In his keynote address on Tuesday at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools' 13th Annual National Charter School Conference, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan highlighted YES Prep's partnerships with Houston districts, our founder, Chris Barbic's, work in Tennessee, and our future ventures. Below are some excerpts from his speech:
A lot has changed since I spoke here four years ago. I want to use this opportunity both to reflect on the theme of your conference — “Delivering On the Dream” — and to ask you to think ahead about what the charter movement should seek to accomplish in the next 20 years.
In the last two decades, charter schools have had some extraordinary accomplishments. And yet, we all know the dream of the charter movement is not yet a dream fulfilled.
Topping the list of those extraordinary accomplishments is that high-performing charters have irrefutably demonstrated that low-income children can and do achieve at high levels. I can’t tell you how much that means to me personally.
In rigorous, randomized studies, high-performing charters have shown that great schools close both opportunity and achievement gaps. You have helped debunk the insidious myth that poverty is somehow destiny and that schools don’t really matter much. High-performing charters are one more proof positive that, as President Obama says, “the best anti-poverty program around is a world-class education.”
… This work is not for the faint of heart. It takes courage and passion. It takes smarts and expertise. It takes a tenacious commitment. And it takes leadership. You can’t have a great school without great leaders and great teachers.
The charter school movement has delivered on that part of the dream—you’ve shown what is possible. And you have shown that you can provide choice for families and parents where no choice previously existed.
During the first decade of the charter movement, charter operators had to fight what seemed like a daily battle to open up schools, and find space and secure funding. But charters are no longer a boutique movement of outsiders to the educational establishment. America now has more than 6,000 charter schools, serving about 2.3 million students. Almost four percent of students nationwide attend charters — and in some cities, like here in Washington, D.C. — more than 40 percent of students are enrolled in charters.
Many high-performing charters have long wait lists of families — and that story is inspirational and heartbreaking at the same time. But the expansion of educational choice is also a part of the dream where charters have delivered.
Yet if we are honest, much of the promise of the charter movement still remains unfulfilled.
When I spoke at your national conference four years ago, the first CREDO study had been released just days beforehand. At the time, the charter movement was on the defensive. Four years later, the picture is brighter.
CREDO’s new study, released just last week, shows a significant improvement in charter quality from 2009 to 2013. And charters have especially boosted learning for black students in poverty and Hispanic English language learners. Compared to similar peers in traditional public schools, low-income black students at charter schools gain an additional 29 days of learning in reading and 36 days in math per year. That is a meaningful impact. And Hispanic ELL students make even bigger gains—50 days of learning, or 10 weeks, in reading, and 43 days of learning in math. The CREDO study also shows that charters in several cities and a number of states are far out-performing comparable traditional public schools.
…Yet like so many studies of charter schools, the CREDO analysis tells a good news-bad news story. It shows enormous variation in performance…On average, charter students in Pennsylvania, Oregon, Texas, Arizona, Arkansas, and Ohio lose a month to two months in learning each school year. Nevada is even worse — charter students lose more than 100 days of learning a year.
…Now, charters are also supposed to be laboratories of innovation — they were to be the R&D wing of public education.
And while charters have pioneered a number of critical innovations, too many charters still look like traditional public schools — instead of developing and adapting cutting-edge, science- and research-based innovations to accelerate learning.
The bottom line is that the charter school brand has to stand for quality, accountability, cost-efficiency, and transparency. As far as the public is concerned, charter schools all have the same last name.
So to fully deliver on the dream, charters schools must do more to take innovation to scale and continue to tackle the very toughest educational challenges…Thankfully, the charter sector now has incredible opportunities to innovate and take educational solutions to scale over the next 20 years. As President Obama has said, charter schools can be “incubators of innovation.”
…To make success the norm, I believe the charter sector will undergo a slow but profound shift of mindset. Charters will still be incubators of innovation. But they will no longer just be outsiders knocking at the door of the traditional school system. To deliver on the dream, charters will become less like combatants in the battles over education and more like co-conspirators for change with traditional public schools. A new report from the Center for Reinventing Public Education discusses the real challenges to collaboration but also the progress that some cities are making in working together.
This shift toward collaboration is already underway in the charter sector. I see it in the partnerships that YES College Prep has formed with the Houston and Aldine school districts, and in KIPP’s partnerships in Houston.
I see it in the new book from three Uncommon Schools leaders, Great Habits, Great Readers, which helps codify their schools’ K-4 reading taxonomy in the hope that it can help all elementary schools address the Common Core.
And I see it in the groundbreaking collaboration of Roland Fryer with the Houston and Denver school districts.
Houston superintendent Terry Grier asked Professor Fryer if the key ingredients of high-performing, no-excuses charter schools could be successfully imported into 20 traditional schools in Houston. To date, the Apollo 20 project has been a tremendous success in Houston — as has a similar effort in Denver that superintendent Tom Boasberg organized with Roland. The preliminary learning gains are remarkable — and in some cases even compare favorably with student growth in KIPP schools and the Promise Academy in the Harlem’s Children Zone. It’s still early, but we need more sharing of what is working.
And finally, I see proof of this growing collaboration in the great leaders in the charter sector who are starting to go work for states and districts to tackle educational underperformance at scale and take successful charter strategies to scale.
Four years ago at this conference, I challenged high-performing CMOs to get involved in school turnarounds. Chris Barbic, the founder of the fantastic YES College Prep network, is one of a number of charter leaders who are tackling this difficult but critically important work.
Chris is now the Superintendent of Tennessee’s new Achievement School District for the state’s lowest-performing schools. The Achievement School District both operates schools and is a charter authorizer. In its first year, it included three district-run schools in Memphis and three charter-run schools. The lines between traditional and charter schools are blurring.
In the next couple of years, the Achievement School District will scale-up rapidly to include about 35 schools and 6,000 students. A number of the top-performing CMOs in the country — including Rocketship, Aspire, Green Dot, and YES College Prep—will be running schools in Memphis.
None of you who know Chris will be surprised to hear that he has set a high bar. His goal, once again, is to prove the possible — to move the bottom 5 percent of schools in the state to the top 25 percent of schools in the state in five years. But it’s telling that Chris describes his work as “Charter 3.0.” — with Charter 1.0 being the initial proliferation of single operators, and Charter 2.0 being the expansion of CMOs.
In Chris’s vision of Charter 3.0, charters in effect will become the new neighborhood charter. In Memphis, charters will be getting a new facility and taking over a school. But just like the old neighborhood school, they will serve students in the exact same attendance zone.
No “neighborhood charter” in the new district can be criticized for creaming students or ducking the toughest children to serve. In one charter in the new district, more than 30 percent of students qualify for special ed services and one-third are on the autism spectrum.
…To conclude, I look forward with great optimism and anticipation to what the next 20 years of the charter movement will bring. And I cannot wait for the day when educational islands of excellence become systems, districts, and states of excellence.
Thank you for all that you do every day to educate our children and to transform their life chances. Thank you for your passion and commitment to the promise that, in America, education must be the great equalizer for all of our children. You are fighting for our children, our families, our communities, and ultimately our country. And I thank you for being warriors in that effort.