Schools That Speak Their Very Own Language – Why Charter Schools Really Succeed With Students

Weekend’s greetings, CharterFolk.

My day job workload has been such that lately I’ve only been able to get my second post done over the weekends, as is the case this week. It’s not ideal I recognize. I thank you for your understanding.

Meanwhile, I also thank Debbie Beyer for her great Contributor Column this week.

In addition to bringing a fundamentally unapologetic spirit to the work, Debbie recognizes the importance of engaging her own community on the reasons for their unapologetic-ness. Having been to Literacy First myself, I have seen the power of the organization’s incredibly strong culture.

But cultures don’t just happen. They are made.

Literacy First People are engaged and educated and encouraged and supported in hopes that they will become Literacy First Folk, in the same way that we engage and educate and encourage and support all Charter School People in hopes that they will become CharterFolk.

It’s one of the most important things we are doing right now – re-engaging our own world about why we bring a spirit of unapologetic-ness to the work. So I thank Debbie once again for having contributed such a thoughtful and timely post.

Schools that Speak their Own Language

I also wanted to highlight a great national story that was published this week that touches upon many of the themes we have been exploring here at CharterFolk of late:

The New Yorker’s piece on Yu Ming.

It features Sue Park, the school’s Executive Director, who we recognized as CharterFolk X a few years back.

It also quotes Reggie Lee, Yu Ming’s Board Chair, who we heard from during the CSP fight.

It touches upon the heartbreak that is Oakland Unified …

… while including a look at Piedmont Unified’s effort, after years of walling itself off as a segregated enclave, to start enrolling kids from Oakland Unified now that Piedmont is experiencing enrollment loss.

An article from a progressive-leaning publication like the New Yorker actually included the following statement:

But the district-versus-charter question rarely splits itself neatly between the haves and the have-nots. According to the O.U.S.D.’s 2022 enrollment overview, the neighborhoods with the highest percentage of kids enrolled in charter schools are mostly poorer minority areas in West and East Oakland. A slightly higher percentage of kids in Oakland charters qualify as “socioeconomically disadvantaged” than in the O.U.S.D. The areas where parents are least likely to send their kids to a charter are the whiter, wealthier neighborhoods in the north part of the city. Chabot Elementary, situated in one of the richest neighborhoods in Oakland, for example, has a lower percentage of socioeconomically disadvantaged students than Yu Ming; last school year, Piedmont’s Havens Elementary had exactly eight students—less than one per cent of the school—who qualified for free or reduced-price lunch. Both are district schools. It’s hard, then, to craft a particularly convincing argument that charters like Yu Ming should bear an undue amount of blame for inequality within the public-school system.

It’s like a breath of fresh air!

Reading it brings me back to something that I learned from Yu Ming that relates to the question that Michael Petrilli and David Griffith’s surfaced earlier this month.

Why is it that many charter schools perform better than many traditional public schools?

It’s a question we get asked repeatedly, and generally I think we give wrong answers, or only partially right ones, because of the pressure we feel from the people who pose them and who bring built-in biases to their inquiry.

In their piece, Mike and David surface practices that research has shown to be particularly important to urban charter schools’ success with students :

  • Evidence-based methods
  • More representative teaching staffs
  • Accountability to authorizers that close under-performers

All these things are important, no doubt.

I myself have contributed to studies that have done the exact same thing …

… studies that have offered a catalogue of practices that are in someway unique to, or at least are more regularly adhered to by effective charter schools.

But stripped down, I don’t think these answers get to the heart of the matter.

And when pressed, many of us shy away from articulating the fundamental truth because we know the ire our deeper response will provoke.

One of the best examples illuminating these dynamics occurred over a decade ago.

It was right after Diane Ravitch had published her latest hit piece against charter schools.

And Terry Gross, playing the role of dutiful, predictable progressive …

(I’m sorry, CharterFolk, I love Terry Gross, but her interviewing on this topic made her come across like a long-time resident of Piedmont.)

… had Ravitch on Fresh Air.

To her credit, at least Gross gave our side airtime too, and to our great fortune, she chose Andy Rotherham to represent our point of view.

And when asked, and then pressed, for more specificity about what it is that really makes many charter schools more effective than many traditional public schools, Andy offered the following:

And I’m not trying to be deliberately vague, but I’ll say the thing is – and that you can do this in traditional public schools, too, it’s nothing magic about charters – it’s intentionality. The very best schools, they’re intentional about everything they do. They’re intentional about who is in the building, who is teaching, how they use data, what’s happening for students, the experience for students, the support for students, the curriculum, how progress is assessed. Everything is intentional, and nothing is left to chance.

That’s, again, nothing to do with the charter, as much as simply the freedom to sort of build that kind of community. And too often in traditional public schools, whether it’s through inertia and the buildup of regulations, whether it’s through different various rules in contracts or state law, things happen in different ways that aren’t as intentional.

When you’re in the best schools – again, whether they’re charter schools or traditional public schools – that intentionality about everything they do, it is inescapable. And that is more important, Terry, than the particular method. You can be in schools that have different educational philosophies and are very good schools, but what they have in common is that intentionality.

