The Missouri Charter Public School Association has an important mission: we help start quality public schools, help existing charter public schools get better, and we advocate for public policy that puts the interests of kids ahead of any other consideration. Lately, we’ve been spending a lot of time on the issue of objective assessment of a charter school's performance. Missouri’s use of the Annual Performance Report for charter schools make no sense either mathematically or educationally, and we’re anxious to work with the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to change them.
Charter public schools set themselves apart in many ways— innovation, empowering teachers, and individualized learning freed from the shackles of a bureaucracy. But, we also demand to be held accountable by our parents, teachers, sponsors, boards, and the standards we set in the legally binding performance contracts that we sign. We also expect to be held accountable with an objective metric focusing on the academic growth of each individual student.
Educational leaders nationally and in our state are giving more thought to how to measure the results in a way that gives our schools necessary data to improve and so everyone knows objectively whether we are meeting our obligation to our students, their parents and the taxpayers.
The objective standards for charter public schools in Missouri are odd. Our individual schools are judged using the objective performance measure created for school districts. That would be like Major League Baseball comparing the performance of a left fielder to the performance of every team in the National League. It is a complete non sequitur. School districts get points for how they run their entire kindergarten through 12th grade systems. School districts can get up to 140 points, the majority of charter schools can only get 80 points. Yet, the unsuspecting public compares them to each other.
The state Annual Performance Report metrics don’t make sense for other reasons. If a 10-year-old arrives at my school reading at the second-grade level, and by the end of the school year, he reads at the fourth-grade level, he’s advanced two grade levels. That is a great achievement. But, he will enter the sixth grade two levels behind. If my school’s results are measured using the current APR metric, people will assume we are failing our kids. But, they would be wrong. Conversely, if a 10-year-old arrives at my school reading at the seventh-grade level, and after a year still reads at the seventh-grade level, I will have added nothing. But, my school’s data could look really good. To go a step further, if you compare the test results from a school full of kids in the first example with a school full of kids from the second example, the first school would look terrible— even though it was doing a better job of educating its kids.
There must be a better way. Stanford University is among the institutions trying to find it. Each year, Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes measures urban charter school results over time to see if students are learning or not. They found that students in Saint Louis make significant gains in their second, third, and fourth years of enrollment. Producing a misleading calculation that gets politicized is bad enough. But, DESE is also missing an opportunity to use objective standards to produce data that can help charter public schools innovate and improve.
So, in the absence of a good state formula, how are charter public schools being held accountable today? In a very specific way. As I said, each charter school has a contract with legally enforceable performance standards in them including the State's performance standards. These are not squishy standards open to interpretation. They are measurable educational outcomes that the schools must meet to stay open. (By comparison, a school district could meet state standards even though half of its schools are doing poorly.) Penalizing charter schools with inaccurate point comparisons opens the door to unfair criticism, bad policy decisions, and even the possibility of a good school being placed on probation.
I was thrilled to hear Missouri State Board of Education Chairman Charlie Shields raise the issue during the most recent Missouri State Board of Education meeting. We welcome his commitment to appoint an objective committee of vested stakeholders to find better, reasonable, accurate ways of holding charter schools accountable. I believe it is imperative Missouri develop rules to calculate the performance of charter public schools that are accurate, in context, and useful. Clearly, a ‘one size fits all’ calculation will only lead to inaccurate information and will harm education in our state.