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Charters outpace District schools: Let’s give ALL schools more flexibility

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

School-by-school PSSA scores were released recently. The Inquirer reported that 73% of Philadelphia’s charter schools made AYP compared to only 41% of District schools.

Some of this may be attributed to the fact that charters have a tendency to attract families that have it together enough to search for the best schools for their children, and some concerns have been raised about whether charters push out students they do not want. There is a lot of debate about whether charters engage in this kind of “creaming.”

Putting that aside for the moment, I think the main reason that many charters are successful is that they have much more flexibility to do innovative things and to make decisions that work best for their students and staff than District schools.

The real question we should be asking ourselves is how do we get that flexibility for all schools?

Dr. Ackerman was quoted in The Inquirer article as saying that District schools needed the flexibility that charters have to be successful. I think she is right on target. The question is will the District really let schools have that flexibility? I talked to some teachers at one school that spent months having meetings and developing creative programs to improve literacy only to be told that the District has a standard literacy program and that it is the only one that can be used. The kind of initiative that these teachers showed is something we should be encouraging, but too often the District squashes it instead.

The Boston Pilot Schools, which have often been viewed as a model of how to give district schools flexibility, operate with Five Autonomies that give them flexibility to make decision in the following areas: Staffing, Budget, Curriculum and Assessment, Governance and Policies, and School Schedule. There is lots of research that shows that effective schools need the flexibility to make mission driven decisions. The basic idea is that turning around low-performing schools requires innovation and that once schools have created innovative plans, they need the freedom to implement them.

The District has said that it will give more autonomy to its highest performing schools (those it designates as Vanguard Schools). The Catch 22 here is that the lowest-performing schools may need that flexibility in order to become high performing. The Renaissance Schools plan has been discussed as a way to give low-performing schools more autonomy, but it remains to be seen how much autonomy they will actually have and how many schools this will affect. Early indications are that there will only be 10 Renaissance Schools in the first year and only 35 after three years. In addition, it seems like the focus of the Renaissance Schools is on turning them over to outside managers, rather than giving District schools the flexibility and resources they need to be successful.

We have hundreds of schools in Philadelphia that are in need of major change. The vast majority of them will not be selected as Renaissance Schools.

A way must be found for low-performing schools to demonstrate that they have solid plans and then be given the flexibility to implement them.

It is true that not all change is good change and that there must be a way to ensure equity and high-quality education across the District. If we are going to give schools autonomy, we should make sure they have good plans.

The bottom line is that the huge number of regulations that have been imposed on our schools is a serious obstacle to innovation. If everyone agrees that flexibility is key to improvement, we have to find a way to give it to more schools (along with the supports to use it well).

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