This month the Thomas B. Fordham Institute released a fascinating study, Three Signs a Proposed Charter School is At Risk of Failing. The report searches for indicators in the applications of proposed charter schools that were associated with those schools eventually posting low student performance. The authors found three signs associated with eventual charter school failure: 1) a lack of identified leadership for self-managed charter schools, 2) a lack planning for specific, intensive interventions for at-risk students, and of particular interest to me, 3) whether the school was proposing a "child-centered" curriculum or instructional approach like Montessori or Waldorf.
The findings of this study are useful to policy-makers and those involved in charter school authorizing, especially here in Kentucky where we've recently moved to become the 44th state to allow charters. All of these risk factors for charter failure are worth pondering, but I'm specifically interested in the third finding regarding schools that intend to use a more non-traditional, "child-centered" approach. For several years I've been writing about my desire to see more public schools and schools of choice embrace such philosophies, especially Montessori. Three Signs is a warning that charter applicants and authorizers need to think very carefully about how to make such innovative strategies successful.
The authors of Three Signs examined charter school applications from four states (Colorado, North Carolina, Indiana, and Texas) and looked for elements that were associated with whether the applicant turned out to be a "low-performing" school, defined as being in the lowest 25% of schools in student achievement, and below the 50th percentile in academic growth in their early years of operation (previous research has indicated that if a charter is low-performing in its early years, it will likely remain so). Three patterns emerged:
1) Failure to identify the principal, or strong principal candidates, in the school's application resulted in a 51% likelihood that the school would be low performing. This pattern did not hold if the applicant was affiliating with an existing charter school network.
2) If the school intended to work with at-risk populations of students, but failed to describe "an intensive academic program that includes high-dosage, small-group instruction or extensive individual tutoring," the school was 61% likely to be l0w performing.
3) If the school intended to offer a "child-centered, inquiry-based learning model, such as Waldorf, Montessori, Paideia, or other experiential models," it had a 57% chance of turning out l0w performing.
When a charter school application had two or more of these risk factors, the chance of failure increased to 80%.
The researchers recommend that, rather than simply reject charter school applications with these risk factors, authorizers think about how to mitigate against these risks and increase the likelihood that such schools can actually succeed. For example, authorizers can insist that applicants provide a carefully crafted rubric and strategic plan for recruiting, selecting, and retaining high-quality leadership applicants, and ask applicants who intend to work with at-risk students to intentionally elaborate on their intervention and student support plans.
Regarding the issue of schools that want to use experiential models of learning, the authors of Three Signs point out that charters are intended to be innovative and try approaches that would be more difficult in traditional school environments, and that 20-30 percent of existing charters utilize such models. Montessori programs in public schools have increased by 50% since 2000, and half of these are charter schools.
But such programs require extensive and specialized training for teachers, and the researchers speculate that some of these charter schools may have lacked sufficient supports so that child-centered strategies can be implemented with fidelity. Moreover, some of these methods involve multi-age grouping of students which may, if learning is not personalized to students' individual readiness levels, result in a misalignment of curriculum with materials assessed on state tests. Three Signs suggests authorizers take care to ensure that charter school applicants who intend to use innovative methods take these issues into careful consideration.
I appreciate the researchers' thoughtful discussion of these issues, and I certainly hope charter applicants and authorizers are not discouraged from pursuing child-centered philosophies. Some of the most exciting examples of education innovation I've seen are where schools are attempting to integrate a rigorous curriculum with Montessori methods, especially with at-risk learners. But I have also observed how difficult it is to implement such approaches with fidelity. Schools require strong structures of teacher training and development and appropriate resources or they easily lapse into a weak version that Montessori dad and author Trevor Eissler calls "Monte-something."
Such resources and supports do exist, however. The National Center for Montessori in the Public Sector is devoted specifically to helping public Montessori programs, whether in charter or district-run schools, implement the Method with fidelity. The other findings from Three Signs also suggest that, to enhance the success of charter schools using experiential models of learning, applicants and authorizers must take careful steps to ensure strong leadership and thorough plans for student interventions and supports.
Other research data, while limited, indicate that when Montessori is used with fidelity student achievement can be enhanced. I hope charter school applicants, operators, and authorizers, especially here in Kentucky, will pay attention.
Usual disclaimer: All views expressed on this website are mine alone and do not reflect the opinions of Western Kentucky University (my employer) or the Kentucky Board of Education (where I serve as a member).