Op-Ed: Hold Charter Schools to Same Standards as District Schools

Susan Cauldwell | November 24, 2015 | Opinion
Lax standards for charter schools shortchange students, parents, taxpayers -- and the schools themselves

Susan Cauldwell
A July 2015 legislative committee hearing in Trenton highlighted that New Jersey’s charter schools are being held to lower standards of accountability than traditional public schools. In August 2015, the NJ DOE quietly revised the protocol for charter school site visits, reducing the length of visits to no more than three hours for half the schools up for renewal this year.

DOE Assistant Commissioner Evo Popoff explained that his own department’s staffing limits came into play in deciding that it wasn’t necessary to review each school with the same intensity. This is not only unfair to traditional district schools but deprives the public of important information on how their tax dollars, which fund charter schools, are spent.

The July hearing documented the lack of rigorous oversight of the educational programs offered by charter schools and the overreliance on student standardized test scores and simplistic measures to evaluate charter-school performance. The hearing also revealed the secretive nature of charter school oversight and the unfettered power that the NJ Department of Education holds over charter schools.

Lack of rigorous oversight and overreliance on standardized test scores: District public schools are formally evaluated every three years using the Quality Single Accountability Continuum (QSAC), which was created by the NJ Department of Education to meet the needs of our state’s public schools. Charter schools are formally evaluated every five years using the Charter Performance Framework, which was created by the National Alliance of Charter School Authorizers, a national charter advocacy organization. The differences between these two evaluation frameworks are stark.

QSAC has more than twice the number of indicators than the Charter Performance Framework and encompasses five areas of performance versus the Framework’s three. The most dramatic difference, however, is in the quality of the evaluation that each framework provides. Let’s look, for example, at how they evaluate curriculum.

QSAC requires school districts to demonstrate that the curriculum they are using specifies the content to be mastered for each grade; includes benchmarks and interim assessments; and is horizontally and vertically articulated across grades and content areas. QSAC also requires districts “to verify that instruction for all students is based on the curriculum and includes instructional strategies that meet individual student’s needs, including IEPs.”

No such requirements exist in the Charter Performance Framework. In fact, the framework does not even examine curriculum. Instead, the framework’s academic performance assessment asks only if “students in subgroups are making adequate growth based on the school’s median SGP” (Student Growth Percentile), which measures changes in student standardized test scores relative to other students in the state with similar historical test results.

Using standardized test scores as the only measure of academic performance for charter schools encourages those schools to focus on test preparation versus providing a comprehensive learning environment. Melissa Katz, who student taught at an elementary charter school during the past academic year, testified at a recent State Board of Education hearing that the school’s instructional focus was overwhelmingly on the tested subjects (ELA and math), which were taught mostly via worksheets and followed a tightly scripted curriculum. In contrast, the school had no curriculum at all for science or social studies.

Such violations of our state’s curriculum standards should be detected and stopped by the NJ DOE. However, since the Charter School Framework does not evaluate curriculum, it does not allow the NJ DOE to determine how widespread these practices are.

Relying exclusively on student standardized test scores to measure charter schools’ academic performance is equally problematic because it reinforces the economic and racial biases of such tests. Focusing on test scores also encourages student segregation by rewarding charter schools that have few students with special needs, students who are English language learners, and students living in poverty as, on average, those student groups have lower standardized test scores.

Simplistic charter school evaluation measures: QSAC assigns scores to each of its 100 indicators based on how well a school district complies, then the scores for each of the five sections are added together and used to determine whether school districts meet the 80 percent benchmark in each section in order to be “certified” by the commissioner and the State BOE. This provides a transparent means of identifying strengths, weakness and areas in need of improvement.
In contrast, for many of the indicators in the Charter Performance Framework, charter schools are evaluated with a “yes” or “no” response indicating whether they met the standard. Numerical scores are not assigned, and it appears that the NJ DOE makes a judgment call as to whether a charter school meets expectations.

In the August 2015 update, NJDOE stated, “The Framework clearly outlines organizational performance expectations for charter schools. However, the organizational framework does not culminate up into a single score and is not the only factor in high-stakes accountability decisions including replication, expansion, renewal and revocation. The Commissioner ultimately makes these high-stakes decisions based on the totality of evidence regarding a charter school’s performance with a strong emphasis on a school’s academic performance.” If traditional public schools were provided the same consideration by the department during their QSAC reviews, the return of local control to democratically elected school board would not be the tortured process it has become.

This method fails to identify a charter school’s strengths, weaknesses, or areas in need of improvement, which is important information for charter school parents, charter school administrators, and New Jersey taxpayers. By giving the NJ DOE so much discretion, this approach also risks more bias being injected into the charter school performance-review process.

Secretive charter school oversight and NJ DOE’s overwhelming power: Local boards of education are required to report their district’s QSAC results at a public meeting. Those results also are required to be posted on the district’s website and reviewed, approved, and made part of the public record by the State Board of Education at its public meetings.

In contrast, charter school evaluations are not shared with the public. In fact, the legislative hearing on charter school oversight revealed that 28 of the 93 New Jersey charter schools and charter networks are currently on a probationary status, yet this list of “failing” charter schools is not available publicly.

The legislative hearing also highlighted the complete power that NJ DOE has to open and close charter schools, with no public transparency or voice in the process. A charter school leader testified at the legislative hearing that this “hangs heavily” over her head.

The NJ DOE’s complete power to open and close charter schools can increase the political factors shaping educational decisions, particularly when that absolute power is combined with a lack of transparency. This can discourage charter schools from advocating for their students or doing anything else that would put them in conflict with the political administration that controls their fate.

Recommendations: The NJ DOE has often said that the ultimate accountability measure for charter schools is that they can be closed for failing to perform. But closing publicly funded schools is not the answer. The academic literature is clear that the price of doing so is just too great, both in terms of disruption to students, their families, and their broader communities, and in terms of taxpayer dollars wasted.
Rather than opening and closing publicly funded schools at whim, the NJ DOE should:

  • Hold all publicly funded schools to the same high standards of accountability, transparency and performance.
  • Use a more thoughtful and community-based process of opening and closing charter schools
  • Ensure all publicly funded schools have the support that they need to provide their students with a high-quality education.
  • Rigorous accountability and transparency do not limit a school’s ability to innovate. It does ensure that both New Jersey students and taxpayers are well-served by all of our publicly funded schools.