THE BLOG
12/01/2014 10:15 am ET Updated Jan 31, 2015

Stop Meaningless Debates and Learn From Schools That Work

There are good public district schools and not-so-good district schools; good charter schools and not-so-good charters. The challenge is to learn from schools that are succeeding --especially for students I call "school-dependent," or those who, because of family and financial circumstances, rely on schools to improve their academic and life trajectories. We can never forget that the primary purpose of schooling is learning and teaching. If making every school successful is the goal, then the primary focus must be on teacher and teaching quality. However, until we recognize that education transformation and elimination of poverty are two sides of the same proverbial coin, some students will be left behind. Bill Wilson and Joe Nathan, this week's guest writers, are educators who exemplify dynamic leadership, embrace lifelong learning and know something about successful schools. -- Eric J. Cooper

By Bill Wilson and Joe Nathan

Let's stop arguing whether district or charter schools are more effective. It's a waste of time. Why not learn from the best of each? In some places, government, higher education and private foundations are encouraging learning from the best district and charter schools and promoting collaboration among all of them. We need more of that.

"District" vs. "charter" comparisons are meaningless because these schools vary enormously. Some target students who have not succeeded at traditional schools; others serve a cross-section of students. Some use a particular approach, such as German, French, Chinese or Spanish immersion; others center on a curriculum, such as Core Knowledge or Montessori.

What we should do is determine which schools show the most progress with specific groups of students in such areas as attendance, test scores, safety, community-service participation and, where appropriate, graduation rates and college readiness. Then, we should share and replicate those successes.

One of these success stories is Higher Ground Academy (HGA) a K-12 public charter school in St. Paul, Minn. More than 95 percent of HGA's 720 students come from low-income families -- most are East African immigrants. US News and World Report consistently has ranked HGA as one of Minnesota's most effective public schools (this year, US News named it the best public high school in Minneapolis/St. Paul.) For the last four years, the Star Tribune, Minnesota's largest daily newspaper, has listed HGA on its "beat the odds" list of schools with the highest percentage of students from low-income families who are proficient on state reading and math tests.

What can be learned from Higher Ground Academy?

  • Each student must apply and be admitted to a higher education program before graduating high school. This sends the clear message that, while HGA is an important step, higher education is vital for students to become active, constructive citizens.
  • Each high school student is strongly encouraged to take at least one dual high-school/college-credit course. Last year, 87 percent of HGA juniors and seniors did so. Research shows that students who take such courses are significantly more likely graduate from high school and graduate from a higher-education program.
  • Each student has an individual plan that he or she develops in partnership with faculty.
  • HGA hires outstanding graduates to serve as teachers' aides, because they are great models.
  • The school uses the "Hope Survey" to assess whether students are gaining skills to set goals and confidence that they can reach those goals.
  • There's a mix of veteran and new teachers, including some Teach for America graduates.
  • HGA is a choice. There's a huge difference between being assigned to attend an inferior school based on your race/culture (as one of is was forced to do) and having options. White people have had choices for more 150 years. People of color and low income families deserve them, too.
  • Co-location can be valuable. HGA and the Center for School Change share space, which benefits HGA students and CSC's work.

Collaboration is critical. With help from the Otter Bremer Foundation, Frey Foundation of Minnesota, Morning Foundation, Saint Paul Foundation, and Travelers Foundation, HGA and the Center for School Change worked over the last three years with five other inner-city schools, both district and charter, to increase the number of students taking dual high-school/college-credit courses. Participating schools served mostly low-income students. Many of these students will be the first in their families to attend college.

The results? Over three years, each school reported triple-digit or better increases in the number of dual-credit enrollments. Overall, dual-credit enrollment increased nearly 400 percent. The project helped retrain faculty to continue to offer dual-credit courses after grant funds ended. Schools learned from each other, with strong support from the local district and the St. Paul Federation of Teachers.

Colleges and universities compete and collaborate. District and charter public schools need to follow that lead. The rest of us -- from ordinary taxpayers to foundations, schools and government at all levels -- need to encourage them.

Bill Wilson, HGA's founder and executive director, served as Minnesota Commissioner of Human Rights and later became the first African American elected to the St. Paul, Minnesota City Council. Joe Nathan spent many years as an urban public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, helped write Minnesota's charter school law, and directs the Center for School Change.

Bill Wilson served as Minnesota Commissioner of Human Rights and later became the first African American elected to the St. Paul, Minnesota City Council.

Joe Nathan spent many years as an urban public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, helped write Minnesota's charter school law, and directs the Center for School Change.

Eric J. Cooper is the founder and president of the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education, a nonprofit professional development organization that provides student-focused professional development, advocacy and organizational guidance to accelerate student achievement. He can be reached at e_cooper@nuatc.org. He tweets @ECooper4556.