On the heels of the release of the 2016 A-F public school performance grades, officials from the North Carolina Office of Charter Schools released a report last week that provides more detailed information on charter schools’ academic performance. The data appear to indicate that newer charter schools aren’t hitting it out of the park, academically speaking—yet.

 

The report includes already-released data showing that during the 2015-16 school year, the entire charter school sector received grades that spanned the A-F spectrum, just like traditional public schools. And a higher proportion of charter schools received As—and a higher percentage got Fs, too—just like the prior two academic years.What’s different and remarkable about OCS’ new report, however (the first of its kind that’s been publicly available, to my knowledge) is that it highlights the academic performance of younger charter schools—and it appears that those schools don’t quite stack up to that of their older counterparts.

While the entire charter school sector received grades for 2015-16 that ranged from As to Fs—with the bulk of them in the ‘C’ category—no charter schools that were approved for opening in 2013 received As. Fifteen percent of those schools received Fs, a higher proportion than the entire sector. That trend repeats itself for 2014 and 2015, as you’ll see in the report.

A-F School Grades

North Carolina first released A-F school grades beginning with the 2013-14 school year amid a good deal of controversy.

Some say that the new accountability system provides families with more transparency when it comes to how local public schools are performing.

Others contend that the letter grades simply serve as proxies for socioeconomic status. Read more about A-F school grades HERE and HERE.

Lee Teague, who heads up the advocacy group North Carolina Public Charter Schools Association, says that’s not surprising or particularly concerning—yet.

“Most brand new schools won’t open with an A,” said Teague. “It takes a while for students to get acclimated to the schools’ methodologies and curricula, and it also takes a while for the schools to get their methodologies straight.”

Charter schools approved to open in 2013Dave Machado, the new director of the state’s Office of Charter Schools and a longtime charter operator in his own right, took a similar position.

“Mature schools tend to be better,” said Machado. “Their teachers have been in that system for a while and the curriculum has stayed steady.”

On its face, that explanation seems to make sense. New charter schools need time to implement curricula and acclimate students to a new way of learning—all of which, during the initial short term, may impact students’ academic outcomes.

Whether or not this explanation holds water when, say, looking at charter schools that opened in the late 1990s or 2000s is not clear. The state didn’t use the same accountability reporting system during that time, and OCS staff have not looked back at that time period to make a comparison, said OCS’ lead consultant, Deanna Townsend-Smith.

But, interestingly, OCS’ report also highlights data that runs counter to the notion that young charter schools just need more time to improve.

credo findingsA recent study conducted by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) found that “charter schools, as they age or replicate into networks, are very likely to continue the patterns and performance set by their early years of operation, and that for most charter schools their ultimate success or failure can be predicted by year three of a school’s life.” (emphasis added)

Townsend-Smith said her office included the findings of that study as a caution, especially given that North Carolina has recently seen several brand new charter schools fail, making headlines and costing taxpayers millions.

“Look at Crossroads and Kennedy,” said Townsend-Smith, pointing to the recent high profile closures of two longtime charter schools in the Charlotte area. “Initially they were underperforming, and that trend continued throughout their existence.”

Townsend-Smith could recall one charter that overcame initial obstacles to then become a high performing school—Maureen Joy Charter School* in Durham.

“If you look at Maureen Joy, they were at one point not performing where they should have been,” said Townsend-Smith. “But changes to their leadership and board of directors prompted a big improvement.”

The state’s top school leaders are paying close attention to the performance of new charter schools. Last month, the State Board of Education decided to go against the will of the Charter School Advisory Board by voting against five of their recommendations for charter schools hoping to open in 2017.

Following the State Board’s decision, the chair of the CSAB and former Maureen Joy director Alex Quigley pointed to the recent spate of charter school closures—and those that are trending toward shutdown—as the reason why the State Board of Education was likely more risk-averse than in the past few years when reviewing new charter school hopefuls.

“Kinston, Entrepreneur, Dynamic, PACE, StudentFirst…Kennedy, Crossroads, and I think the recent issue with Thunderbird…I think that [the State Board of Education] made a decision that they felt was safe, I guess,” said Quigley.

Matt Ellinwood, director of the Education and Law project at the North Carolina Justice Center**, said he was not surprised to see some of the state’s younger charter schools failing to measure up to their older siblings.

“When they lifted the 100-school cap on charters back in 2011, they failed to build into the law some guidance on what should serve as basic standards for what it takes to open and run a charter school,” said Ellinwood.

Ellinwood said he recently analyzed the 2012 batch of charter school applicants and found that of the 25 that were recommended for opening, 12 had at least one “inadequate” score on measures related to education plans, governance, special education or another area. The bottom four schools he ranked did not receive a score of “excellent” on anything and received multiple scores of “inadequate.”

“So for that batch,” said Ellinwood, “you have approved charter schools that weren’t ready.” Ellinwood also said recent legislative changes have trended toward making charter schools even less accountable.

[Read: When Charter Schools Fail

“North Carolina’s charter school movement is out of touch with the national charter school movement,” Ellinwood said. “National charter advocates are even writing to our legislature because we are proliferating lower quality charter schools that could harm the charter school movement in general.”

The OCS report emphasized that since 2013, five new charter schools have closed and three never made it to opening. Twenty percent of charter schools are on the state’s low performing list now, including the state’s two brand new virtual charter schools. Charter schools’ 2015-16 academic growth scores were inferior to those of traditional public schools as well.

*Fletcher Foundation provides financial support to the Maureen Joy Charter School in Durham.

**Fletcher Foundation provides financial support to The North Carolina Justice Center in Raleigh. 

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