What Can Ed Schools Learn from Charters?

by Guest Blogger
June 28th, 2013

This isn’t about governance structures or threatening paradigm shifts. It’s about Chumbawamba.

I’m a middle-of-the-pack mountain biker, and I often ride with the chorus from Chumbawamba’s “I Get Knocked Down” playing in my head:

I get knocked down

But I get up again

You’re never going to keep me down

That started playing in my head as I read CREDO’s new study of charter schools. In CREDO’s 2009 report, charters got knocked down. Now we see that they’ve gotten back up. And since there’s evidence that charter supporters are getting more and more serious about quality, it looks like they won’t be kept down:

Over the five growth periods in this study, we see slow and steady progress in the performance of the charter school sector. The numbers align with the evolving concern over the past five years about charter school quality and, we believe, reflect the serious attention paid to the subject. The dialogue among educators, policy makers, community members and a growing fraction of parents and students has raised awareness and commitment to the academic quality of charter schools. Several charter-related organizations, including operators, authorizers, funders, charter support organizations, and national groups, have taken on the challenge of assuring quality in the sector, in some cases against their own self-interest. The progress reported here is important not only to the charter school movement but as a more general example of school improvement efforts.

For the future charter sector to attain higher performance, more work is needed. Efforts to expand the role of parents as consumers and advocates for high quality education are essential; only when large numbers of families are fully vested and engaged will there be sufficient clout to realize the goal of high quality seats for all charter school students. In addition, charter school operators and their support organizations could emulate the proven practices in the higher performing charter schools….

While the actual degree of autonomy that charter schools enjoy differs from place to place, they typically have more freedom than local [traditional public schools] TPS to structure their operations and allocate resources to address the needs of their students. Even with this decentralized degree of control, we do not see dramatic improvement among existing charter schools over time. In other words, the charter sector is getting better on average, but not because existing schools are getting dramatically better; it is largely driven by the closure of bad schools….

“Flexibility,” ought to be treated as a privilege. Moreover, it is necessary to move beyond the assertion that it is hard to discern quality before a school opens and begin to build evidence about what plans, models, personnel attributes, and internal systems provide signals that lead to high-performing schools. A body of expertise in “picking winners” is vital to the long-run success of the sector….

There is no doubt that care is needed in how closures are handled (witness the District of Columbia and Georgia, both of which closed the same percentage of schools but which resulted in improved performance of the charter sector in DC but flat results in Georgia). But equally obvious is that allowing the closure option to rest unexercised will lead to atrophy of what we have come to view as a singular and unique feature of charter schools. Much like representative democracy, it is critical that when needed, people can “throw the rascals out.”

Contrast this with the new NCTQ study of colleges of education. The vast majority of traditional teacher preparation programs have been knocked down every time NCTQ reviews them. But instead of getting back up—and making research-based changes that would help them stay up—they seem to be digging in.

What if traditional teacher preparation programs took this moment to create a more serious quality agenda? Some may reply that many programs are earnestly crafting changes, but all the chatter sounds suspiciously like what we’ve been hearing for years. NCTQ has now released several such studies; where is the progress? How many universities have closed their teacher preparation programs due to indicators of low quality? How many colleges of education are building bodies of “evidence about what plans, models, personnel attributes, and internal systems provide signals that lead to high-performing” teachers?


(No, this isn’t me. Mountain biker who can’t be kept down from Shutterstock.)


If flexibility ought to be treated a privilege among charter, then perhaps academic freedom ought to be treated as a privilege among teacher preparation programs.

For those charters looking for more ways to improve student achievement—and for those ed schools that would like to stop digging and get up—please become well versed in the science of reading and follow that science to its logical conclusion: a coherent, content-rich, grade-by-grade curriculum. Harry Webb will get you started:

We don’t help children from deprived backgrounds or children of minorities by refusing to teach them what they need to know to be able to access the key sources of information in our societies. This is not in any way empowering. To refuse to teach factual knowledge about Churchill, for example, on the basis of a prejudice against dead, white men is not at all liberating. Rather, it simply prevents children from making sense of texts that require that knowledge.

Now, you may protest that you can always look it up in a dictionary or use reading comprehension strategies to comprehend the text. The former is a recipe for frustration and the latter provides only limited help. Reading a text slowly whilst asking yourself questions is a pretty useless strategy if you cannot answer these questions. It reminds me of the proverbial British tourist who cannot speak the local language and therefore decides to speak more loudly and more slowly.

