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The Charter Mindset Shift: From Conflict to Co-Conspirators

Secretary Arne Duncan's Remarks to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools 2013 "Delivering On the Dream" conference

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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."

I've been to dozens of great charter schools over the years, including charters run by the three finalists for this year's Broad Prize for Public Charter Schools.

I always come away from those visits—as I do when I visit any great public school—with a real sense of hope, and a profound feeling of respect, and admiration, and gratitude for the school's remarkable educators and school leaders.

You wake up every day determined to make a difference in the life of a child, determined to excite a love of learning, determined to open a door of opportunity where none existed.

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, DC—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.

In Rhode Island, charter students gain 86 extra days of learning in reading compared to their traditional public school counterparts, and a staggering 108 extra days of learning in math.

In D.C., students in charter schools gain about 70 to 100 extra days of learning a year—and charter students in Tennessee and Louisiana also had huge gains.

Yet like so many studies of charter schools, the CREDO analysis tells a good news-bad news story. It shows enormous variation in performance.

We know that state policy and authorizing policies matter—and they matter a great deal to charter quality for children. States that were not careful about authorizing charters and let weak operators remain open year after year have a lot of low-quality charters. There are too many charters where students actually learn less than their counterparts in traditional public schools.

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.

If there is a silver lining in the poor record of these states and authorizers, it is that lawmakers are now reforming state regulation and laws to improve charter quality and make charters more accountable.

And charter authorizers nationwide are moving more rapidly to close bad schools. This spring, Nevada and Texas passed strong laws on authorizing charter schools for the first time—including an automatic closure provision for failing charters. Ohio implemented a similar law starting in 2008, and tightened its accountability and default closure provisions in 2011.

Nationwide, the charter school closure rate among the largest authorizers doubled from June 2011 to June 2012, going from about 6 percent to 13 percent.

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.

I want to see charters pioneering solutions that do a better job of educating students with disabilities, overage students, students in the correctional system, and English language learners.

And I want to see charters leading the way in reducing their own rates of out-of-school suspensions, expulsions, and controllable attrition.

In many cities, including right here in Washington, charters are substantially more likely to suspend and expel students than other public schools.

In the 2011-12 school year, a total of 230 students were expelled from school in the District. Charters expelled 227 of those 230 students, or 99 percent.

Just 11 charter schools—and that list included some high-performing charters—accounted for 75 percent of those expulsions citywide. That's not acceptable.

In so many respects, DC charters are doing outstanding work. I've been in many of those schools, and seen the difference that they are making. And the D.C. Public Charter School Board should be applauded for the transparency in reporting that enabled these statistics to come to light. But at the end of the day, high rates of exclusionary discipline cannot be good for children.

I want charters to show the way in implementing alternative discipline methods that keep students in school and engaged in learning to the maximum extent possible—while still holding students accountable for their actions and protecting the integrity of the learning environment. I know that is easier said than done, but these tough challenges are what real leadership is all about.

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."

I'll talk in a moment about three areas where I believe charter schools can and should lead innovation in the next two decades. But before I discuss that, I have a confession to make.

Honestly, I am getting tired of good news-bad news stories in education. And I am getting impatient with talking about "islands of educational excellence."

In the world of education reform, success is all too often an orphan, while failure has many fathers.

I want to flip that presumption.

I want to stop treating success as though it was a one-off, attributable to heroic teachers or charismatic principals. I want to ask instead: Why can't success be the norm?

In the future, I believe the answer to that question will depend in part on expanding meaningful partnerships between charters and traditional public schools.

The hopes of early charter advocates that successful charter schools would quickly create a tipping point in public education have clearly not materialized. As the Harvard economist Roland Fryer has pointed out, even with today's rapid rate of charter growth, "it will take more than a hundred years for high-performing charter schools to educate every student in the country."

Of course, it's not our goal for every student to be in a charter school. But Roland's point is that the benefits of high-performing charters cannot reach the majority of students who most need them unless effective innovations from charters are widely deployed both in traditional public schools and throughout the charter sector.

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.

The ideological battles over charter schools certainly aren't going to end overnight. Advocates and activists will likely continue to care about whether a high-performing school is identified as a charter school or a traditional neighborhood school.

But children do not care—and neither do I. There is nothing inherently good or bad about a charter or any other school. The only thing that matters to me is if a school is a great school. The sign on the front door of that school doesn't matter to me. It doesn't matter to children. It doesn't matter to most parents.

