Warren Wants to Slash the Program I Evaluate — But I’ve Seen It Work

Last week, Sen. Elizabeth Warren released her education plan, where she proposed slashing federal funding for the expansion of public charter schools by ending the Charter School Program (CSP). Warren claims that the CSP is an “abject failure,” citing a report by an anti-charter organization that the federal government has wasted up to $1 billion on charter schools. (The report’s lack of substance and evidence has already been raised by others.)

U.S. Senator and presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren visiting Roosevelt High School in Des Moines, Iowa. She spoke to a group of about 400 students to outline her K-12 education plan, answer questions, and pose for selfies.

Photo of Elizabeth Warren via Flickr user tabor-roeder

I know Warren is wrong firsthand. As part of my work at Bellwether Education Partners, I serve as an external evaluator for three CSP grantees (as my colleague Cara mentioned yesterday). Our unbiased, rigorous, and data-driven evaluations indicate that when implemented well, high-quality charters use their CSP funds to improve their model and successfully serve more students. These charter schools are the reason their students experience gains in achievement beyond their traditional public school peers. 

Let me step back. The CSP began in 1994 as an amendment to the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act. It has three goals:

  1. To create promising new public charter schools,
  2. To replicate high-quality public charter schools, and
  3. To disseminate information about effective practices within charter schools.

In 25 years, CSP has awarded close to $4 billion to charters serving disproportionately more low-income and diverse students than traditional public schools. The average award is about $500K. In exchange for CSP replication funds, the schools expand to serve more students. CSP replication grantees are required to evaluate their progress, and it is strongly recommended that they use an external evaluator to do so. The evaluation must demonstrate that the grantee is doing what it said it would do and compare the achievement of its students to students attending nearby traditional public schools for evidence of impact. This is how the CSP holds grantees accountable. 

My colleagues and I use advanced statistical modeling techniques to compare charter-attending students to similar students attending nearby traditional public schools on a 1:1 basis. In the model, when all things are considered, the difference in achievement found can be attributed to the school. In fact, an emerging trend in our current data analysis suggests that the longer a student attends a well-implemented, high-quality charter school, the larger the gains in achievement over their traditional public school student peer become.

Because of this research, charter school authorizers and potential charter school leaders know more about what it takes to run effective and successful charter schools. I believe that because of the lessons learned and disseminated through CSP evaluation, the overall pool of charters is of higher quality.

The charter schools we evaluate have some successful strategies in common:

    • Strong missions used to drive everything within the school. All staff believe in and live out the mission of the school, which is embedded in school policies and actions.
    • Strategic plans tied to the mission and which include “SMART” goals. Progress towards goals is continuously monitored using multiple sources of data (i.e., does not rely solely on student achievement) and is used to make decisions at the school- and classroom-level.
    • Teacher evaluation systems that are formative rather than summative. That is, teachers are continuously evaluated throughout the year to determine strengths and areas in need of improvement. Then coaching is provided to improve performance. Teachers with key strengths are tapped to share their expertise and train their peers.
    • Rigorous and representative curricula that are aligned to state education standards and offer rich opportunities for students to demonstrate evidence of meeting grade-level standards. These curricula accurately reflect the contributions and achievements of people of differing races.
    • Behavioral expectations that students know and understand, and which are reinforced through a fair system that includes incentives.
    • Strong student/adult relationships. Students in these schools often report that there is at least one adult within their school they can go to if they have a problem.

Critics of the CSP might argue that what I have laid out is evidence of what “we already know works,” and that it doesn’t require federal funding to do it. However CSP grantees are typically serving our most at-risk students in areas of the country where the traditional public schools are failing and resources for other options are scarce. CSP grantees often provide an educational opportunity that otherwise would not exist. Evidence from previous CSP evaluations sets the bar for future grantees — and the CSP holds them accountable for meeting it.

CSP evaluations serve as a primary source for learning about and disseminating effective charter school practices. By building an evidence base of what works, for whom, and under what conditions, CSP not only informs the charter sector, but the traditional public school sector as well. By eliminating the CSP, Warren would be throwing away an opportunity to learn from and scale the programs and practices that help students achieve their fullest potential.