Charter schools are not the sole fix for the inequitable state of education in the country, but a recent report shows they are achieving success worth learning from. The
Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) recently released a report of urban charter schools throughout the country, including those in Memphis and Nashville. Here in Tennessee, the research results are strong for charter schools, with each city’s charters earning large gains in both reading and math. These results are long-needed proof points of the possibilities for students who have been educated in a system that is seemingly designed to work against them. If they’re having success when their peers are not, we should find a way to work with them. Of the 41 urban areas that were part of the study, Nashville charter students posted the fifth-highest gains in reading compared to their peers in district-run schools. In fact,
this past year, nearly 40 percent of the Rewards Schools in Davidson County (the top 5 percent of schools for performance and the top 5 percent of schools for year-over-year progress) were charter schools where over 90 percent of the students enrolled are considered low-income. Memphis showed promising gains among its charter schools as well with 73 percent of them outperforming traditional district-run schools.
Speaking as a Teacher
As a former English teacher in both traditional and charter schools in Tennessee, I can speak personally to experiencing a vastly different set of expectations, academic rigor and general accountability for both teachers and students in these settings. The academic strength of the charter school I taught at was remarkably high compared to my former district school; I used many of my materials from teaching ninth graders specifically for my new eighth grade students. At this charter school, every single teacher and administrator truly believed that students could achieve whatever they set their minds to. In many of the charter schools that ended up as Rewards Schools in Tennessee, this sort of
growth mindset is fundamental to the success of the teachers and the students. So while naysayers argue and critics debate the effectiveness and role of charters, it’s clear these schools are, in many ways, showing what’s possible for
all kids. This isn’t to say that I haven’t seen this approach in district schools. In my experience, however, it often seems to be held by individual teachers and teams as opposed to being a schoolwide mantra. I worked with one English teacher at a district high school in Nashville whose students have already grown 1.3 years in reading in one semester, but that teacher will be leaving her district school for a charter next year. Presumably, she wants a place where she is not alone in achieving this growth and instilling these mindsets in students.
Learning From Success
While not all charter schools are created equal, perhaps there is something to be learned from those that are consistently showing results. And if urban charter schools are performing dramatically better than the traditional schools in the same cities, why
aren’t we learning from them? There are many misguided criticisms claiming that we can’t replicate successful charter strategies in district schools because charters dismiss students with special needs, lack accountability, or kick out students and send them back to traditional schools. This was not my experience in any way. In fact, the school I worked at had a higher special education population than many of its traditional counterparts. Furthermore, the CREDO report illustrated that traditional schools and charter schools in both cities have comparable English-language learning, special education and low-income populations. Nashville charter schools actually serve 91 percent low-income students, whereas the city’s traditional schools serve 72 percent low-income students. The debate about charter schools has been both heated and volatile in recent months, particularly in Tennessee where charter growth has been exponential and the education world has become more polarized. But even while weighing the criticisms, it’s worth considering the possible changes schools can make to mimic the success of these charter schools.
Liz is a writer and educational equity advocate who lives in Nashville, Tennessee.