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What Newsweek's Best High Schools List Says About Charter Schools

As it does every year, Newsweek has taken the liberty of ranking the top 100 high schools in the United States. Of the 100 that made the list, 15 are charter schools. But, as a companion article reports, just because charter schools make up 15 percent of the list, but only 4 percent of total public schools, doesn't mean these experimental hybrids are the answer to our education prayers.

It's rightly noted that the problem isn't the starting of charter schools—as will take place under the rules of the Obama administration's Race to the Top contests—but the fact that unsuccessful ones aren't being shuttered:

If a charter school is failing after three to five years, it is supposed to be closed down, freeing up a slot for another educational entrepreneur. Too often, however, it hasn’t worked out that way. The parents at charter schools are often unaware that the school’s performance lags behind. Some schools stress strengthening a child’s self-esteem or cultural identity and don’t worry about those pesky test scores. “I’ve seen parents fight tooth and nail to keep a failing school open because they thought it was safer than other options,” says Andrew Rotherham of Bellwether Education Partners, a national reform group. “To them, it’s a rational choice.” Public officials forced to vote on closing schools in front of a room full of crying children and mothers are tempted to say, “Let’s give them more time,” particularly if there are no good alternatives.


The piece has a good message for the charter school movement going forward. The key to success isn't non-targeted replication, but rather, springing up in places where previous experiments have failed to offer new and better alternatives—and most of all, to learn from our mistakes. If a school is failing, but creates a safe haven, why not create another haven that operates under a new methodology?

For instance, in Philadelphia, the Microsoft-sponsored School of the Future is struggling to create the technology-driven change that parents had hoped for in terms of continuity of leadership and student outcomes. Rather than shuttering the school altogether and leaving its population out in the cold, why not bring in a new charter regime and see what they can do?

The students are there. The parents are willing. And if the new regime's approach is effective, everyone wins.

Photo (cc) via Flickr user Office of Governor Patrick.

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