Wall Street Journal: Why Charter Schools Work

June 25, 2012

Wall Street Journal: Why Charter Schools Work

Accountability for results and freedom from union rules attract the best teachers into the profession.

By DEBORAH KENNY for the Wall Street Journal

Twenty years ago, the country’s first charter school opened in Minnesota. This is a momentous anniversary not just for the two million families who now send their children to public charter schools, but for all Americans. The charter movement is not only about opening charter schools—its goal has always been to fundamentally transform public education in this country.

Critics claim that charter schools are successful only because they cherry-pick students, because they have smaller class sizes, or because motivated parents apply for charter lotteries and non-motivated parents do not. And even if charters are successful, they argue, there is no way to scale that success to reform a large district.

None of that is true. Charters succeed because of their two defining characteristics—accountability and freedom. In exchange for being held accountable for student achievement results, charter schools are generally free from bureaucratic and union rules that prevent principals from hiring, firing or evaluating their own teams.

Freedom without accountability is irresponsible. Like all professionals, educators need to be accountable for the results of their work. Yet accountability without freedom is unfair: How can teachers or principals be held responsible for results if they don’t control decisions about curriculum or teaching methods? Accountability and freedom do not guarantee that a school will provide an excellent education, but they are prerequisites.

A decade ago, I founded Harlem Village Academies, a charter network now consisting of five schools that will soon grow to serve 2,000 students in Harlem. Everything we do is enabled by the charter conditions of freedom and accountability.

Accountability attracts the best teachers into the profession. Smart, driven people want to work in a place that holds them accountable, where they’ll work alongside educators who share their values—first among them, a belief that all children can learn at a high level. It’s exciting to work with talented colleagues who believe enough in their own abilities that they are willing to be held accountable for student learning outcomes.

We give our teachers an enormous amount of autonomy, and that ignites their passion. They feel happier because they no longer have to endure the demoralizing impact of working with people who are lazy, who gossip and complain, or who don’t believe in the potential of the children. Autonomy inspires teachers to be more creative and feel more committed. As one of our reading teachers, Michelle Scuillo, put it: “My old school made me tired and depleted. I understood why so many smart people leave teaching. I have to admit that I stopped putting my best effort into my lessons. I was ready to change professions, which was devastating for me, because in my heart I wanted to be a teacher.”

Working at our school, she told me, “blew my mind. I’m the same person and it’s the same population—even some of the same exact students I used to teach in my old school. Here the culture allows you to be yourself. I feel respected and heard. I’m motivated to make my lessons better.” It’s a message I’ve heard from hundreds of talented teachers who were about to leave the profession before they discovered our school or similar charters.

Talented teachers don’t want to be told exactly what to do and how to do it. So our schools get clear on objectives and get out of the way, allowing teachers to come up with their own ideas and to select whichever practices they think are best.

“Here I am given the opportunity to innovate with projects I never could have done in a bureaucracy,” said one of our art teachers, Mary Ann Paredes. “In my old school I had a feeling of stagnation and lost my intellectual rigor. Here I’ve been invited to explore and learn in a way that is making me more effective. Because the trust level is so high here, it’s easy to be open to admit my frustration and ask for help.”

The road isn’t always smooth. Steve Sebelski, a middle-school math teacher, came to us with several years of experience at a traditional public school. In his first year with us, he struggled with everything from student behavior to lesson planning, confiding in me that he knew his performance was “mediocre at best.”

Our principal had observed Steve struggling but had also gotten to know him during faculty retreats and meetings, and saw that he embraced our values of accountability and hard work. The principal took Steve out for dinner and offered encouragement and practical pointers. “I’ll remember that conversation for perhaps the rest of my life,” Steve later recalled. He went on to become a top performer. Not only did 100% of his eighth-graders score proficient on the state math test, but 100% of those eighth-graders also passed the Algebra Regents exam, which is usually taken by students in high school.

The next year, after working with colleagues to analyze his students’ achievement data, Steve identified a dozen eighth-graders whose grades showed they were at risk of failure. The teachers moved quickly. “We came up with a plan and we knew it would be okay to run with it, because our plan was consistent with our values. We didn’t have to make a proposal and wait a week to get approval. We didn’t have to run it up the flagpole. We had ideas to help the students, and we just did it.” Not one student failed that year.

Every school in this country can and must be filled with teachers like Steve and Michelle. When the union and political forces that are protecting the status quo finally come around to doing what’s best for children, they will find that it is also what’s best for the majority of teachers. Then we will see the best and brightest minds competing for the privilege of working in the teaching profession—a profession that will finally be elevated to its rightful place as the noblest in our nation.

Ms. Kenny, the founder and CEO of Harlem Village Academies, is author of “Born to Rise: A Story of Children and Teachers Reaching their Highest Potential,” out this month from HarperCollins.

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