Last week in New Orleans, NACSA wrestled with issues of standardization and differentiation in the charter school sector.
We held our annual joint meeting of our Board of Directors and National Advisory Board in the French Quarter and, despite the festive surroundings, had a number of serious and enlightening discussions. In a dinner discussion that included a number of New Orleans education leaders, people were passionate both about the tremendous education successes in New Orleans, spurred in part by strong accountability, and the fact that the new and improved system is still not succeeding with all students. The charter school idea is powerful because it supports both accountability and differentiation. But some felt that standardization was causing us to lose some kids. Others pointed out that New Orleans is succeeding with more kids than ever before. Can we develop greater differentiation in this new system while maintaining high standards? Or is our drive toward higher standards producing homogeneity that leaves some kids behind? Do we reach those kids by holding firm or by differentiating? Is there a third way?
This tension between homogeneity and differentiation also appeared in discussions about admissions, discipline and expulsion. Participants in the suspension/expulsion discussion group feared that some charter schools are violating students’ rights. But other participants in the same group warned that the potential solutions to this problem would lead to “miasmic sameness” among schools. They argued that we need to protect charter schools’ ability to be maintain their own culture, including discipline. In fact, some observed that the common enrollment systems being discussed by another group, while potentially solving problems in admissions, might lead to even more students being enrolled in schools in which the student or his family is not familiar with or supportive of the culture of the school.
Differentiation was again a theme in conversations about authorizers. Many people identified a variety of types of strong authorizing practices, including authorizers that have:
- the ability to evaluate, not just proposals for individual schools, but to evaluate network growth plans;
- access to data about student admissions, suspensions and expulsions; and
- the expertise to evaluate innovative models (e.g. blended learning, alternative schools) and the capacity to develop performance measures that can assess how well those schools are working.
While we would all prefer to have all authorizers be good at everything, this is not likely in a world of 1000 authorizers, most of whom have one charter school. One way NACSA is dealing with this challenge is the promotion of statewide independent chartering boards that develop scale and expertise. Another idea that was discussed at our meeting is the potential for authorizers to voluntarily develop networks and expertise around certain topics (such as replication, blended learning, and alternative education).
The charter idea is powerful because it incorporates both high standards and differentiation. We have been working to find the right balance between these forces for twenty years. If we continue to recognize, respect and build upon the virtues of each, the charter school community will continue to get stronger.