“Alternative education” is a catch-all term used to describe education programs for students who have not been well-served by traditional classroom environments. It can refer to computer-based rapid credit accrual opportunities, supportive programs for students who are pregnant or parenting, intensive English-language programs for students who have come to the United States with substantial education histories in another language, “second chance” placements for students expelled from traditional public schools, and everything in between. Precise definitions vary by state and school district.
While traditional public school districts have historically offered these alternative programs for their students, more and more state or local charter schools are beginning to offer similar programs. Charter statutes often allow the flexibility that makes room for innovation, which is needed to operate programs that meet the specific needs of some of our most vulnerable students. Yet ensuring appropriate accountability for alternative charter schools — crucial to fulfilling the other side of the autonomy-for-accountability bargain — has proven challenging.
Forward-thinking charter authorizers are contemplating the policies and institutional practices that create strong authorizing and accountability incentives for alternative programs. The right mix of flexibility, autonomy, rigor, and relevance can both ensure that authorizers do not just enable the existence of more alternative schools but that the schools they authorize provide the highest quality programs that best meet the needs of the students they serve. Good authorizing practices can also prevent schools that provide alternative programs from simply relaxing their standards and becoming a catch basin for low performing students.
A primary challenge for authorizers is that accountability metrics typically used to measure the performance of charter schools — such as student achievement or growth on state standardized assessments, student attendance, and four-year graduation rates — may not accurately apply. Alternative charter schools often serve students who enter with unique educational and life challenges or who are already far below grade level because of gaps in their prior schooling. Applying these measures rigidly can create disincentives for operators to open, or authorizers to approve, alternative school models. Conversely, some states create loopholes that allow alternative schools and their authorizers to evade accountability altogether. Some intrepid authorizers have invested significant time and resources in developing fair and accurate ways to measure the performance of diverse alternative schools, however, state laws and regulations do not always align with such approaches.
Colorado has begun a process of convening a cross-agency task force of leaders, experts, and policymakers to modify its authorizing system by improving the rigor and relevance of performance metrics for the state’s alternative education campuses (AECs).
Antonio Parés, a partner at the Donnell-Kay Foundation, is a board member of the Colorado Charter School Institute (CSI), which convened the AEC task force. CSI is Colorado’s only statewide charter school authorizer, and it currently authorizes 39 schools serving over 17,500 PK-12 students across the state. We recently caught up with Antonio to talk about the unique needs of AECs and what that means for authorizers and state education policy.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You’ve been working with a task force in Colorado to improve the ways that the state holds charter authorizers accountable for the success of their alternative education campuses. Can you tell us about that process and the challenges you’re facing?
Every year or two, CSI works with our alternative education campuses to identify “alternative measurements” for each or all of the schools. Alternative measurements include student perception surveys, in-house assessments such as NWEA or MAPS, or alternative post-secondary paths. CSI convened a statewide taskforce to review and collaborate on best practices when it comes to accountability measurements and outcomes for our alternative education campuses, schools typically serving under-credited and at-risk students. We were trying — and continue to try — to balance both the unique nature of each campus and their student population with the need for consistent, longitudinal, and comparable data points. Our goal was — and continues to be — to develop the best performance metrics and frameworks for every school.
A number of charter authorizers and district leaders talk about the difficulty in holding alternative schools accountable for student success. Why is it so hard to get accountability right for alternative education settings?
It is very complex! The biggest reason is that alternative student populations are quite unique from school to school and within a single school. These students are battling poverty, trauma, and other variables over which they and often their families have very little control. So authorizers want and need to provide alternative education campuses with the necessary flexibility to meet the needs of their student populations, needs that school leaders know best.
At the same time, an authorizer doesn’t want to simply lower expectations for schools serving students who face these challenges. What does that mean for accountability? Well, we have to look beyond test scores to understand each school, its students, and its mission. If, for example, an alternative education campus is serving young mothers and their mission includes strengthening each mother’s parenting skills, should authorizers recognize that by allowing the school to submit metrics and progress towards those goals? What if your school is serving a population that speaks several languages? Can we validate and give currency to those students for already being conversationally bilingual? Should we? What if just getting to school is a big hurdle for students at a specific school? If that school has stellar attendance rates, should we consider that in their accountability framework? This is all a tricky balance, and we’re committed to figuring it out, but it’s complicated.
What would you like to see come out of the work of the task force?
The outcome from the official alternative education campuses task force was relatively narrow: we set out to establish a clear, coherent, and predictable process for the adopting and approving of optional measures for the schools, and we did that. But what the task force really did was spark a much larger conversation about how districts, authorizers, and states can better support alternative education campuses and, most importantly, their students.
We came away with updated procedures and timelines for the selection and approval of alternative measurements and a commitment to communicate and connect with more schools to address other issues raised that were outside of the scope of the task force. We also produced a report detailing the lessons learned and conclusions from the task force. We’re now sharing the report with stakeholders and will continue to gather feedback on the alternative measurement process. Eventually, we want the recommendations from the report to inform the development of future CSI policies and procedures.
In your opinion, what’s the ideal relationship between states, authorizers, and schools when it comes to AECs? How is the dynamic the same or different for districts with alternative programs?
My big question right now is whether it even makes sense for there to be a variety of authorizers for Colorado’s alternative education campuses. What if we created one statewide “district” or LEA that supports and authorizes all of our alternative programs? Since most districts and authorizers already carry a diverse portfolio of schools, it’s difficult to create individual district performance frameworks that can take into account the variance of school-level performance among more traditional schools and alternative education campuses.
Here in Colorado, districts believe that they’re vulnerable to being “punished” for having alternative schools because the school-based framework for those campuses doesn’t really roll up neatly into the district frameworks. Currently, the only option for an authorizer or district that has relatively stable-performing alternative education campuses — which are also staying above the priority improvement state performance rating — is to wipe that school’s performance data from their district framework entirely. I understand why this is the current policy, but it just doesn’t align with my values or the values of a lot of us here in Colorado.
The other big question I am wrestling with is, why are our alternative education campuses still designed to mirror traditional school models? What if a state could allow under-credited or off-track students to take their per-pupil revenue to organizations or programs that better meet their needs, like trade programs, leadership development organizations, private schools, or other community-based learning providers? We obviously haven’t solved that yet, but I do think we should continue to push on the question.