What Charter Schools Are Getting Right And Why They Top Our High School Rankings

Charters educate just five percent of America’s student—yet they dominate this year’s rankings, thanks to one very simple key to success.

Chris Hondros/Getty

It’s not a stretch to say that charter schools are some of the biggest winners in this year’s high school rankings list. Even though charters educate just five percent of American students, they represent 30 percent of the top ten schools in this year’s rankings. What’s more—and this is really the kicker—they’re the only ones in the top ten that do not use selective admissions. That is, BASIS Scottsdale, BASIS Oro Valley, and Signature School are the only schools in the top ten who don’t choose their students. They’re open-enrollment schools: anyone can come, and if there are too many applicants for the available seats, they determine the student body by lottery. Nonetheless, they’re still competitive with the hyper-selective private and magnet schools rounding out the rest of the top ten.

What’s going on? What makes charter schools different—and how does it contribute to their success? I taught at a charter school in Brooklyn some years ago, and my principal would frequently call out three types of flexibility that made our school successful: 1) hiring (and firing), 2) schedule, 3) and curricula. That’s about it.

There’s a clear theory of action here, and it responds to a pretty incontrovertible diagnosis: American public education is chaotic. Our schools operate in an extraordinarily dense, disorganized regulatory environment. They work within district, state, and federal systems that prescribe various programs and data reporting, all of which are often at cross purposes. Some funding streams run directly from the Feds to local districts. Others run through states on their way to classrooms. At its best, the education “system” is about as organized as a pinball machine.

American classrooms are also often shaped by the various clauses of collective bargaining agreements, which can prescribe precisely how many minutes teachers may be required to undertake particular tasks with their students each day (and how many days they’ll be in class each year). Teacher contracts alone can assume biblical proportions—they’re many hundreds of dense pages long.

Sadly, this accretion of regulations hasn’t appreciably moved the needle on achievement gaps like those between students of different races or between students from families . In response, charter reformers propose to trade freedom from some of these rules in exchange for accepting a higher degree of accountability. That is, they get more autonomy to build a school that meets their students’ needs, but have to answer for the results.

Charter administrators can hire the teachers they want—they’re not assigned personnel from the district, or forced to choose from a pool. They can dismiss ineffective instructors quickly if necessary. If their students need lots of remedial instruction, the school can extend the school day, the school week, or the school year. If the curricula seem to focus on skills that students have already mastered, they can scrap it in favor of other materials. And then, if the school’s model works, it can be expanded; if it doesn’t, the school can be shut down relatively rapidly.

Or, at least, that’s the theory. In practice, the model varies. Some states give charter schools just a percentage—only two-thirds or sometimes less—of the per pupil funding that district schools receive. Some make it easier for unions to get a foothold organizing charters’ teachers. Some give school districts considerable control over whether charters can open within their borders.

There’s more! Some states allow charter schools to weight their enrollment lotteries to serve specific populations such as English-language learners, low-income families, or families from the immediate surrounding area. Some states make it hard for charters to force challenging students out—some don’t. Above all: in some states it’s much easier to close a low-performing charter school than in others.

These sorts of rules matter, since the best national research on this, from Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO), shows that charters’ quality varies by state. Charter schools in Texas dramatically underperform public district schools, while charters in Washington, D.C. and Massachusetts dramatically outperform their district counterparts. And given that two of the three charters making this year’s top ten are from Arizona—where charters slightly underperform district schools—there’s reason to believe that charter quality varies widely within states as well.

In other words, charters aren’t uniquely effective just because they’re charters. The structures surrounding them are important. So are each charter’s teachers and administrators. But there’s growing evidence—borne out by this year’s rankings—that the charter approach can make an extraordinary difference for students.

Here’s another way of thinking about this: charters’ success is as much about order as it is about flexibility. Instead of trying to hammer the current system’s regulatory chaos into a coherent educational model, they build one from scratch. Teachers in district schools often identify “good” administrators as those who best insulate students from the stress and disorder of the various regulatory systems governing their days. Charters have a chance to build their contracts, schedule, disciplinary systems, and curricula to fit their approach to pedagogy. They can align everything in the school towards making a difference for students, and they can adjust quickly if things aren’t working quite right at the outset.

This means different things for different schools. For New York City’s The Equity Project, it means paying teachers a six-figure starting salary (more than the principal) with additional bonuses available. For the Rocketship charter network, it means experimenting with ways to use computers to support instruction. For Washington, D.C.’s Mundo Verde, it means using a bilingual “expeditionary learning” model with a special emphasis on ecological sustainability. And so on and so forth.

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So charter schools aren’t one—they’re many. But we’re getting better at identifying the rules and practices that make it more likely that they’ll succeed. Parents are voting with their feet: while charters may only educate five percent of American students today, that represents an increase of 80 percent over the last five years. There are over one million students on charter waiting lists this fall. Keep an eye on the next few years’ rankings: the nation’s elite, selective high schools had better watch their backs.