04/24/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Students at Charter High Schools More to Likely to Graduate College

First there was No Child Left Behind (NCLB), then Race to the Top (RTTT). Now, under The Race to the Top High School Commencement Challenge (RTTTHSCC), a new initiative just announced in the Washington Post, one lucky school will have President Obama speak at its high school graduation. "The winning school must demonstrate how it's helping prepare students to meet Obama's goal of the U.S. having the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020."

The President is hyper-focused on improving our educational system. For good reason. Although there is controversy on how dropout rates are calculated, the Alliance for Excellent Education reports that only 69% of US high school students graduate with a regular diploma in four years. Perhaps even more stunning, according to the US Department of Education, Institute of Educational Sciences (IES) children living in families with incomes in the lowest 20 percent are six times more likely than children living in the top 20 percent to drop out of high school. These figures are real reminders of the generational societal costs of a broken educational system.

Rather than focus on short-term, short-lived test score gains, one new study focuses on attainment: graduating from high school and entering college. Late last week, Education Next reported on findings that followed groups of eighth graders in Florida and Chicago as they moved to high school and beyond. The study, conducted by Mathematica Policy Research, Inc., Florida State University, Michigan State University and RAND, found that "students who attend a charter high school are seven to 15 percentage points more likely to earn a standard diploma than students who attend a traditional public high school. Similarly, those attending a charter high school are eight to 10 percentage points more likely to attend college." (Kevin Booker, Tim R. Sass, Brian Gill and Ron Zimmer, "The Unknown World of Charter Schools," Education Next, Spring, 2010/ VOL 10, NO2.)

The study's exacting protocols and specifically designed control groups militate against all the unusual critics leery of charter school accomplishments. The sample was limited to children who had attended a charter school in 8th grade, and then examined graduation rates and attainment outcomes of the children who stayed in charter schools and compared those results to students who left the charter school to attend a regular public high school. While many charter school studies have focused on short-term gains and test scores, this is the first study that examines why we measure anyway: attainment.

So what is it about charter schools that get better results? The researchers are not sure, but I have some ideas. When schools have a clearly articulated mission and the faculty, families, children, and community understand and work toward the common goal, children succeed and opportunity for achievement is set in motion. Charter schools create a charter, or set of beliefs that govern, and then set about to educate guided by that clear vision. Charter schools have the autonomy to teach in alignment with their stated pedagogy. Charter schools can provide lessons, and become reference points for what can work in American education.

I have been working in education for over thirty years, and I recently joined the board of Hyde Leadership Charter School (Hyde-Bronx) in the South Bronx. Hyde-Bronx is located in the Hunts Point area, the poorest congressional district in the US. (U.S. Census Bureau, Statistical Abstract of the United States: 2003, Section 31, Table 1384. Congressional District Profiles -- 108th Congress: 2000). I first visited Hyde to attend an Open House in which students, faculty, and parents spoke about the school's recent accomplishments. After going through a security check and proceeding through a maze of hallways and up a flight of stairs, I was warmly welcomed. That afternoon I listened to students speak convincingly about how Hyde-Bronx helped them become honest in their relationships with family and friends, achieve academic excellence, take responsibility for their actions--accountably, was the actual word a poised eight year-old used--and work each day at being their best.

Hyde-Bronx doesn't just teach, it educates. The school has a clear and articulated mission to support the family and the child in their pursuit of knowledge and learning, to provide character education for children, and to require family participation, physical competency, and arts appreciation. Hyde-Bronx opened the high school this past fall with a class of seventy-five ninth graders, and all but nine came from the Hyde-Bronx eighth grade class. The school is only in its fourth year, but it has an impressive retention rate in a community devastated by transiency, poverty, gangs, and crime.

Schools like Hyde-Bronx offer an education that helps to transmit, from one generation to another, a well-informed citizenry eager to participate in society. As Hyde-Bronx adds one high school grade each year for the next three years, it is a charter school to watch. With the opportunity for children to attend Hyde-Bronx from kindergarten through 12th grade, I predict the school will easily meet Obama's challenge. I am not the only one impressed with what Hyde-Bronx has accomplished. New York State just approved a second Hyde school, which is set to open next fall in Brooklyn.