CharterFolk Contributor Jack McCarthy – Are We Ready for a Reboot?

Hello CharterFolk!

Today we are pleased to share a contributor column from Jack McCarthy, CEO of AppleTree Institute for Education Innovation in Washington, D.C.

Jack McCarthy, CEO of AppleTree Institute for Education Innovation

I provide Jack’s bio below.

Jack McCarthy is CEO of AppleTree Institute for Education Innovation in Washington, DC. As a social entrepreneur at the intersection of education research, policy, and practice since 1993, he’s combined experience in business and politics with a reformer’s sense of urgency about the consequences of America’s failure to educate all children to high standards. Jack was inducted into the District of Columbia Public Charter Schools Hall of Fame in 2018.

After working for a Member of Congress during and after college, then as a campaign professional early in his career, Jack worked at Boston Bay Capital, Inc., a provider of equity for historic properties. Jack’s experience in project financing led him to his career change to education reform when, as a volunteer co-founder of Boston Renaissance Charter School in 1994, he was responsible for developing and financing a $14 million facility. Bearing witness to that school’s first enrollment lottery, and the deep disappointment of the families of the 1,000 students that were not selected, revealed the compelling need to increase the number of quality schools in a deeply personal way.

Jack co-founded AppleTree Institute for Education Innovation in 1996 and advocated key improvements to the DC School Reform Act related to facilities financing and charter terms. Jack and his colleagues created a charter school incubator in Washington, DC that launched three, quality DC public charter schools educating middle and high school students. In 2001, AppleTree created an innovative tuition-free laboratory preschool in Southwest DC, a precursor to the launch of the AppleTree Early Learning PCS network in 2005. Under Jack’s leadership, both AppleTree nonprofits have grown in impact and size to a $28 million enterprise with 300 staff and a growing impact on early learning research, policy and practice both in the Nation’s Capital and nationally. AppleTree won a prestigious US Department of Education Investing in Innovation grant for its evidence-based instructional model Every Child Ready in 2010. Twenty percent of preschool and pre-kindergarten classrooms in Washington, DC today are operated by AppleTree or use evidence-based curriculum, professional learning, and tools developed by AppleTree.

Jack attended Northeastern University and is a graduate of American University’s School of Public Affairs in Washington, DC. He has a certificate in strategic management and governance of charter schools from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. Jack serves as an adjunct professor in education policy in the School of Public Affairs at American University. He is a member of the Leadership Greater Washington Class of 2015 and serves on the board of the DC Special Education Cooperative. Two District of Columbia Mayors (Gray and Bowser) have appointed him to serve on the District of Columbia Early Childhood Development Council. Jack is a member of the Society for American Baseball Research. He is married to Elaine McCarthy and has two sons, Liam and Christian.

Are We Ready for A Reboot?

I appreciate Jed Wallace providing me with the opportunity to add my voice to the CharterFolk newsletter.

My organization, AppleTree Institute for Education Innovation, works at the intersection of early childhood education research, policy, and practice in Washington, DC which, besides being the Nation’s Capital, is also one of America’s most dynamic charter school sectors.

I have been involved with school reform and charter schooling since 1993. I had the honor to be involved with creating first generation charter schools in both Massachusetts and the District of Columbia.

I’ll never forget the experience of my first charter school lottery at the Josiah Quincy School in the Chinatown section of Boston during the founding of Boston Renaissance Charter School. There were roughly 1600 families competing for 600 seats that night. As each name was pulled out of a box and written onto a class list posted on the wall of a gymnasium filled with a diverse set of families, small groups of people would leap up laughing and clapping, joyful that they’d been chosen.

I also remember how nearly one thousand people gasped and some began to cry when the final name was announced that night. I found myself with tears in my eyes as I experienced how important it was to increase the number of quality school choices. That’s when I became a charterfolk.

As you read my words, you are probably worrying about the news we just heard from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as The Nation’s Report Card. For the first time, math scores declined and reading scores plummeted. This is a stark and compelling confirmation of what we feared could result from the pandemic.

Like you, I’m trying to absorb the full effect of this news and wondering whether others will see this as a critical inflection point in public education.

Americans’ faith in public education is at an all-time low of 26%. There is a stark difference between how Democrats and Republicans view public education with 43% of Democrats having faith in the system while only 14% of Republicans do.

Overall enrollment has declined 3% nationwide, while charter school enrollment grew 7% and homeschooling rates tripled during the pandemic.

Are we seeing a fundamental change in the predominant method of schooling in the midst of parental frustration, political upheaval, and more respectable alternatives?

The definition of madness, I’m told, is doing the same thing over and over again while expecting a different result. As charterfolk, we must ask ourselves whether this is a moment when what we’ve learned during the past 30 years might be brought to a broader audience to raise the trajectory of learning for millions of children currently stuck in failing schools?

How charter schools act in the pivotal next 5-10 years will matter. Momentum is critical. Forging new ground is essential. Serving new kids is possible. Having even higher leverage impact is vital.

Back to the Nation’s Report Card: Washington, DC’s NAEP scores improved during the past fifteen years.

