CharterFolk Contributor Alex Medler – Political Defensiveness Undermines the Charter Sector Recovery’s Great Engine of Innovation and a Possible New Authorizer/Charter Dynamic

Good morning, CharterFolk.

Today I’m delighted to share with you a thoughtful Contributor Column from Alex Medler, the Executive Director of the Colorado Association of Charter School Authorizers.

I provide a brief bio for Alex below.

Alex Medler directs the Colorado Association of Charter School Authorizers. He previously led the National Charter School Resource Center and directed policy, research, and technical assistance initiatives for the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA); the Colorado Children’s Campaign; the U.S. Department of Education’s Charter Schools Program; and the Education Commission of the States. He is a founding board member and former chair of the board of the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools and founded and chaired the board of the Colorado Charter School Institute.

I will add that I have always found Alex’s constant agitation for charter school improvement to be a source of great new ideas and perspective. I thank him for challenging us all again with some novel ways of thinking about the challenges that confront us. Let get straight to it.

Political Defensiveness Undermines the Charter Sector Recovery’s Great Engine of Innovation and a Possible New Authorizer/Charter Dynamic

Two great strengths of charter schools are their abilities to course-correct and to engage in continuous improvement. Using their flexibility, autonomy, and mission focus, many charters are exemplary learning organizations. This educational superpower comes from the charter schools’ institutional habit of honestly and regularly looking at how they are doing and asking what they need to do differently.

As we enter the pandemic recovery, this ability is more important than ever. It will help the charter movement recover. Charters will use their superpower to identify the students who need special support, and they will try bold new things and examine and reflect on how their innovations are working. Many charter schools will be positioned to identify their challenges accurately and adapt and implement impressive recovery strategies. This insight and adaptability should produce charter exemplars that show promising paths for all of public education.

Too many charter and district-run schools floundered during the pandemic and will continue to struggle in the recovery. And even among the best schools, there will be too many students who personally struggled, whom they must identify and help.

Charter school authorizers should identify whether schools are thriving or struggling, and they are talking about ways to support schools that need help. The lack of testing data and general disorder have interrupted authorizers’ accountability systems, making it unlikely that authorizers will have the data or will to close schools for the next few years. Instead, I work with many charter school authorizers looking for ways to change their relationships with charter schools. They assume closing schools based on performance will be very unlikely for the next few years. They want ways to identify which schools have struggled and strategies that allow them to understand a schools’ needs so they may support improvement efforts. This crisis-induced change in orientation could produce lasting effects and permanently alter the charter/authorizer relationships in significant — and possibly very constructive — new ways.

But the current political environment for charters, with its unceasing and non-reality-based attacks, is creating a climate of defensiveness among the sector’s leaders that threatens to undermine our engines of success. I observe charter leaders and their advocates suppressing discussion of the extent of the challenges all schools face and talk of individual schools’ struggle to fulfill their mission and meet public obligations. When general challenges or a particular school’s struggles are mentioned, there are hushed pleas that we avoid the issue, lest charter opponents use the discussion as ammunition against the charter sector in policy debates or authorizers use the information to close a school unjustly.

Unfortunately, when the sector’s self-reflective and course-correcting orientation is most desperately needed, political conditions may undermine our ability to leverage it.

I believe the threats of closure are extremely over-stated in the current data environment. Even when testing returns, it will take a few years before we have valid growth data, and we still will not know what is fair to expect of performance. Schools will also argue, with considerable validity, that they lost all their pedagogic flexibility, so how dare authorizers maintain the accountability side of the “accountability-for-flexibility bargain?”

The policy debates have never been heavily influenced by good or bad activity in charter schools. They appear to be driven by our opponents’ data-free, ideological commitments. Charter leaders should embrace, rather than fear, the messy work going on in schools or the outreach by authorizers seeking new kinds of relationships and new approaches to accountability.

I urge charter folk to resist the impulse toward political defensiveness. Instead, embrace the adaptability of the charter concept and honestly face the challenges of the next few years as a chance to innovate and to support those who need assistance. Helping all students succeed in this new environment could change charter-authorizer relationships in ways that require more openness – something that makes many in the charter sector uncomfortable.

As the absence of high-stakes data reduces the authorizers’ ability to exercise high-stakes decisions, both our data and our actions will likely transition. We are entering a period of low-stakes data informing low-stakes actions. Authorizers hope to add broader arrays of information and more qualitative data on student engagement and well-being. This “softer” data will likely inform different dynamics between charter schools and authorizers. The authorizers I work with regularly discuss how to support continuous improvement by the schools they are responsible for. This change could be a bold innovation in the sector — if we can be trusting and honest enough to figure out how to use it.

All schools face tremendous challenges due to the pandemic, and recovery will require years of hard work. While many charter schools will rise to this challenge, some will struggle and need support. Other schools will look o.k. but leave some students behind. An equitable and thorough recovery will require courage and candor. The more honest and reflective we can be, the greater likelihood that the sector will meet this challenge with dramatic success. We should not let our political insecurity get in the way.