When the Minnesota New Country School opened two decades ago in Le Sueur, a rural town 60 miles southwest of Minneapolis, co-founder Dee Thomas and her teachers hoped to do things differently. There would be no bells between classes. Teachers would come to decisions democratically. Students would learn through self-directed projects instead of traditional classroom lectures.
For its entire existence, the school—which is adding elementary grades to serve students from kindergarten to 12th grade beginning this fall—has clung steadfastly to its initial vision. But with increasing amounts of state regulation and accompanying pressure on schools to perform well on one-size-fits-all standardized tests, New Country’s approach is at risk.
“I feel like I have a permanent bruise on my forehead from running into a brick wall,” said Thomas. The school’s future “is always in jeopardy whenever quality is based on traditional standards.”
The nation’s first charter school law passed in Minnesota in 1991, an attempt to transform schools into laboratories of innovation. In return for this flexibility, schools would be forced to show results. But 22 years later, the national charter movement is still grappling with the tension between creativity and conventional measurements of success.
Overall, charter school performance remains mixed. A recent study by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University, which looked at charters in 25 states and the District of Columbia, found that just a quarter of them outperformed their more traditional peers in reading, and 29 percent did so in math. And low-performing charters have often been allowed to continue operating for years. The charters that close usually do so for financial or mismanagement reasons.
The middling quality of charter schools, on average, has led to calls for increased accountability and tighter regulations. Some states, including Florida and Ohio, have passed charter school closure laws that specify when a charter will be shut down based on its performance.
In Minnesota, lawmakers recently tweaked charter school rules to clarify that their primary purpose is to increase student achievement. The original set of priorities passed in the early 1990s included fostering innovative teaching practices and devising alternate ways to measure student achievement. Those are now secondary.
The reason for the change was both pragmatic and philosophical, according to Cindy Murphy, directors of the Minnesota Education Department’s Charter Center. Congress voted in 2010 to mandate that federal money for charters only go to states where the law “clearly defines that student achievement is the most important factor in determining whether to renew or revoke a charter,” Murphy said.
But the new attitude also represents a stark shift from the “choice for choice’s sake” thinking that dominated the movement’s beginnings, said Murphy. “We had a ton of focus on autonomy and independence, and then all of the sudden [a] focus on accountability,” she said. “I don’t know we handled that transition especially well.”
The shift, charter leaders say, makes experimentation more difficult and less appealing. They say that increased paperwork and reports to authorizers have drained time and resources; they must spend more time negotiating with the state for exemptions or putting their students’ performance in context. For instance, being judged on graduation rates—as all high schools in Minnesota have been since 2012—means that schools serving dropouts or over-age students must constantly push for officials to look beyond the numbers in order to justify their existence.
Increased regulations have also taken a toll. Since No Child Left Behind took effect in 2002, New Country has applied annually for a waiver from the “highly qualified teacher” requirement because it doesn’t have traditional classrooms. Now, Minnesota’s new teacher evaluation law will require charter schools to rate teachers on student learning and classroom observations. For a school like New Country, where there are no traditional lessons to observe, compliance will be difficult.
That’s why some in the charter community are pushing back. In Minnesota, Chicago and Southern California, educators have tried to devise alternate accountability systems for charters that include multiple measures of their performance, including things like financial performance and school culture.
Joe Nathan, one of the original authors of Minnesota’s charter school law, says every school, not just charters, should be judged on merits that are specific to its mission and student body. A school with a large population of English language learners might set goals around English proficiency rates. Or a school like New Country, which has been very effective with students diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder, may aim to reduce the number of students reliant on medication, Nathan said.
Faculty members at New Country insist their students are achieving, often times in ways that aren’t captured by the state. In 2012, fewer than 20 percent of the school’s students were proficient in math on that exam, while about 65 percent were proficient in reading. But that year, students demonstrated more growth on the national Measures of Academic Progress reading exam than did their peers in other schools. All graduating seniors had plans to attend a two- or four-year college.
The school also evaluates itself on non-academic measures like community involvement and student engagement. It administers the Hope survey, a national assessment that monitors non-academic qualities like students’ sense of belonging and direction; in most cases, New Country students rate above the national average.
The school, now located in Henderson, a rural town 45 minutes southwest of Minneapolis, looks at first glance like an office. There are no classrooms, and students sit in one large room with their own self-decorated desks and computers.
Students come up with their own ideas about what they want to study and how to demonstrate what they’ve learned. A student might write a research paper on civil rights for a social studies credit, or grow tomatoes for a science credit.
On a snowy day in April, one group of students planned for an upcoming trip to Seattle, while a student movie crew interviewed people about motivation. Other students met in the school’s workshop area to prepare for a “super-mileage” car competition where teams try to build vehicles that can travel far on little fuel.
Thomas, the school’s director, says that regardless of the increased focus on standardized testing, she still cares much more about students being able to demonstrate strong communication and time-management skills by the time they graduate. “I don’t want to create uniform robots walking out the door,” she said. “We need to start creating innovators and entrepreneurs.”
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University.