Having been offered a deeper, more disquieting truth about why many charter schools succeed and why, sadly, many traditional public schools cannot, Gross pivots to her next question, which comes across as more of an accusation than a query:

Have you given up on public schools?

You see?

So often researchers, journalists, policy makers and others come to the question of why charter schools succeed in ways that district schools don’t with a built-in bias presuming that, if a best practice is identified by a charter school, any school district could easily just adopt it. When often, sadly, just the opposite is the case. And when you have the integrity to stick to your guns as Andy did in his moment with Terry Gross, suddenly your whole commitment to public education is called into question.

Intuitively, many of us CharterFolk sense that these are the underlying dynamics at play when we are asked this question, so we don’t go to that deeper level of critique as often as we should.

For others of us, we simply haven’t made the recognition yet.

For me, I remember my visit to Yu Ming being a key moment helping me put my finger on what Andy had so wisely pointed out:

Intention matters.

Collective intention really matters.

The deep buy in, the deep belief of all connected to a school …

… is often the biggest difference maker of all.

Sometimes the intention can be strong enough to lead to the creation of programs that are so unique that a visitor often literally doesn’t understand at first what he or she is seeing.

Like what I saw at Yu Ming.

There I found myself in kindergarten classes where, using every context clue and other hint I could find, I literally had no idea even vaguely what was going on.

But it wasn’t just the Mandarin that left me grasping for understanding.

It was all the other details of the school that Sue acquainted me with – the classroom environments, the approach to discipline, the method for recruiting and training teachers, the school’s governance and their way of engaging parents, they way they used every inch of their diminutive schoolyard during recess, the after school programs they offered.

Everywhere I turned I saw school practices and characteristics that needed to be translated for me every bit as much as the Chinese characters on the wall.

By that time, I had literally visited hundreds of charter schools. Driving home after my visit to Yu Ming, I finally made the connection:

The charter schools that I had visited over the years that had exuded intention so profusely that I had to ask what was going on were the schools that I invariably came away thinking were the strongest.

It was like the schools had developed their own languages.

And that more than anything else led to what I saw on abundant display at Yu Ming.

For years now, I have been writing about the needs hierarchy for greatly more public education

… and how sadly, so much of public education’s hierarchy resembles a broken, jangled mess.

Those schools that are able to assemble the essential pieces invariably start with deep foundations of Values and Agency.

Agency is nothing more than the state of having the authority to enact intention.

And Agency alone, of course, is not enough.

I have been in many charter schools that have had the Agency but haven’t used it wisely, and so their schools have struggled.

I have also been in many traditional public schools that have found ways to overcome constraints to generate the level of Agency needed to thrive. Most often these are public schools in more affluent areas like Piedmont where parent pressure ensures that schools have the Agency they need to offer programs that are far more coherent and high quality than we see in other places.

But generally, charter schools are set up to have greater Agency, and generally, traditional public schools are set up to have less Agency than is needed to express intention.

And as a country, we undervalue intention’s importance. Often we have to look outside the United States for understanding.

Noted international education researcher John Hattie keeps a famous list of 252 factors affecting education outcomes. The factor most closely resembling intention, what he calls “collective teacher efficacy,” the shared belief that students can be positively affected …

… is the single highest impact factor, by a wide margin.

It reflects the unique circumstance that independent schools – private schools serving families well off enough to afford tuition – cite as their number one advantage:

Simply having the agency to do what they know works!

Imagine that.

The number one thing that the wealthy are buying when they enroll their kids in private schools is the privilege to be served in settings where faculties are given the Agency they need to implement programs they believe in!

Settings that are effectively out of the reach of meddling and debilitating policy makers and regulators and bureaucrats and union leaders whose influence consistently undermines a school’s ability to act with intention.

On the policy front, if anything, things are moving in exactly the wrong direction.

Recent attacks against charter schools at national …

… state …

… and local levels …

… strike at the heart of our schools’ ability to act with intention.

And policies that would help traditional public schools get additional Agency are nowhere to be seen.

It is why we forge on with our advocacy efforts, CharterFolk.

To benefit our own form of public schools, in the beginning, of course.

But, ultimately, to benefit them all.

Coda – The First Literacy of Excellent Public Schools

It was during was my first or second year at CCSA, well more than a decade now, that I made my first visit to Literacy First.

The memory of it remains clear in my mind to this day.

Two things struck me.

The first was the volume of writing that kids were doing every day across all aspects of the curriculum in classroom after classroom. Hours and hours of writing every week.

At Literacy First they take very seriously the idea that literacy comes first.

The second thing that struck me was the level of buy-in expressed by faculty member after faculty member, a level of unapologetic intent to do things their own way that infused the culture of the school.

Go there today. You’ll see what I’m talking about.

It’s why it came as no surprise to me to learn last year …

… that of all public schools in San Diego County, Literacy First was among the very few to remain in-person through the entire 2020-21 school year.

Literacy First …

… like Yu Ming …

… like every excellent charter school …

… and yes like the many traditional public schools that push through resistance to become excellent schools too …

… above all else …

are intentional.

It’s their first literacy.

The literacy needed to create schools that speak their very own language.