assurances" that states must make to get a significant share of education stimulus dollars. Duncan has pushed states to lift caps on charter schools, or find themselves in a weakened competitive spot for the funds.

He broadly outlined four options for turning around failing schools, which the department will give more details on in a request for proposals for those applying to use Race to the Top funds to turn around schools.

In the first model, the students remain in the school, but at least 50 percent of the staff is replaced, which may become a grant requirement. The teachers can reapply for their jobs and many will go elsewhere. It's based on the work done in Chicago under the Academy for Urban School Leadership.

The second model calls for replacing the staff and turning the school over to a nonprofit group or charter management organization, such as Los Angeles-based Green Dot or the Mastery charter schools network, which the secretary highlighted for its work in Philadelphia.

A majority of the existing staff would stay under the third model, which the secretary said would be most suited for rural districts or small communities where finding new staff members would be especially difficult. But the district would have to commit to a "rigorous" performance evaluation and intensive training and mentoring of the staff, along with a focus on more time for children to learn later in the day and on weekends. The school should be given flexibility over its calendar.

That option should not be considered the easy way out, he said, as the schools will be required to show measurable improvement in student achievement.

The fourth option is simply to shut down the lowest-performing schools and send the children to another school. "This might seem like surrender, but in some cases it’s the only responsible option," Duncan said.

All of the models, Duncan said, require about a year of planning, so districts and charter management organizations should get started this summer in order to have these schools opening in the fall of 2010. He said schools and districts can use Title I money to start that process now.

Duncan said he knows turning around schools is different than the work most charters presently do, but he said students need their innovative approaches to help close some of the nation's most persistent achievement gaps.

There's more to come, so check this blog and our Twitter feed for the latest news from the charter school conference.


Did Secretary Duncan discuss the idea that it might be more difficult to set up rural charter schools or charter schools in small towns because there are not enough students to go around? Unfortunately, if school choice is to occur, and I am a definite supporter of school choice, there have to be enough students/parents to make that choice to make it worthwhile.

It was great to see Mastery Charter mentioned in your article, however, recognized as one of the best high schools in the state is Imhotep Charter High School. They have had a 100%graduation rate for years and also 100% of the students going on to college or post secondary institutions. Many parents on the waiting list wish that the district would increase their enrollment numbers since they have a new building that can accommodate 200 more students.

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