While charter schools may not be an immediate panacea for the ailing public school system in the U.S, when certain guidelines are followed, they can play a major part in the drive to improve student outcomes. A recent report, titled Learning from the Successes and Failures of Charter Schools, which looked at the various charter strategies employed in pilot programs in Denver, Colorado and Houston, Texas, found an approach to charter school management that produced “promising results.”
The Hamilton Project, which published the report, studied the outcomes from a program developed by Dr. Roland Fryer of Harvard’s Education Innovation Laboratories in partnership with the Houston Unified School System. The program was aimed at 20 of the district’s lowest performing elementary and high schools. As part of his work for EdLabs, Fryer studied 35 charter schools in New York City and developed a list of five major differences between well-performing and underperforming charter schools.
- Extended time in school;
- Strong administrators and teachers;
- Data-driven instruction;
- Small-group tutoring;
- Creating a culture of high expectations.
Fryer incorporated this knowledge into a plan for the Houston pilot program, and with help from U.S. Department of Education grants and private funding, he put together a way to put the list into practice in the targeted schools.
To do this, he extended the academic calendar by five days and each school day by one hour. The schools also replaced more than half of their teachers and administrators — principals included. Each student underwent thorough assessment every month and a half, and the results were used to determine the next set of goals the students were expected to meet. All students in the 6th and the 9th grade received intensive private math instruction from full-time teachers employed by the school explicitly for this purpose. And finally, the “atmosphere of high expectations” was maintained by having academic goals posted in classrooms and around the school.
Terry Grier, HISD’s superintendent, spoke at the forum hosted by Hamilton to mark the release of the report. He said that the most surprising thing about the experiment was how uncomplicated the entire plan was.
Dr. Grier said that fixing low-performing schools is not rocket science. “I’ve never been to a high-performing school that didn’t have a good principal and good teachers,” Grier said at the Hamilton forum.
Complicated or not, the conclusions of the report were unambiguously positive. Data showed that putting Fryer’s five steps into practice produced improvements in mathematics and reading equivalent to three-and-a-half month and three weeks of instruction respectively. A similar program running concurrently in Denver produced results that mirrored those achieved in Houston.