The advantage of charter schools is that they are free from district policies and practices and can design a better education for their students. The disadvantage…
In fact, on the whole, charter schools don't provide a significant advantage to students – and the primary reason is that same freedom. Charter schools, left to go it alone, don't benefit from the knowledge of public schools. They also lack the same level of accountability – which seems to result in charter schools either being excellent or terrible, with little in between. Charter schools have also been accused of "skimming" students – taking only the best ones and not putting in an effort to help others, as well as of favoring white students. How can charter schools be improved?
1. Accountability and Feedback
Charter schools need to pay attention to parents – and the best way is to include elected parent representatives on the board. Although this may cut into charter school profits in the short term, in the long term a school that listens to parents (and in the older ranges students) is likely to improve in quality – and thus attract more students. The idea of an accountable board may attract parents in the first place.
2. Setting Standards
Chain charter schools can have an advantage here, with the ability to make use of data from multiple schools. A better alternative is charter school associations, trading data on student outcomes and sharing the results of educational experiments that either worked or did not work.
3. Focusing on the Educational and Other Needs of Students
Charter schools may do better when they work towards attracting a specific type of student – whether it be "magnet" type focus on arts or math or one on low income/disadvantaged students. Because parents choose to send their students to a charter school, the school need not try to be all things, but can specialize. However, it is very important to avoid, for example, the tendency of some charter schools to become segregated (which is bad for the school population and the area it serves). It's also worth noting that charter schools seem to have particular benefits for students from poor households and students who have English as a second language.
4. Improve Teaching
Nationally, charter school teachers tend to be cheaper – less experienced, less likely to hold proper certification. Investing in good teaching staff is the easiest (if not the cheapest) way to improve outcomes. Paying teachers better will also reduce teacher turnover, which can increase expenses and affect the ability of students to learn to respect their teachers. (The turnover rate in charter schools is double that of traditional public schools). A charter that hires and retains better teachers and advertises the fact is also going to attract more parents – and more committed parents who will help their children succeed.
5. Take Steps to Mitigate the "First Year Effect"
Students that transfer to a charter school have a decline in academic growth during the first year. The reasons are not clear – but a likely solution involves developing a welcoming community that puts new students at ease and providing new students with a mentor to help them adjust to what can be a very different learning environment. Pairing new students with older ones in a mentorship program can also help the older students develop vital skills that will help them later in life.
Charter schools, like public schools, can fail – and the very freedom which makes them valuable can be part of the reason they do not succeed. Because of this, charter school boards and administrators owe their students the effort to ensure that they provide the best quality education possible.
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