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When the Minnesota New Country School opened two decades ago in Le Sueur, a rural town 60 miles southwest of Minneapolis, co-founder Dee Thomas and her teachers hoped to do education differently. There would be no bells between classes. Teachers would come to decisions democratically. Students would learn through self-directed projects instead of traditional classroom lectures.

For its entire existence, the school—which is adding elementary grades to serve students from kindergarten to 12th grade beginning this fall—has clung steadfastly to its initial vision, including the project-based curriculum. But with public school regulations spreading across the country and accompanying pressure on schools to perform well on one-size-fits-all standardized tests, its unique approach is at risk.

“I feel like I have a permanent bruise on my forehead from running into a brick wall,” said Thomas. The school’s future “is always in jeopardy whenever quality is based on traditional standards.”

Charter school performance
Students at Minnesota New Country School, a project-based charter school in Henderson, Minn., work on individual projects. (Photo: Sarah Butrymowicz)

When the nation’s first charter school law was passed in Minnesota in 1991, advocates hoped the schools would serve as laboratories to try out new strategies. In return for this flexibility, schools would be forced to show results. Yet 22 years later, the charter movement nationwide is still grappling with this inherent tension between striving for creativity while measuring success in conventional ways.

Indeed, charter schools are feeling that tension more than ever as the importance of standardized test-scores increases throughout the country. In many states, scores are now used to set funding levels and teacher compensation, as well as to decide whether schools should be allowed to stay open at all. Meanwhile, new state and federal regulations are encroaching on charter schools’ autonomy by dictating, for instance, how they evaluate their teachers. As a result, some educators worry that the original premise of charters—to experiment with new ways of teaching and to serve the neediest students—could be in jeopardy.

“Sometimes I feel like the root of the charter movement is being hijacked,” said David Ellis, founder of the High School for Recording Arts, a charter school in St. Paul that caters to dropouts and over-age students.

Some in the charter community are pushing back. In Minnesota, Chicago and Southern California, educators have tried to devise alternate accountability systems for charters that include multiple measures of their performance.

In Minnesota, the Department of Education’s Charter Center has begun a two-year initiative, as part of a federal grant, to develop broader metrics for evaluating charter school performance. While academic results will be a factor, the center will also look at things like financial performance. Cindy Murphy, director of the center, said it’s too early to talk about the specifics of the system, but added that she’s “very much attuned to the limitations of test-scores.”

“We had a ton of focus on autonomy and independence, and then all of the sudden [a] focus on accountability. I don’t know we handled that transition especially well.” — Cindy Murphy, director of Minnesota’s Department of Education Charter Center

Joe Nathan, one of the original authors of Minnesota’s charter school law, has advocated for an alternate accountability system for all schools. Nathan says each school should set goals that are specific to its mission and student body. A school with a large population of English language learners might set goals around English proficiency rates. Or a school like New Country, which has been very effective with students diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder, may aim to reduce the number of students reliant on medication, Nathan said.

Leaders at New Country and the High School for Recording Arts say a less conventional approach to accountability would go a long way to helping them maintain their less conventional approach to education. Forty percent of New Country’s students enter two years below grade-level but make significant growth throughout the year, according to results on a national assessment. But the school isn’t allowed to submit those test-scores to its authorizer. Instead, success is judged solely on graduation rates and the state standardized test, called the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments. In 2012, fewer than 20 percent of the school’s students were proficient in math on that exam, while about 65 percent were proficient in reading.

The High School for Recording Arts incorporates a mix of traditional classes and project-based learning with a focus on the music industry and multimedia skills. The high school was placed on a federal list of low-performing schools in 2010 due to its four-year graduation rate of 25 percent. It took an “epic battle” to get the school removed from that list, Ellis said, based on the unique population it serves.

Increased regulations have also taken a toll. Since No Child Left Behind took effect in 2002, New Country has applied annually for a waiver from the “highly qualified teacher” requirement because it doesn’t have traditional classrooms. Now, Minnesota’s new teacher evaluation law will require charter schools to rate teachers on student learning and classroom observations. For a school like New Country, where there are no traditional lessons to observe, this measure would seem to make little practical sense.

