Aug 14, 2018

Understanding the K-12 Landscape: Spotlight on Public and Charter Schools

By Melissa Pelletier and Anne Wujcik

It’s important for stakeholders in the business of space and learning to understand the state of both public and charter K-12 schools. MDR Educational Marketing Solutions recently published The K-12 Education Landscape report, that provides high level information on schools and enrollment figures, among other topics. This article provides an overview of the report’s chapter on public and charter schools.

Public and Charter Schools in Education

There are almost 55,000,000 students in public K-12 schools in the United States, and roughly 60% of all public schools are elementary schools. Sixteen percent are middle schools, 20% are high schools, and 6% are combined K-12 schools. The charter school mix by grade level differs from that of traditional public schools. Only 10% of charter schools are middle schools, compared with 16% of traditional public schools. It is interesting to note the popularity of the K-12 model among charter schools, where K-12 schools make up 17% of all charter schools, compared with only 5% of traditional public schools.[1] The K-12 model is an efficient way to serve small student populations.

Public Schools by Grade

The Charter Schools’ Role

Charter schools garner much more attention than their numbers or student enrollments would normally predict. In the fall of 2017, there were 7,390 charter schools in operation, serving 3,026,038 students, according to MDR’s K-12 Education Market Database. Charters accounted for 6% of all public schools and enrolled roughly 5% of all public-school students. With charter schools’ twin emphasis on accountability and innovation, they have become critical in the school reform movement. Charter schools embody a prime tenet of school reformers—that providing a variety of learning options and allowing parents to choose what is best for their child offers every student the chance to succeed.

Charter schools are publicly funded schools operated by independent entities. They are authorized by state-sanctioned entities such as the state board of education, an institution of higher education, a local school district, or in some cases a specially constituted authorizing body. The authorizing entity has the responsibility of monitoring each charter school it establishes, and is ultimately responsible for the operational and educational integrity of these charters, and for closing any that fail to meet their educational or operational responsibilities. Charter schools are granted more operational control over their budgets, curriculum, and personnel, functioning with greater flexibility than other public schools in exchange for producing specified results.

Charter funding from the district and the state is based on the number of students attending. The amount of funding a charter receives, and the way those funds are distributed differ dramatically within individual states, and even within individual communities within a state. According to the Center for Education Reform, charter schools receive on average, 36% less revenue than their traditional school counterparts do. Charter schools are funded at $7,131 per pupil.

Charter Enrollment is On the Rise

Charter Management Organizations (CMO) are organizations that create and operate networks of schools that embody a shared educational vision and mission. They represent an attempt to bring high performance to scale, replicating educational approaches that show evidence of being effective. CMOs also help address some of the operational challenges faced by stand-alone charter schools. By centralizing administration, CMOs can provide significant ongoing administrative support to schools in their network, freeing principals to serve as instructional leaders. CMOs can also realize some economies of scale, leveraging their greater purchasing power to meet operational needs. MDR has identified 296 CMOs which are part of its National K-12 Education Market Database.

Just under 40% of CMOs operate small networks, managing three or fewer schools. Thirty percent of CMOs manage between 4 and 9 schools, and another third manage 10 or more schools. Among these larger CMOs are:

  • Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) operates 209 schools in 21 states and the District of Columbia, serving more than 85,000 students.
  • IDEA Public Schools serves more than 35,000 students in 61 schools throughout the Texas Rio Grande Valley, Austin, and San Antonio.
  • The Uncommon School Network enrolls more than 13,000 students in 52 schools, located in five northeastern cities—Boston, Newark, New York City, Troy, and Rochester.
  • Aspire Public Schools runs 40 schools across California and in Memphis, TN, serving 16,000 students.
  • Achievement First operates a network of 34 public charter schools in Connecticut, New York, and Rhode Island, serving 11,600 students.
  • Mastery Schools operates 24 schools in Philadelphia, PA and Camden, NJ serving 13,500 students. 

