Alternative Charters and Alternative Accountability Systems

I’m a big fan of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA). They do great work to help charter authorizers significantly improve their practices. I speak from firsthand experience—they partnered with the charter office at the New Jersey Department of Education while I was there and substantially improved our work.

But NACSA is more than a provider of technical assistance. In important ways, they help advance reform thinking. The latest example is their excellent recent report on accountability for “alternative” charter schools (or “alternative education campuses”—AECs). Such schools serve very high-risk student populations, including those in the juvenile justice system, with substance abuse problems, who are persistently truant, and more. Accordingly, these schools often fail to perform well on standard measures of student achievement, making it difficult for authorizers to fairly and accurately assess their performance. AECs disproportionately fail to make AYP and are disproportionately represented in states’ bottom 5 percent of schools.

But it might be the case that, despite low test scores, lots of AECs are doing great work. For these schools, because they’ve been identified for attention via state accountability systems, they’re unnecessarily subjected to intrusive state interventions. Currently, only seven states have sought to remedy this situation, creating separate accountability systems for alternative schools. But the ball is most certainly in the court of state governments.

Since states are creating their own new accountability systems via ESEA waivers, they must tackle this issue if AECs are to be treated differently. For example, states could alter the way they define the “lowest-performing 5 percent of schools” so AECs aren’t over-identified. States could also create entirely separate accountability systems for alternative schools, weighting existing measures differently (e.g. placing less emphasis on proficiency and placing more emphasis on academic growth) and using different indicators, such as high school completion rates instead of cohort graduation rates.

Part of the reason there are as so few well defined accountability systems for AECs is because we lack an agreed-upon definition for alternative schools. Colorado requires that 95 percent of students be in a high-risk group before a school can be labeled an AEC and the D.C. Public Charter School Board is considering a proposal based on a “gap” model that would set the threshold at 60 percent high-risk students, while some other states allow schools to bypass conventional accountability systems if their missions focus on serving alternative student populations.

Though it seems to make sense for states to develop accountability systems that make space for alternative schools, there’s another side of the ledger: Define “alternative” too broadly and too many schools will be able to skirt traditional accountability systems—that would be bad for disadvantaged kids. NACSA recommends that state departments of education create strong accountability frameworks for alternative schools that prevent too many schools from being identified, while enabling authorizers to create appropriate performance contracts for and make high-stakes decisions about those ultimately identified as alternative. Colorado and Texas have taken the lead in such efforts: The former collects data on separate indicators for alternative schools, using different cut points within indicators, and the latter considers accountability targets for four indicators, with a separate set of accountability targets for alternative schools.

This is not to say that authorizers don’t have a role to play in creating stronger standards for alternative-school accountability—only that the state is responsible for creating the framework. The Arizona State Charter School Board has developed an innovative system that compares the performance of alternative schools only to that of other alternative schools.

Smart AEC accountability probably also includes a higher bar for initial approval; authorizers should require clearly defined mission statements, extensive outreach plans, evidence of preparation to work with the target population, great board-level capacity, and appropriate metrics for tracking student performance.

While some may argue that creating separate accountability frameworks for alternative schools is unfair to the students that they serve—another example of the soft bigotry of low expectations—the current situation is untenable. Too many policymakers and authorizers find themselves unable to truly assess the performance of alternative schools and distinguish, as the report notes, “AECs [that] likely save the lives of many students” from those schools that are “terrible warehouses that temporarily hold kids before putting them on the street.”

One final thought. During Fordham’s Opt-Out or Cop-Out event, Petrilli made the case for carving out space for some schools to operate under alternative accountability rules. I suggested that had NCLB’s accountability system not been applied to charters, we would have just that. Authorizers, not SEA staff, would hold those schools accountable, and they would do it in a nuanced way—by crafting school-specific performance contracts with each.

I’m now of the mind that the next ESEA should allow states to exempt charters from their unified accountability systems. The onus would be on authorizers to step up, Mike would get his way, and we’d be able to create smart policies related to alternative charters.

-Andy Smarick

This first appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

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