If you don’t believe me, or if you’ve never heard of these ideas then this is a good place to start. This article explains the impact of the knowledge deficit on children from deprived backgrounds.

The best way to support effective reading is therefore to build the knowledge base of a child. This then forms part of a virtuous circle; as the knowledge base increases then the access to new knowledge available via reading also increases. This also explains why teaching that focuses on reading comprehension strategies rather than background knowledge perpetuates social divisions. The children of middle class parents gain this factual knowledge at home, in spite of their schooling whereas children from deprived background have only the school to rely on and yet the school is refusing to teach them things….

Recommended Reading

The Knowledge Deficit – E D Hirsch Jr

Why don’t students like school? – Daniel T Willingham

Seven myths about education – Daisy Christodoulou



  1. It is funny because this is such a powerful idea (that background knowledge=opportunity) but few in my area have ever heard of it. The irony is that I live in the hyper-liberal community of Eugene, OR where social and environmental justice are at the top of everyone’s list of concerns. It seems like half of the population of this college town have a teaching license or teach in some capacity at the University.

    I just graduated from a teacher licensing program where I was told that content doesn’t matter and that it is all about social justice and learning strategies (the Learning Communities sequence of classes).

    The education policies of liberals who “claim” to want to help the underprivileged are what is holding them down (this is the irony I referenced).

    I moved here because I thought the public schools were some of the best on the west coast. Now that I have a teaching license and I took it upon myself to learn the truth about education, I realize that our local schools are terrible! Huge gaps in the curricula (teachers have been encouraged for decades here to “do their own thing.” No teacher evaluation system (its all about seniority) and the prominence of project-based learning based classrooms.

    I am interested in starting a charter school here in Eugene, so if anyone from the Eugene area reads this blog and would like to get involved, please email me! jcrabbe@gmail.com

    Thanks for another great post Lisa!

    Comment by Jim — June 29, 2013 @ 1:38 pm

  2. Reading this post reminded me of an incident that happened to me upon graduating from college with an education degree. One of the last things I had to do before graduating was to write a letter to the Head of the School of Education expressing why I wanted to be a teacher. I showed the letter to my grandmother who was a retired teacher with a wealth of experience. She looked at the name on the letter and remarked. “Is that Bob Smith?” (Not his real name).
    I answered, “Yes, I believed it was.”
    She replied, “I taught with him years ago. He was one of the worst teachers I have ever known. He had lots of new theories, no classroom management, and his students learned next to nothing.”
    I said, “Well now he leads the entire school of education at a major university.”
    “Well that’s sure a great example of the Peter Principle at work.” She remarked.
    Over the years I have noticed that too many of those that we advance to higher positions in administration and teacher training seem to have gotten there because they are good at sounding like they know what they are talking about while actually knowing next to nothing about how to get results in an actual classroom with real live students.

    Comment by Mary S. — June 30, 2013 @ 1:47 am

  3. Jim’s and Mary’s stories are sadly the reason many public schools in this country are still marginal, at best. They’re also one of the primary reasons for the reforms that have surfaced over the past two decades.

    The feel good, progressive camp still has a stranglehold on what goes on in our schools. As for actual learning; well, that’s been somewhat of an after thought in too many classrooms and schools nationwide.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — July 1, 2013 @ 6:19 am

  4. The question is not what education schools can learn from charters, rather: Do education schools want to learn from charters? The answer, regretfully, is an emphatic no. I can relate disheartening, frustrating, and ghastly anecdotes from my own experiences in ed school. (I came to teaching late, and went through ed school with the abilities of close observation and logical thought.) But E.D. Hirsch himself laid out the answer in “The Making of Americans.” Schools of education do not want informed debate; they do not want a variety of approaches; they do not want academic freedom. They want uniformity, indoctrination, and religious-like fervor. Universities are not about to put a stop to the brain-washing because education schools bring in the big bucks. The relatively low admissions standards guarantee that seats and coffers are full.

    @Jim – Unfortunately, although I live in the West, I’m too far away to help your project. It’s a great one though, as I have watched too many traditional, knowledge-based schools die in the last five years.

    Comment by Miss Friday — July 2, 2013 @ 2:19 pm

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