Traditional or charter schools? Actually, they help each other, study says.

A new study suggests that best practices from charter schools can help student achievement at underperforming public schools. The issue is getting the two to cooperate.

By , Contributor

Charter schools are not a silver bullet for education reform, a new report says, but applying the best practices from some charter schools to low-performing public schools may increase student achievement.

Early data show that the strategy – applied in Houston and Denver pilot programs – yielded “promising” results, according to the report, titled "Learning from the Successes and Failures of Charter Schools" and released Thursday by the Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution.

The study could help improve cooperation between charter schools and traditional schools, which have often viewed each other as competitors. The debate about whether charter schools or traditional schools are more effective is a false one and misses the central point, said secretary of Education Arne Duncan at the Hamilton Project’s education forum Thursday in Washington.

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“The question isn’t: Do we need more charter schools, traditional schools, gifted schools, or magnet schools?” he said. “We need better public schools. Kids don’t know what kind of school they go to. All they ask is, ‘Do I have a good teacher?’ ”

The report focuses on the work that Harvard economics professor Roland Fryer did with the Houston Independent School District (HISD) to develop a pilot program targeting nine of Houston’s lowest-performing middle and high schools in 2010-11 and 11 elementary schools in 2011-12.

Dr. Fryer, who is the faculty director of Harvard’s Education Innovations Laboratories (EdLabs), studied 35 charter schools in New York and discovered the top five practices that separate low- and high-achieving charter schools: (1) extended time at school, (2) strong administrators and teachers, (3) data-driven instruction, (4) small-group tutoring, and (5) creating a “culture of high expectations.”

Fryer and HISD superintendent Terry Grier used grants from the US Department of Education and private funding – together totaling $2,200 per student – to implement the five practices. To meet those goals, the schools:

  1. Extended the academic year by five days and added one hour to each day.
  2. Replaced 53 percent of the teachers and all of the school principals.
  3. Assessed the students every six weeks, reviewed the effectiveness of teaching methods from the data they had gathered, and set new goals.
  4. Gave sixth- and ninth-graders two-on-one math instruction by full-time tutors.
  5. Established a culture of high expectations by posting goals in the classrooms.

Dr. Grier said that fixing low-performing schools is not rocket science. “I’ve never been to a high-performing school that didn’t have a good principal and good teachers,” Grier said at the Hamilton forum.

The report says the test scores, especially for math, increased dramatically (though it did not include the test scores). Fryer calculated that the progress in Houston was equivalent to giving the students an additional 3-1/2 months of math instruction and three weeks of reading instruction. The report shows similar progress for the pilot program in Denver, which began in 2011.

Fryer says he is optimistic that other school districts can adopt these methods and achieve similar results. But there are still barriers that Fryer sees to broader acceptance of his methods.

“The biggest challenge we have right now is: Do we have the right talent?” Fryer says. “Do we have a big enough pool of leaders and teachers who want to do this work? It’s incredibly difficult.”

Part of that work is building cooperation between charter schools and traditional schools. Fryer’s research is helping to transform the debate about charter schools, says Steve Mancini, public affairs director for the charter school network Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP).

“He is bridging the gap between the academic ivory tower and front lines,” says Mr. Mancini. “He takes research and makes it relevant for the neediest kids.”

KIPP’s schools already employ Fryer’s suggested practices and are working with school districts to develop programs and leadership training to introduce successful charter school elements into traditional schools this year. Mancini says this indicates a shifting in policy that is less rigid and more collaborative.

This “cross-pollination” is breaking down the barriers and confrontation that often exist between proponents of strict charter-school methods and proponents of traditional-school methods, says Mitchell Chester, Massachusetts education commissioner.

“We want to make that impermeable wall permeable,” Commissioner Chester says. “What lessons we can learn and share so that we can start to think about models that don’t fit neatly into one camp or another.”

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