Inquiry-based learning predicts Charter School failure

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American Charter Schools (and Free Schools in the UK) are an interesting concept for those of us who learnt our craft in traditional state education systems. The conventional model for providing state education is one of near uniformity – every school should meet certain standards. However, Charter Schools are intended to be different from each other. They are meant to provide meaningful variation so that parents have a choice about how their children are educated. In reality, choice is often lacking, with more successful schools having waiting lists and choosing students via lottery. Yet the intention of the system is clear: The variation between schools is supposed to generate evolution. Good practices should spread and bad practices should wither without anyone ever consciously laying down what all of these practices are. It is an alternative model for school improvement.

A new report has been released by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute that casts light on this process. The authors analysed proposals for Charter Schools that were sent to the bodies that authorise the opening of these schools in a number of different U.S. states. They found a set of factors that seemed to predict whether these authorities would approve a Charter School. For instance, if a proposal did not show how the school would have a sound financial foundation then it was more likely to be rejected.

The report authors then tracked the schools that were authorised and how these schools performed over their first few years. This performance is apparently a good predictor of later performance – few school that start badly turn this situation around. They examined a number of factors that research suggested might reasonably affect school performance and they whittled these down to features that were easy to spot in an application. They then looked at the academic progress of students in these schools to see which of these factors were good predictors.

The following factors were found to predict academic failure:

1. Lack of Identified Leadership: Charter applications that propose a self-managed school without naming its initial school leader.

2. High Risk, Low Dose: Charter applications that propose to serve at-risk pupils but plan to employ “low dose” academic programs that do not include sufficient academic supports, such as intensive small-group instruction or individual tutoring.

3. A Child-Centered Curriculum: Charter applications that propose to deploy child-centered, inquiry-based pedagogies, such as Montessori, Waldorf, Paideia, or experiential programs.

These risk factors significantly boosted the probability of low academic progress compared to other schools, with the presence of two or more in an application boosting this probability to 80%.

I am not surprised by these findings. The importance of leadership is often over-emphasised but a new school needs a clear vision and clear lines of authority. If a school is taking on academically at-risk students then it must have a plan for how it is going to turn things around for those students. This plan needs to directly target academic skills rather than engage students in mindfulness or whatever the latest fashion suggests.

The authors seem a little surprised that the use of inquiry learning would predict school failure. I am not. There is plenty of evidence that inquiry learning is less effective than explicit instruction. The difference in effectiveness will be even more pronounced for students who have a history of poor academic performance because inquiry learning relies more on prior knowledge and home resources than explicit instruction.

It seems that Charter School authorisers may be unaware of the negative influence of inquiry-learning because proposals to adopt inquiry-based teaching methods made no difference to whether schools would gain approval. Perhaps we need to raise awareness.

The authors also discuss an interesting ethical point. The judgement they make of schools is based upon academic performance. What if parents are not interested in their children performing well academically? Should they still be given the choice of these failing schools? No. This is taxpayer money and it is meant to serve both the individual and the public good. The public gains nothing from students who cannot read and write.

It reminds me a little of the argument in the U.K. about whether homeopathic remedies should be available on the state-funded National Health Service. I am quite clear that they should not be available. If people want to waste their own money on sugar pills then that is up to them but wasting taxpayers’ money is a different matter. Applying this principle to Charters and Free Schools would raise an interesting discussion: Should we allow the planned variation to include approaches that we already know to be ineffective?

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