By LINDA SEEBACH
Scripps Howard News Service
October 11, 2005
Under the federal No Child Left Behind law, forced conversion into a charter school is one of several possible remedies for a school that fails to meet standards. In Colorado, it's essentially the only one. State law provides that a persistently failing school, that is one that over a period of several years earns "unsatisfactory" state ratings, will be converted into a charter school. The definition is so lenient that it has been invoked only once, for Cole Middle School in Denver, which reopened in August as Cole College Prep, a part of the KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) network of charter schools.
The KIPP model, which originated in Houston, focuses relentlessly on raising academic aspirations and ensuring that students have the academic preparation they need to succeed in higher education. It is growing rapidly on the basis of early results, and it seems to have figured out how to replicate the model, at least on a modest scale. Prospective KIPP principals train for a year before taking over a school, when they do, they are prepared to employ effective techniques for managing both behavioral issues and academic growth.
When the first KIPP school opened in Denver in 2002, I had occasion to call them with a question, and a young voice welcomed me to the home of Denver's "hardest working students" before giving the voice-mail options. "We are currently climbing the mountain to enter college in 2010," she said. She was in the fifth grade.
So it's reasonable to believe that KIPP will prove a good choice for Cole.
But the choice wasn't foreordained, as several other applicants made plausible cases for different models.
Leave aside for the moment the observation that forcing people to do something they don't want to do is not usually a path to optimal performance.
The more significant fact is that knowing a school is a charter school tells you next to nothing educationally significant about it. Charter schools come in as many varieties as other public schools, and they vary as much in academic performance.
To bring some order to this confusion, the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation has embarked on a project first to classify charter schools into roughly similar types, and second to compare schools both within and across types. Results of the first phase were released this week (feature article "Playing to Type?" at www.edexcellence.net).
The foundation enlisted Dick Carpenter, a professor at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and a former charter school principal, to develop a classification scheme, or typology, for the roughly 3,500 charter schools operating in 2001-2002. There are more now. As Chester Finn, foundation president, notes in his introduction, "There are lots more Edison schools today, for instance, than three years ago, and dozens of KIPP Academies (not even a discernible category in 2001-2)."
Carpenter focused on the five states that had the most charter schools that year (Arizona, California, Florida, Michigan and Texas), and from those states was able to get data from 1,182 schools, "more than 87 percent of those operating" in those states.
His typology identified five different kinds of schools (I summarize his descriptions). Traditional schools aim to ensure that students learn a largely pre-determined body of knowledge and skills - Core Knowledge, and more generally back-to-basics, schools fall into this category. Progressive schools rely on child-centered, hands-on, cooperative learning. Montessori schools are the largest group in this category.
Vocational schools, usually high schools, focus on preparing students for work, making use of apprenticeships and on-the-job training. Alternative delivery is a category including virtual charters and charters that cater to home-schooling families.
And finally there's a catch-all category he calls "general," for schools that aren't anything in particular, in terms of curriculum and instruction, and are pretty much indistinguishable from the neighborhood schools in their district.
Each of these types is subdivided according to whether they are open to anyone, or are targeted to a specific population.
Having a standard way of identifying about what kind of school a charter school is represents a big step forward. But the important question is whether some kinds are more effective than others, and if so, for whom.
That's phase II, under way now. "To date," Carpenter says, the officials who authorize charters "have tended to respond to claims made by would-be operators," since they don't have actual data to estimate how likely a particular kind of school is to succeed with the students it will serve.
"If these typological differences manifest themselves in achievement variations," Carpenter says, "the implications will transcend the squabbles of educational pundits and reach into the worlds of policy and practice."
Translation: It's not only charter schools that should be paying attention.