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Five hard truths about charter schools

Many people get too excited about the latest hot education innovation. They lose their sense of perspective. It has happened even to me once or twice. When we wander off like that, we need someone with a sharp intellect and strong character to pull us back to reality.

One such person is Paul T. Hill, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education and John and Marguerite Corbally Professor at the University of Washington Bothell. He has written a short, wise book, "Learning As We Go: Why School Choice is Worth the Wait," which provides the clearest explanations I have seen for why independent public charter schools need more time to develop. Hill believes it is worth waiting for charters to make what he thinks will be widespread positive impact on the quality of education. He thinks they are more promising than a renewed fondness for strengthening bureaucracy and standardizing instruction that seems to be bubbling in some foundations and national advocacy groups.

Hill makes five simple points and more or less devotes a chapter to each. Here is what he says, with some fussing and worrying by me. If you want to add your ideas to these, or explain why these are nonsense, the comments box below awaits.

He talks about what he calls "schools of choice." This includes both vouchers and charter schools, but mostly he means charters.

1. They are hard to run. "Principals from district-run schools are often not ready to make the financing, hiring, firing, admissions, and self-assessment decisions that fall on them" when they move to charters, Hill says. "Some learn but others don't. Those who take the 'my way or the highway' attitude celebrated in district-run schools come into conflict with school founders, parents, and those who had definite reasons for choosing the school."

I get his point, although it does not apply to charter networks that are careful in principal selection and do not pick people who are out of sync with the organization's values and goals. I have visited enough charters to know that most of them, including some with good reputations, do have leadership problems. They seem to go through principals quickly. That's not good.

2. They are demanding places to teach and aren't for everybody. Teachers who move from regular to charter public schools "become partners in an enterprise that must sink or swim depending on performance. Hours, assignments, pay, and job security can't be guaranteed by a deep-pocket school district, but are products of collaborative effort at the school level," Hill says.

That does make it more difficult for charters to grow, but it is pretty much the reason why they have a better chance to raise student achievement than regular public schools, so there is not much to be done about it.

3. They can't complete successfully with district-run public schools unless they get as much money for pupils they educate. "Early hopes that choice would lead to schools that were both cheaper and better ignored the fact that schools of choice must compete for teachers and instructional materials in markets where the prices are set by school districts," Hill says.

Again, this is likely true for most charters, but I know several that do more with less money than the regular schools get. Hill knows much more about the details of school finance than I do, so I will accept the implication that the exceptions to this rule are unimportant.

4. They need to prove themselves on the same tests and other outcome measures as other schools. "Early hopes that charter and voucher schools would be so obviously great that no fine outcome measures would be needed have been dashed," Hill says.

Hmm. HIs assertion is absolutely right, but I don't get his explanation at all. My impression is that both the charter and voucher movements believed that they would have to show student achievement growing to survive.

5. They are hard to reproduce, even when particular schools are successful, and well known. "Organizations trying to run many schools of choice struggle with costs and quality and can reproduce inefficient school district central offices," Hill says.

That's quite true. Hill's book has several suggestions for supporting the growth of charters. These include more funds from innovative school districts, better efforts to recruit recently trained teacher through closer ties with education schools and better state laws to eliminate unnecessary burdens like required union membership for teachers.
No matter what any of us think or say, charters are certain to keep growing as long as so many regular schools continue to stifle educator creativity. Just what they will grow into is difficult to predict, but if I keep taking those baby aspirin maybe I will still be around to see it.

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By Jay Mathews  | April 16, 2010; 5:30 AM ET
Categories:  Trends  | Tags:  Paul T. Hill, charters hard to reproduce, charters hard to run, hard truths about charter schools  
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Next: Brian Betts--a great loss for D.C. schools


This article could not more true...

As a former charter school Principal, it was very difficult to run. What I like about being an adminstrator in a district school is having the support of clearly written protocols and procedures. They were lack in the charter sector.

Posted by: rickyroge | April 16, 2010 8:40 AM | Report abuse

The folks running charter schools could really smart and headhunt in an incredible talent pool- older teachers, mainly women, nearing retirement (or newly retired).

