Saturday, July 10, 2010

Letter to Sec of Education Arne Duncan

A group of us were having lunch yesterday and the discussion turned to Arne Duncan's comments at the National Charter School Conference in Chicago last week. Dr. Jody Ernst, from the Colorado League of Charter Schools, was at the conference and standing in line to ask the Secretary a question, when time ran out. Jody posed her question to the Secretary in the letter below.

Dear Education Secretary Duncan,

I am writing to point out a contradiction you posed to the nation's charter school movement in your address to us at the National Charter Schools Conference on July 1st, 2010. You began your address by issuing a clarion call to the charter movement to increase the number of schools that target a) low income and minority students, b) special education students, and c) students that have dropped out of the traditional education system. While I strongly believe that the movement is already doing this, I think they are also up for this challenge.

But here is the rub.

You followed up this set of statements by berating the leaders of the charter movement for not being bold enough to close the lowest performing schools. While I whole heartedly agree that chronically poor performing charter schools do need to be closed, I think you fail to see a contradiction between these two statements.

I pose you this question to help clarify my point; of the 200 charter schools on the bottom 5% of each states list, how many of those ARE the schools with missions to recover prior dropouts and serve predominantly special education students?

Unfortunately, I cannot answer for the nation but I do know that in Colorado there are 48 such campuses (including, charters, district run, and state schools). Of these 48 campuses, approximately 95% of them are either on Tier 1 or Tier 2 improvement status.

This, I believe, is not due to the effectiveness of the schools but is an artifact of the accountability systems that are in place. According to the 2008 data, Colorado's alternative education campuses (AECs)-including both charter and non-charter schools-averaged 13 percent proficiency in writing, 26 percent proficiency in reading, and 4 percent proficiency in mathematics (compared to the state averages of 53, 68, and 53 in writing, reading, and math, respectively). While this makes me sad to report, I am not terribly surprised given that the average student attending one of our AECs comes to the school between 2 and 6 years behind grade level.. Even if a school is successful at growing their students the equivalent of 2 academic years in one year's time, a great majority will not be able to pass a grade level standardized test.

Colorado appears to understand this, and has recently adopted an alternative accountability framework. This framework focuses a bulk of the accountability for these alternative schools on academic growth and on students' preparedness for postsecondary options, including workforce entry, military enlistment, and enrollment in a certificate program or postsecondary institution. The new framework also gives AECs the ability to report on measures that suit their students, allowing them to provide evidence based on formative assessments that can be given multiple times per year. This is extremely valuable as these high-risk students tend also to be highly mobile.

Until the federal government is prepared to acknowledge the needs of these students, as well as the efforts put forth by the schools whose missions are to serve them, there will not likely be an increase in the number of schools serving drop outs and special education students, charter or otherwise.

Authorizers grow leery of opening new alternative campuses because, under current accountability models, they so often fail. Districts, too, limit the number of alternative programs or schools they open for the same reason.

I encourage you to explore this further, perhaps calling for a survey of the alternative education landscape to help identify quality alternative school models and relevant accountability metrics, and not be so quick to point fingers and issue catch 22s to the charter movement. As a researcher who has dedicated much of the past four years on this topic, I would be delighted to share my findings with you.


Jody L. Ernst, Ph.D.

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