Former Akron City Councilman Ernie Tarle hopes to create a charter school in Akron that emulates the practices of the country’s highest performing urban charter schools.
The schools are commonly referred to as following a “no excuses” approach that emphasizes a college preparatory curriculum, longer school days and years, strict discipline and conduct, intense tutoring, use of data to improve test scores and a staff of youthful, inexperienced teachers who sign on to the schools’ philosophy and typically do not belong to a union.
Tarle said teachers will start at salaries of $32,000 with $3,000 more in performance bonuses, but they’ll work longer hours for the money. He said he will argue to the board that the teachers should be unionized, possibly joining the Akron Education Association that represents the district’s teachers.
The Akron Academy of Excellence, for example, would have an eight-hour day instead of the more typical six hours, and a school year that begins Aug. 20 and ends June 14 — Akron Public Schools start Aug. 29 and end June 6 — with “Saturday school” as needed for test preparation and catch-up for students who are falling behind.
“It’s a very paternalistic model when you get right down to it,” Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist Joshua Angrist said. “The no excuses schools, they do a lot of what we would hope that families would do. They provide a safe, highly structured environment characterized by discipline and clear expectations and some moral guidance and a lot of teaching. It’s very much replacing absent families in high-poverty inner-city districts.”
Angrist is a co-author of a paper released last month, What Makes Charter Schools Effective, that found inner-city kids attending “no excuses” charter schools in Massachusetts did better than their peers in traditional schools. The “no excuses” charters were the only urban charter schools that effectively boosted test scores. The paper is under review for publication in a peer-reviewed journal.
The researchers asked schools if they described themselves as following the “no excuses” model, which gets its name from a 2003 book No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning by Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom.
“But we also collected data on school practice,” Angrist said. “The schools that identify with no excuses are indeed doing those things, so it’s not really ambiguous. There tends to be a clear division in the charter world.”
They also chose charter schools that typically have to turn away applicants for lack of space and use random lotteries for admission.
That gave the researchers a chance to compare the test scores of students who got into the charter schools with kids from the same neighborhood who applied for the lottery but didn’t get in and remained in a traditional public school.
Because the lottery is random, the lottery losers give the researchers a natural “control” group to compare with students who get the “no excuses” education. The researchers examined middle school and high schools using state high-stakes testing data from the 2001-2002 school year through the 2010-2011 school year.
Comparing test scores
Using schools that had more applicants than slots also helps defuse criticism that charter schools are successful because those children and parents were motivated enough to enter the lottery in the first place and shouldn’t be compared with students who weren’t motivated to get into the lottery.
“Our results show that attending an urban no excuses charter school for one year increases math scores by about 12 percentile points and reading scores by about 6 percentile points,” study co-author Chris Walters said. “One way to think about these effects is to compare them to the white-black achievement gap, which is roughly 30 percentile points.”
In this study and others, researchers are comparing kids from similar backgrounds who were equally motivated to enter the lottery, but who were assigned randomly to either the charter school or the traditional school based on luck of the draw.
“The findings are quite rigorous,” Angrist said. “That’s why it’s a lot of fun to do research on this topic.”
Angrist argues that the “no excuses” model achieves the most gains for poor, inner-city kids who come in with low test scores.
Some critics have questioned whether private donations give well-known charter schools such as KIPP an edge over traditional schools, but Angrist said it’s difficult to sort out. Some charters (and traditional district schools) raise money through private donations and some do not. He said the charters that do might boost the average $13,000 per pupil annual expenditure by another $1,000 to $2,000 without increasing the cost to the taxpayer. He said charters typically have to rent their buildings, which also makes apples-to-apples comparisons with traditional schools difficult.
Modeling after program
The KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) schools are among the best known of the “no excuses” schools and the model is one of three approaches represented by the high-achieving Breakthrough schools nonprofit network in Cleveland.
It’s also the model for the I-Can schools, which Tarle will attempt to replicate in Akron.
He has tapped Michelle Person to be the principal of the Academy of Excellence. A graduate of Skidmore College, she joined Teach for America in 2000 and was placed in the Newark, N.J., schools where she taught for four years. She also taught in a KIPP school and at Citizens Academy in Cleveland, which is part of the Breakthrough network. She was a founding teacher in the KIPP school in Columbus.
Person said that by the end of the summer, she’ll have her principal’s license.
She said the school will use practices shown to be effective in raising test scores on standardized state tests.
“It’s not a formula; it’s knowing your population,” Person said. “And the population that we will be serving, there are certain techniques that work best with them, and we just happen to do them.”