Anecdotes Aren’t Enough

Out today, NACSA’s new roadmap for authorizers who oversee schools that serve kids in dire straits. The title says it all: Anecdotes Aren’t Enough: An Evidence Based Approach to Accountability for Alternative Charter Schools.

The report is a joint effort, reflecting the input and deliberations of a 16-member working group including authorizers, charter operators, and researchers. Our goal was to establish more clarity in measuring the performance of charter schools that serve dropouts, pregnant teens, adjudicated youth and those with life-disrupting conditions such as homelessness and substance abuse.

This is not really a “charter” issue at heart. Many states lack any respectable system of accountability for alternative schools. Too often, state policies leave an accountability void for such schools, either using metrics that are inappropriate for their populations or lumping them in an ill-defined “at-risk” category with no defined outcomes.  So it’s hard to tell which schools are doing a good job and which are not.

For authorizers needing to make high-stakes decisions, the lack of good data is a huge problem. Should they renew a school that has poor test scores, or that the state rates as “unacceptable?”  Can they close a school that they know is just warehousing its students?

In getting starting on a solution, the threshold question is “who are the students?”  Most charter schools serve disadvantaged kids, those with disabilities, ELL students, and others that fit the NCLB “subgroup” descriptors. These are not who we’re talking about. To deserve some version of alternative accountability, a school must serve a preponderant population with grievous life situations, and the report provides an illustrative list.

Then the question is how to measure their progress, and the school’s performance. The report recommends looking at a variety of indicators including test scores and other standard measures – perhaps needing some different interpretation – but also non-standard measures that address the specific mission of the schools.

Today’s release drew an overflow crowd at NACSA’s annual conference, and lots of good question. That’s a great start to what we hope is a robust national conversation.