This website is no longer actively maintained
Some material and features may be unavailable
Noliwe RooksBack to OpinionNoliwe Rooks

Reframing the debate over charter schools

The College Board's College Completion Agenda.

As 2012 begins, and along with it, our personal resolutions for the New Year, there is no better time for the nation to give a collective thought to our resolutions for the country’s public education system. The College Board has recently released a report called the College Completion Agenda, looking back at our progress in 2011 toward achieving the goal called for by the Obama Administration of having 55 percent of young people in the United States earn a college degree. Our report card is not good.

Today, with roughly 41 percent of American citizens earning a college degree, we have fallen to number 12 among the world’s developed countries. While the falling numbers of college graduates indicate a cause for concern, the numbers for African-American and Latino young people indicate an especially disturbing crisis. Only 19 percent of Latino youth have completed an associate’s degree or higher, with 29 percent of African-American young people having done the same.

In the last year there has been quite a bit of media and policy attention put on urban education reform. Feel-good stories about the success of certain charter school models like the Harlem Children’s Zone’s Promise Academy, The Uncommon Schools network, and the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) abound. These schools, the media narrative goes, are poor, black and brown kids’ great hope — promoting higher test scores, increasing high school graduation rates and advocating for higher levels of college attendance.

They are certainly newsworthy, but a closer look reveals that the story of their success is more complex than portrayed. According to research available on the KIPP website, though almost 85 percent of the students graduating from their schools go to college, only 30 percent actually graduate. Of course, high school graduation is a worthy goal, and some college-level work is better than none. But according to the 2011 College Board report, in order to impact poverty rates, increase the qualified workforce for American businesses and ensure economic growth nationwide, college graduation is key.

Policy makers, education reporters and philanthropic organizations who really want to bring about a lasting change in the education of poor and minority youth in urban areas must begin to focus not on the educational “flavor of the month,” but on schools with models that have proven to lead to consistently high levels of college graduation over time.

One such school, the Richmond, Calif.-based Making Waves Academy, while not featured in any films or even mentioned much in the press, has a 20-year history of stunning educational success with the most economically disadvantaged children in one of the lowest performing school districts in the country. More than twice as many of the students who attend Making Waves graduate from college as do those who attend KIPP schools, with almost 60 percent of their students graduating from college and almost 30 percent of that number going on to graduate school. The students from Making Waves are already graduating from college at levels called for by the Obama administration.

The Making Waves Academy works differently from the charter schools we generally hear so much about. In addition to a high quality educational environment, which includes full daily periods of art classes and sports programs (often missing at traditional charter schools), at Making Waves, students are provided with a whole host of support services, from nutritional counseling to parent education to mental health support. The school has high expectations and makes no excuses, but is realistic about providing a safety net that will ensure the success its students.

Another way that Making Waves differs from many highly publicized charter schools is that they do not primarily hire recent college graduates to teach their students. Most of the teachers at Making Waves are highly experienced. Many have doctorates or master’s degrees. Also, instead of holding teachers almost entirely accountable for the success or failure of their students, with threats of dismissal for teachers when students don’t achieve, teachers at Making Waves are provided with professional development opportunities and peer mentoring programs. They also participate in the governance of the school and have a role in shaping both the curriculum and the environment, for themselves as well as for the students. As a result, turnover is low. Of the 80 staff and faculty at the school in 2010, only five left in 2011. Turnover among teachers and staff at many highly touted charter schools can reach as high as 50 percent. It is hard to ensure stability with that kind of change.

And Making Waves Academy is efficient with its funding, too. The school has been able to achieve all this success at an annual cost of about $15,000 per student. This amount is less than what the states of New Jersey and New York currently pay to educate children.

So, why don’t we know more about this school and others like it? Because far too much of our country’s education debate is focused on the schools that publicize and market their models most aggressively, as opposed to those where college graduation is the number one priority.

Hagiographic media coverage of certain charter schools leads the public to believe that the battle over how to educate poor and struggling Black and Latino students has been won. With the low numbers of Blacks and Latinos graduating from college, this is far from the case. According to the Census Bureau, the average college graduate will earn close to a million dollars more over the course of a lifetime than a student whose road dead-ended at high school. High school and college dropouts account for 75 percent of the prison population in some states.

To be clear, the high-flying numbers achieved by schools like the Success Academy Charter Schools in Harlem, for example — where between 94 to 97 percent of all Black and Latino students pass state achievement tests — should be lauded. The vast majority of Success Academy students are on track to graduate from high school, which is no small thing for a community with high school graduation rates hovering around 40 percent.

But we have to want even more for our kids. Students in top schools with equivalent test scores tend to graduate college upwards of 70 percent of the time. Why isn’t the same true for the Black and Latino students within highly touted and publicized charter schools? It is time to focus on the educational models that have an answer to that question, and the long history of proof to back it up — not the ones with the flashiest press kits or the most charismatic communications representatives.

Noliwe Rooks is the associate director of the Center for African American Studies at Princeton University and the founding coordinator of the Center’s urban education reform initiative.