A shift in purpose

The charter movement was born of a compromise between liberals who wanted room for greater creativity and conservatives who wanted more school choice. Less controversial than a voucher system, charters would operate within the public sector and be held to some of the same standards as traditional schools. But backers hoped their freedom from some bureaucratic rules—including curriculum guidelines and length of school day—would allow them to experiment and then pass along their best practices to all schools.

Charter school performance
A senior at Minnesota New Country School prepares for a presentation on hydroponic gardening. (Photo: Sarah Butrymowicz)

In practice, however, some charters have been far more experimental and innovative than others.  Some have unique curricula that focus on a particular culture, feature foreign language immersion programs, or incorporate technology in novel ways. But many, if not most, resemble traditional schools in their approaches and curricula. Indeed, some of the nation’s most popular charter chains, like the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP), take a back-to-the-basics approach by emphasizing conventional, classroom-based instruction in core subjects like math and reading.

Overall, charter school performance remains mixed. A recent study by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University, which looked at charters in 25 states and the District of Columbia, found that just a quarter of them outperformed  their more traditional peers in reading, and 29 percent did so in math. And low-performing charters have often been allowed to continue operating for years. The charters that close usually do so for financial or mismanagement reasons, both in Minnesota and around the country.

The middling quality of charter schools, on average, has led to calls for increased accountability and tighter regulations. Some states, including Florida and Ohio, have passed charter school closure laws that specify when a charter will be shut down based on its performance.

In Minnesota, lawmakers recently tweaked charter school rules to clarify that their primary purpose is to increase student achievement. The original set of priorities passed in the early 1990s included fostering innovative teaching practices and devising alternate ways to measure student achievement. Those are now secondary.

The reason for the change was both pragmatic and philosophical, according to Murphy. Congress voted in 2010 to mandate that federal money for charters only go to states where the law “clearly defines that student achievement is the most important factor in determining whether to renew or revoke a charter,” Murphy said.

But the new attitude also represents a stark shift from the “choice for choice’s sake” thinking that dominated the movement’s beginnings, said Murphy. “We had a ton of focus on autonomy and independence, and then all of the sudden [a] focus on accountability,” she said. “I don’t know we handled that transition especially well.”

The shift, charter leaders say, makes experimentation more difficult and less appealing. They say that increased paperwork and reports to authorizers have drained time and resources; they must spend more time negotiating with the state for exemptions or putting their students’ performance in context. For instance, being judged on graduation rates—as all high schools in Minnesota have been since 2012—means that schools serving dropouts or over-age students must constantly push for officials to look beyond the numbers in order to justify their existence.

“We’re not doing an experiment anymore,” Murphy said.

Other measures of success

Faculty members at New Country insist their students are achieving, often times in ways that aren’t captured by the state. For instance, in the 2011-12 school year, students demonstrated more growth on the national Measures of Academic Progress reading exam than did their peers in other schools. That year, all graduating seniors had plans to attend a two- or four-year college.

The school also evaluates itself on non-academic measures like community involvement and student engagement. It administers the Hope survey, a national assessment that monitors non-academic qualities like students’ sense of belonging and direction; in most cases, New Country students rate above the national average.

The school, now located in Henderson, a rural town 45 minutes southwest of Minneapolis, looks at first glance like an office. There are no classrooms, and students sit in one large room with their own self-decorated desks and computers.

Students come up with their own ideas about what they want to study and how to demonstrate what they’ve learned. A student might write a research paper on civil rights for a social studies credit, or grow tomatoes for a science credit.

On a snowy day in April, one group of students planned for an upcoming trip to Seattle, while a student movie crew interviewed people about motivation. Other students met in the school’s workshop area to prepare for a “super-mileage” car competition where teams try to build vehicles that can travel far on little fuel.

Thomas, the school’s director, says that regardless of the increased focus on standardized testing, she still cares much more about students being able to demonstrate strong communication and time-management skills by the time they graduate. “I don’t want to create uniform robots walking out the door,” she said. “We need to start creating innovators and entrepreneurs.”

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