The Future of High School Reform

Education experts voiced their ideas at U.S. News's education summit.


MICHAEL COHEN: This is actually a tough question. We don't have a system that is designed, that is set up, that is governed and managed to make rapid, dramatic, effective change. We just don't. And what we have—you know, we have 50 states, 15,000 school districts. By the way, we also separate our education systems between K-12 and higher ed. Nobody in their right mind would have designed the system that way if they wanted it to change rapidly. They just wouldn't. I don't have a solution to that, to tell you the truth. The U.S. News list of those hundred best and then all the schools that made the top list, some of our really competitive admissions high schools are fabulous. But there are lots of other schools that made the list, sort of high poverty schools that are very high performing, and in particular charter schools. What are the opportunities with charters, and what are the tensions?

HESS: What charters do is—what charters do is provide an opportunity, if they have a model that makes sense and if they're well run, to start to circumvent some of these constraints. They get outside the box on a lot of the baked-in rules, regulations, and contracts that otherwise folks have to unwind in local districts. Charters have an opportunity to tap into talent pools because they can structure compensation and recruitment, professional development in different ways, and they have an opportunity to take a model that works for them and just do it, rather than try to coach somebody else halfway across the country as to how it should be done. Now, these are all opportunities that charters have. Whether or not these are implemented effectively and whether charters are organized in a way that takes advantage of these opportunities is a crapshoot, and the reality is, of the nation's 4,200 charter schools today, probably well over half don't effectively exploit these opportunities, but the ones that do are some of our most promising schools.

JUSTIN COHEN: I think one of the things that charters give us is an alternative to a very traditional sort of progression through the school's hierarchy, if you will. When you look at charters, what charters give us the ability to do is think more clearly about what it means to go to scale, and to rethink, sort of, the manner in which we've sort of codified the hierarchy and school bureaucracy, and where we might have made some missteps. So, you talk to great charter school leaders, you know, like the [Knowledge Is Power program] schools, you know, they didn't think, how are we going to get to scale? They thought, how are we going to run two really great schools? And then they thought, all right, how do we run 10 really great schools now? And so that was always the question. So, it gives us the ability to sort of think clearly about what it takes to run schools at scale.

JAMES: I think it's safe to say that [charter schools] have created tension. There's no doubt about it. I think I would follow that up by saying that everybody understands, I think, that charters are here to stay. We had a very low cap in Arkansas, in terms of the number of charter schools that were first put into legislative language that could take place. We've now doubled that cap. What I say to the—and the state board approves everyone of those applications that has to come before the state board for action. And what I try to say to the state board, as well as when we talk to all the schools across the state, the litmus test in that application needs to be quality in terms of what it is you're trying to do. And we've had some very, very successful charter schools in Arkansas, KIP being the most successful. We've had some other charter schools that have not [been as successful]. But in all honesty, we probably didn't pay as good of due diligence in terms of approving some of those initially as we should have, in terms of that complete process.

So, I think they've pushed the envelope; they've created an environment in terms of competition, which I think is good as we continue to move this conversation forward.