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Charters were quicker to provide instruction, regular contact during closures, reports say. But that’s also how they ‘keep the kids,’ one expert explains

Linda Jacobson | August 31, 2020

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Charter schools appeared to follow a more routine class schedule and stay in closer contact with students and families following shutdowns than district schools, according to a new analysis out Tuesday from Public Impact and the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

But similar percentages of both charter and district schools distributed devices to students, and districts were more likely than charter networks to provide students with internet access, according to the report. Less than half of both district and charter schools clearly explained through websites or social media how they would deliver services for students with special needs.

“This fall, which likely will bring continued disruptions from the pandemic, all public schools can work to improve access and consider changes to schedules, instruction delivery, and student progress monitoring to address learning losses,” the authors wrote.

Drawn from the Center on Reinventing Public Education’s widely used database of how districts and networks of charter schools planned to handle remote learning, “Learning in Real Time” focuses on “bright spots” where charter school organizations set expectations for teachers regarding live instruction, taking attendance and staying in touch with families.

The report finds that charters have the biggest advantage in terms of teachers providing instruction, with 74 percent of charter networks reporting this expectation, compared with 47 percent of districts.

On another indicator, 54 percent of the networks said they expected teachers to check in with students, compared with 37 percent of districts. The authors highlight, for example, Excel Academy Charter Schools in Massachusetts and its “relentless outreach” to students.

“Learning in Real Time” from Public Impact and the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools compares charter and district schools across four core areas of instruction. (Public Impact and the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools)

The report was amplified somewhat by the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute, which released a review Tuesday of how eight charter school networks across the country managed the transition from in-person to virtual instruction.

“At a time when so many U.S. institutions appear to be struggling or failing to meet the moment, here are examples of organizations that are not just surviving but thriving,” wrote author Gregg Vanourek, a consultant and co-author of a 2001 book on charter schools.

“Schooling COVID-19” identifies five areas where charter networks helped maintain some educational stability for students — meeting nonacademic needs, quickly getting devices to students and teachers, maintaining regular schedules and grading practices, reaching out often to families, and using a team approach to deliver a common curriculum.

Based on interviews with charter school leaders, teachers and parents, the report provides additional details on how some of the networks handled the challenges created by remote instruction, such as taking attendance.

One network, Achievement First, Vanourek wrote, “took attendance not just every day but every class and also had students answer a daily attendance question.”

Both reports, however, acknowledge that just because charter schools implemented these practices — or reported their intention to do so — doesn’t mean that district schools didn’t employ many of those same strategies, like partnering with public television stations to broadcast instruction, using grab-and-go meal sites to deliver learning packets, and just picking up the phone to get in touch with families.

“We’re confident that hundreds, if not thousands, of other schools could also have served as models of how to make an effective transition to remote learning,” Fordham Institute President Michael Petrilli wrote in the foreword. The center’s database only lists what districts and charter networks planned to provide in the spring. In reality, they might have done much more or not followed through at all.

‘Better positioned’ 

It’s not surprising that school choice supporters would lift up examples of how charter networks — with at most 94 schools — responded more quickly during a public health emergency than districts with five times that number of sites.

Over decades, traditional school districts have developed systems “to deliver education in a particular way” within school buildings, said Brian Gill, a senior fellow at Mathematica and the director of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Educational Laboratory. Charter schools, on the other hand, were created to give educators more flexibility, he added. “It makes sense that they would be better positioned to respond to an unprecedented crisis.”

The two reports add to the many ways that scholars and policy analysts have compared traditional and charter schools in recent years — research questions that range from which parents are more satisfied, where Black students are more likely to have a Black teacher, and, of course, which schools score higher on national tests.

Gill said it’s also logical that charter school educators had more regular contact with families. “The fact that they’ve chosen to be there means that … families might be a little more likely to be engaged in the learning process,” he said. “Schools of choice … have to be more attuned to families than district schools. They don’t get funding unless they keep the kids.”

Experts say that district and charter schools in which students already have their own devices — and teachers were already comfortable using online platforms as part of instruction — naturally were able to make a smoother shift to a remote learning process.

“I do think it’s important to be clear that any difference between what charter schools and [traditional public schools] did probably stems from numerous factors beyond charter-school status, and that the ability of a school to pivot quickly to remote learning was almost certainly influenced by the resources and policies it had in place before it closed,” said Laura Hamilton, who leads a variety of education research projects at the RAND Corp.

‘A heavier lift’

Other experts monitoring states’ and districts’ reopening plans say the bar will be higher for all public schools this fall.

“Districts will have a heavier lift,” said Annette Campbell Anderson, an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University who is leading work on a state-by-state school reopening tracker. “They’ve got to ensure what kids can do in a virtual platform is exactly the same as in person and the rigor is consistent. There was no expectation in the spring that that would happen.”

The university’s eSchool+ Initiative is now expanding to include districts’ reopening plans, measuring how they address 12 categories, including academics, student health services and special education. While the state plans show what is expected at the local level, the district plans, Campbell said, will be “the how.” The researchers, however, have not yet decided whether to include charter schools in the tracker.

Gill said comparisons between district and charter schools may seem unfair “if you’re thinking of this as a horse race.” But having schools that can operate under fewer restrictions, whether that means union contracts or curriculum mandates, was the original concept behind charter schools.

“It doesn’t mean that all district schools should become charters and that charters are better under every circumstance,” he said. “If we think that districts tend to be not great at innovating, then it makes sense to have a broader education sector [with] some schools that are freed from some of the constraints that districts have to operate under.”

Disclosure: The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation and the William E. Simon Foundation provide financial support to the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools and The 74. Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, and the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation provide financial support to the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and The 74. The Doris and Donald Fisher Fund provides financial support to The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools and The 74.

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