In 2010, leaders on Beacon Hill crafted the Achievement Gap Act of 2010, the most ambitious school reform legislation since the historic Massachusetts Education Reform Act of 1993. In addition to this bill’s, path-breaking provisions on school turnarounds, the Act launched a bold new strategy for addressing the twin challenges of fostering greater school choice and stimulating more innovation.
Policy-makers executed a highly effective two-pronged maneuver: lift the cap on charter schools in communities with the biggest achievement gaps, but only for proven charter providers, while simultaneously creating a new breed of “innovation schools,” an evolved species of in-district charters, which would allow mainstream educators to compete with charters by embracing charter-like autonomies on matters of budget, staffing, schedule and curriculum. In addition, a new breed of Horace Mann schools were added to the mix. The result: the floodgates were opened.
Currently, there are 47 innovation schools operating in the Commonwealth, in 25 districts, enrolling more than 12,000 students. Meanwhile, we have already added 14 new charter schools during this period (with four more scheduled to open next fall), 25 new charters (including 5 Horace Mann charters) have been awarded (17 of these have involved “proven provider” status). Charter enrollment is projected to increase to more than 35,000 by next fall, a jump of nearly seven thousand students since 2010. Early indications are that the “cap lift” charters are doing a better job of serving ELL students and students with disabilities.
By every indication, including early indications of academic performance, we’ve made a strong start with these policies on choice and innovation. Now is the time to accelerate our progress by further lifting of the charter cap, where sufficient demand and proven providers exist, while at the same time making the financial investment in growing and deepening the innovation school movement.
However, we should be cautious and thoughtful in moving ahead. The details need close attention. For example, we must see to it that charter schools continue to receive unimpeded access to district mailing lists so that these schools can recruit the students who very much need attention, especially those in chronically under-served categories. Where school systems have attempted to impede access to these lists, the state should remove the barriers. Likewise, charters should be allowed to give preferences in the admissions process to students in chronically under-served groups so that charters can prove their efficacy with these students.
On innovation schools, we must insist that educators make bolder use of the available autonomies. Finally, we should continue to provide incentives for and encouragement to charters and educational management organizations to join the state and districts in the kind of novel forms of school turnaround work and governance now being pioneered in Lawrence. New forms of schooling should continue to evolve to meet the needs of those students caught in achievement gaps. Innovation is imperative.
We are justifiably proud, in Massachusetts, of our first-in-the-nation status on K-12 academic achievement, but we should also be painfully conscious that the reform work launched in 1993 is far from complete. We still have deep, persistent achievement gaps, and our progress in closing these is just too slow. After 20 years of reform in education, we need to move beyond the “charter wars” and concentrate on closing these gaps by providing a high quality education for all of our students. Where we have strong charter schools which have found a way to serve many of the children we have failed in our mainstream system, shame on us if we don’t embrace these proven providers and give them the chance to scale up their success. At the same time, we know that mainstream schools can be every bit as innovative, customer-responsive and flexible as charters if the professionals in those schools choose and are allowed to make decisions on school policy and operations. Innovation schools make this possible, but educators and school systems and unions must be willing to take the risk of embracing autonomy and being held accountable for the results. At the same time, these schools need financial support for planning and conversion costs.
Building an education system that makes good on the 1993 promise of “all means all” should be our top priority in the Commonwealth. It’s a moral as well as economic imperative. Our work with standards-based reform has been necessary but not sufficient to achieving the goal of all students at proficiency. We need to construct a 21st sentury learning system that provides all the support necessary to achieve our goals. The Achievement Gap Act was important step in the right direction. This progress should be accelerated.
The Act’s two pronged challenge means that the Commonwealth grows the strongest charters to serve where needs are greatest, while urging mainstream educators to embrace the autonomies that will enable them to better meet the needs of their particular students. In this fashion, mainstream schools can no longer justifiably complain about charter competition if they are unwilling to embrace the innovation school autonomies which are comparable to those enjoyed by charter schools. At the same time, charter providers are clearly enlisted in meeting the state’s greatest needs and held accountable for doing so. As a result of these policies, students and families get more choice and innovation both inside the mainstream system and out.
Since the Achievement Gap Act strategy has shown early success, Beacon Hill leaders should accelerate its progress by increasing the targeted cap lift while making an investment in a new cadre of innovation schools.
Paul Reville is a professor of practice at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is the former secretary of education and coauthor of the Achievement Gap Act of 2010.