The Chicago Canary in the National Accountability Coal Mine – How a Lack of Standards Is Now Being Used Against Us

Good day, CharterFolk.

As I recently wrote, 2023 has opened with a number of charter schools being denied renewal by their authorizers. The steady stream has continued over the past week, with schools facing closure in Oklahoma, Massachusetts, Missouri and Pennsylvania, to name but four additional states.

And then we saw this happen.

I call it a Chicago canary in the national accountability coal mine.

Only two out of 18 schools received five-year renewals. Most received two-year renewals. For three schools, it was the first time they have not received five-year renewals since they opened in 1998. District officials cited a wide range of areas where schools’ performance was supposedly not sufficient including test scores, financial performance, special education, english learner programs and student discipline. All of the renewals were conditioned on the schools making immediate progress in different areas, but none were told what all of their areas of deficiency were. All are having their specific conditions communicated to them after the fact.

That’s quite a message: “You’re all being given short conditional approvals. What those conditions are we’ll tell you next week.”

Of course, what the expectations were that the schools failed to meet this time hadn’t been communicated proactively.

It’s essentially a circumstance of CPS being able to say that minimum performance standards are whatever the district feels like in the moment. Or whatever happens to serve its latest political priorities.

It led Christian Feaman of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools to send echoes down the mineshaft:

“We continue to be concerned about the lack of consistency and transparency in the renewal process that moves the bar,” he said, adding, “Renewal terms of less than five years jeopardize the stability of our schools.” 

My point today is not to say that any one of these renewal decisions happening across the United States was particularly wrong. I tend to be significantly firmer on academic accountability matters than a lot of CharterFolk, and I’m not close enough to know each situation at depth. In at least some of the cases, the schools in question have not been contesting the decisions, and advocates have not been expressing concern.

But in others they have been. And these decisions are happening against a national backdrop of widespread political dysfunction and of school districts struggling mightily with their own schools. It’s leading many authorizers, school districts in particular, to act differently today than they have in the past.

That’s what we have to come to terms with in charterland. And it’s my point for writing this post today.

CPS is illustrative.

Enrollment in Chicago is in freefall.

Vast numbers of district schools are vastly under-enrolled.

Many schools are demonstrating a wide range of grave problems …

… and district and union leadership is so at war with one another that a recent debate at an editorial board turned into a finger-pointing yelling match.

Results on state mandated tests are sobering …

… but grades are on the rise.

It leads, not surprisingly, to the state teacher union re-doubling efforts to eliminate the source of information highlighting the disconnect …

… which has turned into the union’s top priority in Springfield this week.

Should the union succeed, and many believe it stands a good chance, it will become even less possible to discern whether any meaningful learning is happening in Chicago schools.

And from this mess, we think that coherent, fair, nonpolitical decisions are going to be made by CPS regarding charter school renewals in the years ahead?

Sadly CharterFolk, the Windy City is, I’m afraid, just a small bird in a massive national shaft.

Schools are inflating grades across the nation.

Apologists for the Establishment try to argue that grade inflation is actually a good thing

… while working hard to rip down evidence that that supposedly good thing is happening.

Entire states have erased coherence from their accountability frameworks …

… and those chickens are now coming home to roost.

Everywhere the specter of large numbers of school closures looms.

And no one can agree on the definition of a decently performing public school.

Preparing kids for college is the 47th highest priority parents have for high schools these days?

Showing kids how to make a meal for themselves and how to balance a checkbook defines what makes a good school?

As I say, Chicago is just a canary in a massive accountability coal mine.

A tiny bird in a giant shaft.

And charter schools stand the greatest risk of being shafted.

Because we are the public schools, more than any other, that need objective standards.

That need a leg to stand on when the world goes crazy around us

That world, unfortunately, is not a conducive environment right now for trying to bring forward coherence in school accountability, but I don’t see how we have any choice but to try.

To begin to assert again a definition for a good public school, and then as best we possible can to build advocacy and political conditions around that definition such that we have firmer ground to stand on when authorizers decide to go arbitrary on us like they’ve done this week in Chicago.

The kind of thing we’re seeing Families in Action do in Oakland right now …

… courageous advocates and other CharterFolk bringing forth the courageous message that is needed to prevent a lack of standards from being used against us, or against any public school that is doing right by kids.

Forty-five years ago I had a discussion about the definition of a good public school that I’ve never forgotten.

It’s given me a good starting point on this topic ever since.

It boils down to eight simple words.

Words I will share with you on Friday.

Hope to see you here.