The Regional Public and Charter Mix 

The region with the largest number of traditional public schools is the South (36%), followed by the Midwest (25%), the West (23%), and the Northeast (17%). Charter schools are distributed differently across the regions: 35% of all charter schools in the nation are located in the West, while only 11% are in the Northeast. Western states have a tradition of being more independent and open to individual initiatives. That tradition seems to have created a welcoming environment for charter schools, with enabling legislation and fewer caps on charter school growth. The charter model is well established in the region, with some of the oldest charters found in the West. California was the second state to pass charter legislation in 1992, followed by Colorado and New Mexico in 1993, and Arizona in 1994.

Overall, traditional public schools are distributed relatively evenly over urban (27%), suburban (34%), and rural (24%) settings. Fifteen percent of public schools are located in towns. Charter schools, on the other hand, are an urban phenomenon. Well over half of all charter schools (58%) are located in urban settings, followed by 27% in suburban locations. Only 7% of charter schools are found in rural areas. Originally, most public charter schools were organized as an alternative to poorly performing public schools, many of which are found in America’s major urban centers. Furthermore, because urban and suburban districts have so many students and schools, it is easier for charter schools to generate the resources needed to launch and attract students. In rural settings, the logistics of organizing a charter school can be much more challenging.

Marketing to Individual Charter Schools Versus CMOs

Not only is the charter school segment quite small, it can be difficult to reach. Nearly three-quarters of charters operate as freestanding, independently administered organizations. These one-off operations use a wide variety of instructional approaches and choose their own instructional materials to support the curriculum. They often have small budgets.

The CMO sector of the charter market—roughly 25% of all charter schools— operates somewhat like traditional school districts. In addition to helping all schools in the network present a consistent educational vision, CMOs can provide significant ongoing administrative support to schools in their network. This may include centralized purchasing of at least some instructional materials, making the various CMO networks more attractive targets than their one-off counterparts. That said, most CMOs manage fewer than 10 schools, and many of the larger CMOs use home-grown curricula and instructional resources.

The smaller size of most charter schools, coupled with their more flexible working environments could make them good partners for piloting new products, and conducting effectiveness research, especially among the CMOs. These organizations have a common philosophy about learning, some degree of standardization in terms of classroom management and instructional approach, and centralized professional development, all of which can help ensure ease of implementation.

Melissa Pelletier is the Education Research Editor for MDR and write this article based on MDR’s State of the Market Report – The K-12 Education Landscape. The report was originally written by Anne Wujcik, a former education analyst for MDR.

The Future of School Design

By Michael B. Horn

The steady march of disruptive innovation is growing louder in K–12 schools across America.

It is introducing new learning designs — powered by blended-learning models, which mix brick-and-mortar schools with online learning where each student has some control over the time, place, path, and pace of their learning — to upend the traditional classroom.

The most disruptive of these models invite us to rethink the use of time and space in learning along several dimensions, including personalization, access and equity, and productivity.

Ultimately these new models could allow all students to build their passion and fulfill their unique human potential—something today’s schools do not do. But for this to happen, we will need to rethink the physical design of schools themselves.

Legacy schools
Today’s schools were built based on a factory model of schooling in which students proceed in lockstep through school based on their age regardless of their distinct learning needs. It was built to optimize efficiency for universal schooling in an era where that had never been done before. It was not built to optimize learning.

Because the disruption of blended learning is emerging to a large extent within the physical architecture of these existing “egg-crate” model schools, this architecture could allow the traditional classroom to harness online learning as a sustaining innovation to preserve itself and co-opt the disruption for a long time to come.

This is the challenge before school designers over the next several years: to create new designs that harness the power of new learning models for years to come, even as those new models are still in their infancy, and to avoid doubling down on the traditional school design that would harden the factory model of schooling.

New school designs
For many, particularly those who are seeking to bring sustaining improvements to the traditional classroom model, the basic layout of egg-crate classrooms may be perfectly adequate. Many blended programs, however, are choosing to rearrange their furniture and physical space to align with the principles of student agency, flexibility, and choice that are at the core of their new models.

For example, the Khan Lab School, an independent school founded by the renowned Sal Khan in California, has converted the bottom floor of an office park into a learning studio. There are no interior walls in the studio; it feels more like a one-room schoolhouse, in keeping with Khan’s book The One-World Schoolhouse, than like a standard school building. The open space gives students the flexibility they need to complete collaborative term projects, such as starting a greeting card business or building a computer from scratch, while providing distinct spaces for individual work online or small-group instruction.

