California's Portrait of the Movement - A Closer Look At Charter School Academic Performance

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Education reform has taken center stage in many debates around the nation over the past couple of years, as parents, students and communities demand better educational outcomes for all students from public schools.

Generating those better outcomes while closing the achievement gap between low-income and affluent students is a daunting challenge but not an impossible one. Members of the California Charter Schools Association believe, like I do, that we must be relentless in our pursuit of ever-higher academic performance if charter schools are to contribute even more significantly to making high-performing schools a reality for every student in California.

For almost two decades, charter schools in California have offered parents, students and communities options for a better education. Our state now has the largest concentration of charters in the country. At 912 schools, we saw our most significant growth ever this school year, with 115 charters opening across the state. But growth alone isn’t enough.

While we know the state has some of the best charter schools in the country, we are also aware that there are weaknesses within the movement. That is why the California Charter Schools Association is taking unprecedented and proactive steps to ensure that all students attending charter schools are getting an education that will help them succeed as adults.

This week our first annual Portrait of the Movement report, which details the academic performance of charter schools, provides a framework to press for higher accountability for low-performing charters. The report reveals reasons for great optimism in the areas where charter schools are excelling and for greater resolve in the areas where charter schools need to improve.

The most significant finding in Portrait of the Movement is that California charter schools are accelerating the closure of the achievement gap between low-income and affluent students. This finding is supported with ample evidence that charter schools serving low-income populations are generating better academic results than traditional public schools serving students with similar demographics.

These results are cause for celebration, proving that charters are breaking the link between poverty and under-performance. For far too long, too many within our traditional public school system have believed that poverty and underperformance are inexorably linked and there is little schools can do to help students overcome the various social barriers they face. This paralyzing belief – undergirded by a self-perpetuating view that only some students, and not all students, are actually able to learn at high levels – has been used by many as justification for the various objections they raise to proposed reforms of our public education system. The performance of California’s charter schools – from classrooms in South Los Angeles to Oakland and San Diego to Sacramento – demonstrates that the possibility of transformational change is within our grasp if we have the courage to embrace reforms which serve the interests of students.

Another important finding with Portrait of the Movement is more charter schools are over-performing than under-performing, and that, in terms of numbers of students served, more than two times as many students attend over-performing than under-performing schools. We are also encouraged to see that the number and proportion of under-performing charters appears to be decreasing over time.

With that said, the Portrait of the Movement also clearly reveals that there are simply too many underperforming charter schools and we must as a movement act with commensurate courage to improve academic accountability systems.

While current state law calls on charter authorizers—school districts, county offices of education, and the State Board of Education—to close schools that have not met minimum academic requirements, the process has not been a consistent one, and under-performing charters have slipped through the cracks. CCSA is proactively working to close these loopholes and has established minimum performance criteria for charter renewal to ensure that charters are delivering on the promise of a high-quality education for all students in California,

In tandem with the release of Portrait of the Movement, CCSA is activating a series of Web-enabled tools to help families and the public understand the picture of performance for every single charter in California that opened before fall of 2010. An interactive map provides the public access to the performance record of all charter schools as well as all traditional public schools in their surrounding areas, giving families for the first time a highly detailed look of the options available to them based on a measure that renders a picture of added value.


Submitted by Jed Wallace, President and CEO, California Charter Schools Association

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