There are three reasons for this: (1) Mayoral control of public education took responsibility away from a sometimes corrupt and often ineffective Board of Education, (2) A vibrant charter sector educates 50% of the students enrolled in public schools, and (3) A robust school choice program provides federally-funded scholarships for 1800 children each year.

But there is a fourth reason that could be the biggest difference: the District of Columbia makes robust public investments in early learning, half of which is delivered through charter preschools.

My biggest takeaway from public education in the past 30 years is that diversity in governance, finance, and program delivery models makes a huge difference in improving education.

There is strong evidence that public education’s predominant district governance, finance, and program delivery system is irreversibly broken and obsolete. And stronger evidence that people have lost confidence in its ability to educate students to high standards.

In the last 40 years, the most successful K-12 public education reform innovation has been charter schools.

As charterfolk know, the “charter bargain” provides greater freedom in exchange for greater accountability for results. Charters are based on promises made and promises kept. Funds can be carried over from one year to another. They are mission-driven organizations that measure their efficacy in terms of outcomes rather than inputs. Charter schools work because they are schools that teachers and parents both choose to attend. There is power in school choice.

Early childhood education has a different set of challenges. While Nobel Prize winning economist James Heckman argues with convincing research that early childhood investments make the greatest impact on life outcomes, there are few early childhood programs that have the quality or measure the kinds of outcomes that produce those life changes.

Why is that? Most early childhood programs provide early care versus early learning. They are designed for the convenience of adults as they work, as opposed to being designed to support child development and early learning. Head Start’s origin story was much more aspirational.

As a result, early childhood education programs tend to be funded for care, not learning. Unlike public education, most funding for early childhood programs comes from federal programs or parents. There are a growing number of state PreK programs, but per early childhood capitations tend to be 50% of what per student public education funding runs.

Since early childhood programs lack strong teaching and learning; most do not measure improvements in language, vocabulary, math, and social-emotional learning.

Instead, other things that are easier to measure serve as proxies for outcomes. Early childhood programs measure structural quality (inputs) and process quality which includes the types of interactions that occur throughout the day between the teachers, children, families, and administrators. Process quality also considers the types of materials that are available for the children to use, as well as the activities that children engage in throughout their day. Lastly, process quality takes into account the health, well-being, and safety of the children.

For a variety of reasons early childhood programs and elementary schools tend to be like Venus and Mars in terms of teacher preparation, levels of funding, and measuring progress. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Could American public education be ready for a reboot?

I believe that evidence-based early childhood education, designed to provide children with the language, vocabulary, math, and social-emotional skills that kindergarten teachers expect from the incoming students can dramatically raise the trajectory of learning. I have seen it in action.

There tends to be bipartisan support for early childhood education.

What if we could energize charterfolk to collaborate with early childhood providers to blend the best of both worlds into something that is transformational?

My idea is to encourage the development of charter preschools at scale and involve the current Head Start and child care community based organizations to partner with charter schools to create new early learning pathways that build cognitive and non-cognitive skills and measure progress so that all children enter kindergarten ready to thrive.

Funding from the federal charter schools replication program could fuel the startup and expansion costs. States could create incentives for CBO/charter school partnerships.

As charter preschools, the concentration would be on child outcomes. Structural quality could be stipulated through authorizing. Process quality is still important, measured through instruments like Teachstone’s CLASS (Classroom Assessment Scoring System), but creating a broader market for measurement would provide opportunities for better play-based measures of learning, which is more valuable and consistent with early childhood education, but more expensive and difficult to implement currently.

For early childhood education to deliver on the promise of providing school readiness at scale the following things are essential:

  • Predictable levels and flows of public funding that are sufficient to employ and support well-educated teachers in safe, clean, and suitable learning environments that support the conditions in which young children can play and learn.
  • Evidence and play-based whole-school instructional approaches that engage children in exploration and learning that are well-thought through, based on high standards, and that both new and more experienced teachers can learn and implement effectively.
  • Ways of measuring progress in teaching and learning that are integrated into practice and that provide teachers, parents, and instructional leaders with an understanding of what is working and what requires improvement.

The measurement of inputs versus outcomes is the most compelling argument for designing, funding, operating, and measuring progress in preschool programs through a charter funding model because child outcomes matter if we expect preschool to “level the playing field” for children who are starting from behind in terms of language, vocabulary, or background knowledge.

One of the reasons that much of the current early childhood education sector tends to be low quality and unsustainable is the way that federally funded programs emphasize inputs, and their monitoring systems micromanage and follow the inputs and dollars versus the outcomes.

From my perspective, the charter bargain offers the greatest potential for improving the quality of early childhood teaching and learning. Moreover, it actually provides a proven structure for building onto the current public system of schooling. Finally, well-designed and executed authorizing processes could offer opportunities to existing providers: Head Start and Child Care providers to partner with preschools to design exciting and effective new models that feature wrap-around services and robust teaching and learning.

There are lots of concerns that advocates of both sectors would have that could be worked out through pilots and collaboration, but the benefits for greater, more consistent funding, measuring outcomes instead of inputs, and elevating the professionalism of the early childhood education workforce would be a win-win-win for children, early childhood educators, and schools.

It could bring extraordinary benefits to children across America. Are we ready for a reboot?