What can English schools learn from US charter schools?

Janet Downs's picture
In Philadelphia* many of the schools use metal detectors. But at one school, Freire Charter, there is no need. It has a strict “no second chances” rule about aggression, “If you fight once, you are out.”

English trainee teachers and school leaders visited charter schools in Philadelphia, one of the most violent cities in the US, and were shocked to find that pupils’ physical safety was considered above academic achievement when parents chose schools.

Free schools in England are modelled on charter schools – state-funded, but independently run, and sometimes operating out of premises not usually associated with education. When the English fact-finders visited Dubois Collegiate Academy, one London head teacher was unimpressed with the accommodation. “There are schools [buildings] better than this in India… It is awful: all this fragmentation with schools in corner shops. If they want to improve education, why don’t they do it through the state system?”

But Philadelphia’s public system is in meltdown. Budget cuts together with a funding system which depends on local property taxes means that deprived areas are particularly badly hit. Charters argue that their situation is even worse because the local school district retains some of its funding for every charter pupil. But this ignores the fact that many charters benefit from private philanthropy which entices motivated students away from the public system leaving the latter to deal with the rest. Deprived of more motivated pupils and filled with more challenging students the creamed public schools are seen as less desirable options.

The English visitors found the atmosphere at Dubois, which follows the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP), was “studious and upbeat”. However, they were not so impressed with the “attrition rate” – that is, the number of pupils who leave either because they move away or because the school “wasn’t the right fit because of discipline or whatever.” Dubois lost 20% of its pupils in its first year but its aim was to reduce this to 10%, a number which raised eyebrows. This high attrition rate is not confined to KIPP schools – Freire, a non KIPP school, also loses 10% of its pupils for reasons including “a lack of alignment with the school’s mission.”

The English academy chain model has parallels with another approach being used in Philadelphia. The Mastery non-profit provider takes over failing schools and brings in new management. Mastery schools have a lower rate of attrition than other charters while still operating a strict regime. The English visitors toured Mastery Lenfest whose intake is 99% African American, and discovered that its results exceeded those of both the city and the state for African American students. However, this outcome only equalled that of African American pupils nationally and was below the average for all US pupils.

TES concluded that it is “unhelpful to generalise about charter schools”. Not all charters fit the stereotype comprising a “back-to-basics” approach with “didactic teaching and strict discipline”. When it opened, Freire had no rules until some were introduced because pupils requested them. Pupils call teachers by their first names and students can win the right not to have to wear the school’s polo shirts. One pupil described the school as being “shackle-free”. Freire is inspired by its namesake, Paulo Freire, who believed children should be active learners and not just passive recipients of facts.

Although the English party was not impressed with the standard of teaching in any of the charter schools they visited – rating it as no more than “satisfactory,” they did find plenty to inspire them: an emphasis on developing a positive school environment and recognising the need to raise aspirations. And they realised that these could be encouraged in any state school – their promotion was not dependent upon a school being an academy or free school.

So what can be learned from US charters? First, there is no single charter model. Not all charters use KIPP which is Mr Gove’s preferred option and chimes particularly well with the “boot camp” philosophy promoted by some academies. Secondly, it’s important to consider the attrition rates when looking at results. A school which “loses” 20% of its pupils which include the most challenging is more likely to achieve a better outcome than the school that has to deal with the rejected 20%. The former, however, would be regarded as “better” than the latter. Thirdly, the need to develop a positive school environment is recognised by all successful heads in whatever type of school, although this widely-accepted quality did not feature in the list of attributes shared by successful schools compiled by Harvard researchers. However, the researchers admitted they did not investigate all characteristics which might be found in successful schools. One of the aspects they did not consider was the personality and leadership style of the head teacher whose role in promoting a positive school environment is crucial. Unfortunately, the new head of Ofsted believes that head teachers will know that they are doing something right when staff morale has plummeted. This is an astonishing remark from an ex-head teacher – and it runs counter to what the returning heads intend to do in their own schools.

*This post, apart from the last paragraph, is a summary of “The toughest of the tough” published in TES, 13 January 2012, not available on-line

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Allan Beavis's picture
Thu, 19/01/2012 - 22:58

I think the single most important thing that Britain can learn from the American charter experiment is that, despite being in existence for over 20 years, American schools perform somewhere in the middle of international rankings, like the UK and many other developed western nations with a similar socio-economic make up. In other words, the United States has not found a magic formula and leapt up the PISA rankings.

The main reason that the Charter system has failed is because, despite some excellent Charters, these models have not been able to scale up around the US or even transplant from one district to another. This is because all school districts in even one region have different pupil intakes and challenges and this is magnified and rendered more complex and impossible when applied to other cities and states.

Some research suggests a more well endowed Charter performs better than their Charter competitors without access to additional philanthropic funds. Other reports claim that bigger bucks does not necessarily guarantee better results. What is clear though is that the major philanthropists, led by the Gates, Walton and Broad Foundations have played a significant part, because of their wealth, in shaping US education policy. This policy is almost unfettered free market control of schools; the ideologies of the philanthropists being imposed on schools and school districts in exchange for cash; the philanthropists investing hundreds of millions of dollars in interns and employees’ education and training to that they can head Charter School Chains and/or run school districts or city or state education departments. Ultimately it reveals that US education benefits mostly the interests of the wealthy and influential.

Research after research shows that the effect of Charter Schools has not benefited the poorest in America. Less than 20% of charters outperform regular schools. Given that the existence of Charter schools has NOT pushed America up the PISA rankings, it is a mystery as to why the coalition considers this test-driven, punitive and corruption-ridden system worth importing to Britain. Wishful thinking that it can be done better here, that we are only importing the best practices of charters, is not enough of an excuse to spend billions on copying a policy that, on the basis of judging schools solely on test results, has not improved the state of American education so that it can compete with the tiger economy nations and Finland, all of whom eschew relentless standardized testing, selection, segregation and privatising state funded education.

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