When charter-run schools were started they were viewed as potential laboratories of innovation. Where lessons learned would be replicated in the district-run schools. This promise has gone largely undeveloped for a host of reasons. But if we look at Oakland data, and review some research there is a gem to be found.
One of the most striking differences between charter-run and district-run schools in Oakland is not the slightly higher charter achievement, nor the somewhat differing demographics; it’s grade configurations.
73% of charter-run schools are k-8 or 6-12, while only 9% of district-run schools are, according to OUSD data. As any parent can attest, these school transitions from elementary to middle or middle to high are typically stressful times for kids and families, and from a feel perspective, I think most of us would say the less transitions the better.
Research backs this up in spades
Student transitions between schools (from a distinct elementary to middle, or middle to high) has shown a number of largely negative effects on student achievement, discipline, and self-esteem. The most comprehensive review I found “Review of Literature on Grade Configuration and School Transitions” by the University of Minnesota’s College of Education and Human Development found a significant weight of research that supported reducing or eliminating transitions between grades specifically;
- For student achievement- “The majority of these (26) studies found that elementary school students (those who did not transition) did significantly better than middle and junior high school students of the same age in G.P.A…(and that) the majority of research in this review investigating the impact of school transitions found that students transitioning to another school experience a significant drop in achievement related outcomes. In one study this was particularly acute for African American students.
- For student psychological and social emotional outcomes- “The majority of research showed significant advantages in these areas for students in elementary (no transitions) and k-8 grade students versus students in middle school or junior high school configurations. …with the majority of research reviewed for this report showed that school transitions have a significantly negative impact on students’ psychological and social well-being”
- On student behavior- “One clear finding across all studies was that school transitions, overall, had negative effects on student behavior” Leading to the conclusion that “the fewer the transitions for students the better”
- A similar review by The School Administrator found that, “every transitions from one narrowly configured school to another seems to disrupt the social structure in which learning takes place, lowering participation and achievement for many students, predictably this damage will be most sever in the cases of students from impoverished backgrounds. “
Working with students, and seeing them fall off cliffs as they transition from our small charter middle schools, to larger comprehensive high schools, it was painful, to watch them get lost.
I remember one student who would come back to our middle school when he should have been at Skyline, and just asking if we could give him work to do at our school, saying that, “nobody knows me there, and nobody cares if I show up or not.” These transitions are even harder on our most vulnerable students. Those who rely on school for community, acceptance, and sometimes safety.
The next year, after more requests from parents, we applied for and received a high school charter that would make the school a 6-12.
There are no magic elixirs or miracles in school reform, but there are some common sense structural changes we can make that will likely make things better.
And if getting OUSD to rethink traditional grade configurations is one concrete way that the charter schools can help improve the overall portfolio of public schools in Oakland, then, I think that is a good first step.