Marlene Canter: What's right in L.A.'s charter schools

After reading a recent Stanford University study on charter school performance, I was left with a burning question: What are charters in Los Angeles doing so right?

From my perspective as a former LAUSD president and current chair of the Green Dot Public Schools Board, I believe the answer can, and should, help address the ongoing crisis our public education system faces.

For those who missed it, Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes, or CREDO, released its study of charter schools in LAUSD in late February. It found students in charter schools learned significantly more than their peers in traditional public schools in both reading and math. CREDO measures this growth in terms of how many more “days of learning” a student gains during the 180-day school year – essentially, if a student learns faster than average, she gains “days of learning” from one year to the next. According to CREDO’s findings, charter students in Los Angeles gained an additional 50 days of learning in reading and 79 in math.

Of particular note in a district that is more than 70 percent Latino, the results for Latino charter students were especially strong; Latino students from low-income homes, in fact, gained the most: 58 days in reading and 115 in math. Overall, CREDO found, “[t]he results in Los Angeles are among the strongest observed in any of the previous CREDO studies.”

In other words, there is something special happening here – from Venice to South Los Angeles to the San Gabriel Valley – that should be part of the national discussion on education reform. It is time to shine a light on what these charter providers are doing to better prepare their students for success in college, career and life. The CREDO report suggests careful authorizing of charters and strong accountability are critical. But the real story goes much deeper.

At Green Dot, our success story starts with an academic model that ensures quality teaching, cultivates a college-going culture, teaches leadership and life skills, and eliminates barriers to learning.

The result is a college-ready graduation rate that is more than 1.5 times the statewide average in California (64.0 percent versus 38.3 percent) and more than twice that of comparable schools (64.0 percent versus 28.5 percent).

Our story includes engagement of parents and small, focused learning environments where teachers and principals know all students by name.

We emphasize professional development for our teachers including mentoring and feedback. Other charter operators have their own stories to tell.

I am by no means suggesting all charter schools in Los Angeles are doing everything right. CREDO’s series of reports on charters shows where they can do better; other studies provide similar guidance. Having been involved with LAUSD for so many years, including as Chair of its Charters and Innovation Committee, I also know there are many challenges specific to the district, which – for starters – is five times the size of any other in California. The district deserves applause for its rising student performance, especially following the funding squeeze caused by the Great Recession. And I believe that the district can do even better by studying and replicating the innovations led by teachers, principals and administrators on Los Angeles charter school campuses.

The CREDO report is further evidence of this fact. But more importantly, it should be a call to action. All of us who share the common goal to provide the best possible education for every single student in Los Angeles should pool our knowledge and expertise across charter and traditional public schools.

We don’t need Stanford experts to tell us that every day we wait is another day we’ve lost.

Marlene Canter is chair of the Green Dot Public Schools board of directors and a former president of the Los Angeles Unified School District board of trustees.

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