And it doesn't even matter much to the teachers, and counselors, and support staff that work every day in charter schools.

They absolutely want their students to succeed. But they also want the children down the street at the neighborhood school to succeed. This is not some zero-sum game—the collective goal for all of us in education must be a great school for every child.

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.

In closing, I would highlight three areas that I believe are especially ripe for innovation in charters over the next two decades. They are: First, developing and assessing non-cognitive skills; second, expanding in the early learning space; and finally, using findings from the learning sciences to drive better instruction.

Each of these three areas holds great potential, obviously not only for charters but for improving education for all of our nation's students. I just hope and believe that charters can show real leadership here.

I'm pleased to say that high-performing charters are already pioneers in teaching and developing the non-cognitive skills that matter so much to a student's subsequent success in life. We know from the research cited in Paul Tough's fantastic book, How Children Succeed, that specific non-cognitive skills, like grit and self-regulation and executive function, can help children flourish and overcome significant challenges throughout their lifetimes.

All three of the CMOs up today for the Broad Prize place a high priority on developing these critical skills. They all share a no-excuses model of school culture that sets high expectations, not just for academic performance but for student character.

I thank them for their outstanding creativity and leadership. But we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that our schools still have a long way to go in developing high-quality, replicable means of cultivating grit and resilience.

Cognitive science tells us that 30 percent or more of learning performance comes from motivation. But we are badly in need of practical, scalable guidance for what teachers, parents, school leaders, and students themselves can do to boost student motivation.

And we are barely in the infancy of developing meaningful and easy-to-administer assessments that help us understand whether we are in fact teaching these critical non-cognitive skills.

When my sister and I ran an "I Have a Dream" program on the South Side of Chicago for six years in the 1990s, we spent a lot of time and energy trying to help our children gain these skills. But to this day, I still cannot honestly tell you whether we succeeded or not.

Not surprisingly, many of these essential non-cognitive skills are best learned young—and I would love to see more charters engaged in and coordinated with high-quality early learning in their communities.

As you know, President Obama has made a landmark proposal to help states provide universal access to high-quality preschool to all children from low- and moderate-income families.

I bet there is not a single elementary school provider here that doesn't wish their kindergartners came to school better prepared.

We absolutely have to get all of our schools out of the catch-up business. And we have to level the playing field so children start school at the same starting line.

Now, in some states it is difficult if not impossible for charter schools to include early learning grades. States often fail to provide per pupil funding for pre-K.

But there are still opportunities for charters to expand in the early learning space through co-enrollment, leveraging multiple funding streams, and by blending charter schools with Head Start programs.

The truth is that high-performing charters have a lot to offer to the early learning community—and vice versa.

I would love to see the wrap-around services of Head Start centers combined with the data-driven instruction and enhanced accountability of the best charters. That would get interesting in a hurry!

A great example of early learning innovation is the Appletree Early Learning Public Charter School, which has campuses not far from us here in DC.

Appletree was established in 2005 and won an i3 grant from our department in 2011. It serves almost 650 three- and four-year olds on seven campuses. Since 2010, through its Every Child Ready Program, Appletree has nearly closed the preparation gap for kindergarten.

There are, of course, many areas where charters can and will innovate in the next 20 years. I'll cite one last field ripe for innovation—I hope charters serve as a testing ground for the implementation of new knowledge from the learning sciences.

The field of learning sciences has exploded in recent years. Yet there remains a big disconnect between what we know from cognitive science and what we actually do day-to-day in our classrooms.

You'll often hear teachers and parents say that "students learn in different ways." That statement is true. Educators design instruction based on that premise, so they present material for visual learners or auditory learners or experiential learners.

But cognitive scientists have also documented repeatedly that people ultimately learn in ways that are more similar than dissimilar.

So the learning sciences tell us that effective teachers should spend less time organizing instruction for different learning styles—and more time giving students lots of practice and lots of feedback on their work.

Using the findings of learning science can benefit both charters and other schools as they figure out how to best integrate technology to advance learning.

Schools and districts will face a flood of new educational technology in the next two decades, but they should use the lens of the learning sciences to help make decisions on technology adaptation. They could identify the problems that the mind is having first—identify the learning problem, not the technology problem. And then use the evidence from the cognitive sciences to meet the learning challenge.

Pick the ed tech devices that really help solve the problem—rather than falling prey to the temptation to assume that some newer technology is necessarily better.

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.