I have taught with many who ran very innovative, successful and challenging programs for years until squashed by top down administrations demanding one-size fits all teaching. Most are still doing outstanding work and their students are passing their high stakes tests. They are already putting in long hours beyond the school day because that is what it takes to achieve that kind of success with their stduents. But, they are unfulfilled in their current positions which offer them little autonomy to use their professional experience, skills and judgement.

Quite a few have told me they would gladly jump to a charter school where they could be productive if their salary and benefits were protected.

Posted by: altaego60 | April 16, 2010 9:54 AM | Report abuse

It's nice to see Mr. Hill is finally seeing the light. He lives in Washington state where his fellow citizens have on multiple times voted down efforts to allow public charter schools.

The state education law allows ample opportunity for public school districts to experiment with innovative learning programs. Like all education programs they are hampered by lack of resources, restrictive union contracts, and federal and state mandated standards for academic outcomes. Unlike charter schools they are also required to educate all students, not just those who choose to walk through the door.

Posted by: speakuplouder | April 16, 2010 12:54 PM | Report abuse

I don't get the questioning of Hill's point four.

If you look at the ratings of states issues by various pro-charter school groups, a requirement that students in charter schools undergo the same testing regimen as regular public schools is generally viewed as a "weakness" in charter school regulations.

As I read your summary, Hill was making a statement against such positions. He seems to be saying (and I agree with him, for what it's worth) that those advocating charter schools should be willing to let their schools be judged by the same measures as other schools, so that their quality can be more directly compared.

Posted by: dfbdfb | April 16, 2010 8:58 PM | Report abuse

"Hours, assignments, pay, and job security can't be guaranteed" ...hmmm, I'm sure excellent teachers will be lining up outside the door with work conditions like that!

Posted by: carriagepa | April 16, 2010 11:05 PM | Report abuse

Many points come to mind after reading this column.

1. Teachers are the focus of blame for nationwide achievement problems but your article has several comments in it that make it clear that student achievement is much more complicated. Teachers in public schools have to work for those principals that are "not ready (able?) to make...hiring, firing...and self-assessment decisions." They have to work for "my way or the highway" administrators whose approach is not in conflict with school 'founders' (school boards, superintendents, town councils). They work in schools that "stifle educator creativity" and have "inefficient central offices."

2. All of this begs for changes to public education administrative style and philosophy as much as change in teacher evaluation and retention. We need national and state leadership on this as it will never come from school districts who believe first in the value of local control.

3. Schools of choice are "demanding places to teach". So are public schools. I have a question here. How many people can really work for years at 50-70 hours per week?

4. Public schools are "deep pocket school districts." Only the wealthy ones.

5. Eliminate the "unnecessary burden of union membership." Well, as a past local union president and contract negotiator, I have a real problem with this being a burden. Union contracts should not prevent school structural change and in my state (Maine), I don't belief that they could. Administration has control over educational policy of which the length of the school day is one. We merely negotiate the impact. Hill apparently advocates more funds be available for innovations and I heartily agree. Several years ago, our district wanted to lengthen the school day for struggling students. We had to apply for a grant to do this and were turned down. Now we want to start a half day pre-school and again need to write a grant proposal. Funds are certainly limited for these proposals so some schools will be able to create needed additional programming and some (also in great need) will not. These are really simple solutions to our district's problem of low achievement in around 35-45% of our students yet we've already lost at one effort and the second is iffy as well.

6. Unions can't get in the way of better organization but at the same time I would never want to give up the benefits of unionism. In Maine, union membership is not required and I feel a good deal of anger towards staff who don't belong yet are quite happy to take the benefits of salaries, health insurance and seniority. I have read that in some schools of choice unions were begun in response to problems similar to public schools---arbitrary administrators and "stifling of educator creativity."

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Posted by: itkonlyyou12 | April 17, 2010 11:05 AM | Report abuse

"That does make it more difficult for charters to grow, but it is pretty much the reason why they have a better chance to raise student achievement than regular public schools, so there is not much to be done about it."

If this is true, why is it that most charter schools in DC have not raised student achievement?

Posted by: Nemessis | April 18, 2010 11:28 AM | Report abuse

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