While charter schools have made significant progress over the past five years, there is still work to be done to improve the sector, said U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in a speech this morning at the 2013 National Charter Schools Conference.
"Charter schools have helped debunk the insidious myth that poverty is destiny, and schools don't matter that much," he said. "You have shown what is possible. You can provide choice for families and parents when no choice previously existed. Charters are no longer a boutique movement of outsiders to the education movement."
The Obama administration has been a major supporter of charter schools. Duncan pointed to the recent CREDO study as evidence that charter schools have made progress over the past several years. A 2009 study by CREDO found that charter schools, on average, lagged behind regular public schools. Now, on average, charter school students are outperforming their regular public school peers in both reading and math.
However, Duncan warned, "there are too many charters where students actually learn less than their counterparts." One area of improvement, he suggested, are the discipline policies that charter schools have in place—an issue that Education Week has delved into in-depth. He pointed to an analysis that came out earlier this year that charter schools in the District of Columbia expelled 227 out of the 230 students who were expelled from schools last year.
Critics of charter schools suspect that their performance is being inflated by policies that allow them to expel or suspend students who struggle academically, or with behavior.
"In so many respects, D.C. charters are doing outstanding work," he said. "But high rates of exclusionary discipline are simply not good for children. ... I want charters to show the way in implementing alternative discipline methods that keep children in school."
Duncan encouraged stronger district-charter partnerships to leverage the best practices that charter schools have implemented to close achievement gaps and improve the academic performance of districts' neediest students. "The benefits of high-performing charters cannot reach the majority of students unless those strategies are widely deployed," he said. "The collective goal for all of us in education must be a great school for every child."
Three areas Duncan encouraged charter leaders to explore further were developing and assessing non-cognitive skills, expanding the early learning space, and using the findings from the learning sciences to drive better instruction.
Another speak on Tuesday, charter school advocate and professor of education at Marquette University Howard Fuller urged conference attendees to "keep fighting" and to put the ideas discussed at the conference into motion when they return home.
"We can't just come to these conferences and think that just because we talked about change, we made change," he said.
But on the other hand, "we have to be able to fight our opponents and at the same time be critical [of the charter school sector]" he said. "Some of us who are running schools shouldn't be running nobody's schools in any point in history."
Fuller's comments were followed by former New York City schools chancellor and current chief executive officer of ed-tech company Amplify, Joel Klein. He detailed the strategies and policies that allowed the number of charter schools in New York City to jump from 18 when New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg first took office to the 180 charter schools expected to be operating in the city by this fall.
One of the biggest changes that allowed for that growth was allowing charter schools to co-locate with district schools in district-owned school buildings, he said. "Without co-location," something that some of the city's mayoral candidates have threatened to discontinue if elected, "you're sending a clear message that there will be no more charters."