Charter Schools Are Graduating Students in High Numbers, But Here Are Some That Aren't

May 25, 2016 12:00:00 AM

by Alex Medler

If you need a pick-me-up inspiration after a long hard year of working on education, nothing lifts your spirits like the images of proud young men and women from urban high schools who are headed to college. You can feel the exuberance of the families at places like Urban Prep, and plenty of other schools with similar results. There are plenty of great stories this time of year of urban high schools where 100 percent of each year’s senior class not only graduates but is accepted into four-year colleges. And these are much more than proof points in wonky debates. These schools change the lives of thousands of young people and bring new hope to entire communities. A recent national  report on graduation rates, however, raises important questions about charter schools: There is good and bad news. The Grad Nation Initiative report gives credit to the 44 percent of charters with graduation rates of 85 percent or more but it also calls out the charter schools where too many young people exit without a diploma. Nearly one-third of public charter high schools don’t graduate two-thirds of their students. Regardless of the challenges any young person brings with them to high school, if they leave high school without crossing that stage to pick up their diploma, they are walking out into the world with one more challenge they don’t need in life. We should never grow comfortable with a young person leaving our schools empty-handed as they head out the door.

Whether You Believe the Data or Not, We Must Do Better

Voices from within the  charter sector have raised important questions about the  study’s data, and whether it compares apples to oranges. While as a researcher, I agree that there is merit to many of these points (assuming challenges with measurement or fair comparisons, the grad rates might adjust up or down 10 percent), the point still stands that we must do better. The last decade produced significant growth in virtual schools and Alternative Education Campuses (AECs) amongst both public charters and district-managed schools. According to the Grad Nation study, AECs graduate 52 percent of their students, while virtuals only manage a 40 percent graduation rate. There are wonderful AECs, whose courageous young people deserve our applause but  not all AECs are the same. Some claim to be AECs but what they really mean is that they are serving poor kids, and they don’t want to be accountable when those kids don’t succeed. Others are created by districts to get the behavior problems out of the traditional high schools—making those grad rates look better. Other struggling AECs are truly serving extremely at-risk kids, but their services are inadequate, inappropriate or ineffective. For virtual schools (both charter and district-managed) these dismal results are neither new nor surprising. It is long past the time when people in positions of power need to act to protect students from a broken mode of schooling.

Here’s the Challenge

As the charter sector grows to include more virtual schools and AECs, how can we be sure we aren’t creating new warehouses where kids are sent temporarily before they leave for good? How do we identify the AECs that are saving lives from those that are hiding our collective shame? While there are reasons some schools might have lower graduation rates, just how low is too low? Graduation rates alone won’t tell us the answers. But quibbles over methodology should not be mistaken for excuses to avoid a closer look. Authorizers, districts and states need a much more comprehensive understanding of these schools to appreciate the difference between schools offering a life-saving success, and those producing heart-breaking harm. Low graduation rates signal the need to look deep enough to ensure we can see that difference. So, let's keep applauding for those kids walking across the stage each spring. But let's not ignore the young people who have transferred out to alternatives schools where many students are simply walking out the door, empty-handed.

Alex Medler

Alex Medler is Senior Director of the National Charter School Resource Center (NCSRC) with Safal Partners. Medler is a national expert on charter school policy who has worked in education reform since the earliest days of the charter movement. Through Safal Partners, Medler also advises foundations, state education agencies, charter authorizers and other clients in the U.S. and overseas. Prior to joining Safal Partners, he directed policy and advocacy for the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, chaired the board of state-wide charter authorizer in Colorado, directed research and policy development for the Colorado Children’s Campaign, led national activities for the U.S. Department of Education’s Charter Schools Program, and directed charter school and school choice work for the Education Commission of the States. He has a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Colorado Boulder, and lives in Boulder with his wife and two children.

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