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‘Gap Busters': Lessons from Charter Authorizers in Helping All Kids Achieve More

Rausch: As schools continue to struggle with lost learning, accountability can help raise standards and improve student outcomes.

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It’s the end of another school year, and while celebration is certainly in order — millions of teachers, students and families have worked incredibly hard — schools also must use this time to reckon with a challenging truth. Four years after the pandemic rocked America's education system, students continue to post lackluster test scores and far-from-adequate learning gains. Too many children still are not getting the education they need to thrive. I have no doubt that the summer will be filled with reflection and plans to tackle this challenge anew next year. I also think there’s a good chance that many education leaders could overlook a key lever in improving student outcomes – the power of accountability and the model provided by charter school authorizers.

Charter authorizers often fly under the radar, and few people understand the link between authorizers, accountability and learning. Even fewer grasp that the lessons authorizers can teach can help all students achieve more.

The nature of charter schools is that they are granted the flexibility to meet children’s needs in return for accountability for meeting their promises to families and taxpayers. In order to set and meet these requirements, charter schools need an authorizer. A strong authorizer creates accountability by defining clear expectations for student outcomes, working alongside schools, families and communities to ensure they are met and driving change and improvement when schools don’t deliver on that promise.

When accountability is at its best, it creates space for innovation. When standards for excellence are clear, schools have the freedom to assess and implement the right curriculum, staffing models and budgets in ways that creatively meet the needs of the students they serve. The result is that families have access to schools that offer and prioritize different things — from an arts focus to International Baccalaureate, language immersion or individualized learning — with the confidence that all are able to deliver high-quality outcomes.

As the president and CEO of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, I interact with hundreds of charter authorizers on a regular basis. My organization has seen time and time again that a strong authorizer will have a strong accountability system, which in turn creates a greater number of students achieving at high levels and a shrinking number of kids learning below grade level. More simply put, the combination of authorizing, accountability and innovation almost always creates the results education professionals and families so desperately crave — improved student learning.

And this is not just from NACSA's observations; it is backed up by research. A longitudinal study released last year by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University found that the majority of charter schools accelerated academic outcomes for students at impressive rates. CREDO designated more than 1,000 charter schools as “gap busters,” citing their ability to demonstrate strong results overall and close historically persistent achievement gaps. Impact like this is possible, in part, because authorizers hold and enforce high standards: saying “yes” and making it easier for students and families to access charter schools and networks with strong results, saying “no” to networks with poor results. The study described how important strong authorizing practices and accountability systems are in producing schools that can close gaps in student achievement.

Sadly, while evidence continues to point to the power of strong accountability in raising student outcomes, the term has for too long been associated with punishment and school closures, limiting the ability of superintendents, principals and even charter authorizers to rely on accountability measures as a tool for improving student learning. To be clear, persistently failing charter schools must be closed, and when that happens, students and families need to be equipped with the information, freedom and access necessary to select a school better suited for them. But strong accountability is so much more than that — it weaves together multiple measures of learning and success and relies on community, collaboration and access to resources as some of its core pillars.

If education advocates and practitioners could expand the understanding of this crucial lever for student achievement, it would become far easier for more schools, districts and states to truly invest in the practice of accountability.

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