In Chicago, Intrinsic Schools, a public charter school, operates in a building that Larry Kearns, an architect at Wheeler Kearns Architects, designed. When designing it, he said it was key to turn off the autopilot switch and focus on the activities that fuel learning. Because “learning is monopolized by large-group direct instruction, all you need are cellular classrooms, with rows of desks focused on a single instructor” in a traditional school, he told me. But because blended-learning models use multiple modes of learning, they need spaces designed to support different modalities.

When designing the building for Intrinsic, Kearns first spent a year prototyping ideas with the schools in multiple pilots in temporary spaces. Without the feedback from those pilots, he said, the ultimate learning space would have looked totally different and been based on assumptions that proved false.

In Kearns’ words, the school looks like the following:

Each grade at Intrinsic, which includes eight instructors and up to 180 students, is accommodated in a pair of interconnected “pods,” each with its own acoustically isolated room. Each pod is an open studio with spaces dedicated to individual, collaborative, and small-group learning. One pod focuses on a humanities curriculum and the other on a STEM curriculum. In each pod, a “coastline” of workspaces provides for personalized online learning, “exchange tables” host peer-to-peer learning, and “pop-up classes” provide areas for teachers to work with 12 students at a time. These spaces are skillfully interlocked with one another to minimize disturbance between activities. First time visitors to Intrinsic are always surprised by the corridors. You won’t find hallway lockers or the ubiquitous double-loaded school corridor anywhere. Instead, you will find hallways lined with windows and views. Since Intrinsic students use Chromebooks, they don’t have to rely on lockers to store books as they move from room to room.

The resulting building has far more space dedicated to learning than a traditional building where so much square footage is wasted on large hallways—55 percent compared to 25 percent at most new district high schools in Chicago. As a result, it is a much more cost-effective building. Intrinsic, which was built with union labor, enjoyed cost savings that were at least twice that of schools of a comparable size.

Challenges to moving in this direction
There is a lot of inertia in school building design, so moving in this direction will not be easy. There are two obvious challenges.

First, in the 1970s a wave of builders tried to move to an open classroom design, which ultimately failed as educators spent the 1980s and 1990s erecting walls. There is a difference now, however. In the 1970s, there was an assumption that any learning activity could occur anywhere. In other words, you wouldn’t need to design specific spaces for specific modalities of learning. In trying to be all things to all modalities, however, the spaces were suboptimal for any activity. On top of that, in the absence of any technological advances, the dominant model of instruction was still a teacher talking to her class, which produces noise that could disturb a neighboring class or silent learning activity. Blended learning changes this dynamic because of the introduction of online learning, but it’s still important to bear in mind that spaces in new buildings must be purpose-built and not try to be universal in nature.

Second, a significant number of building codes have emerged in districts and cities over the years that are at odds with what designers and educators may want to do with new building designs. With Intrinsic Schools, for example, Kearns said they had to apply “for every kind of code relief possible. Since the codes only referenced the egg-crate school, no one knew how to apply the rules. So the major trap to avoid is the impulse to design schools literally by the books that exist now.”

Other opportunities with new designs
There are two other clear opportunities with new school design. First, there is the opportunity to create spaces that feature far more interaction for teachers with their fellow peers. Research has shown this professional interaction is a big positive, and new designs can greatly increase the number of interactions beyond anything we are accustomed to, as teachers can co-teach and students will benefit from exposure to a much larger social group and multiple instructors with different strengths and styles.

Second, it’s likely that with technology handling basic instruction, maker spaces will become far more common in schools. These spaces will allow students to work on 3D-printers, laser cutters, and more to explore and test ideas in the humanities, math, science, and engineering.

The future
As Kearns said, “If blended learning is a more effective way to educate, it is similarly a more efficient way to build schools.” Although the best many educators can do at the moment is hack their current space with simple workarounds, the real example of a missed opportunity is when leaders get the chance to build a new building or renovate an old, and they choose to perpetuate the integrated factory-type blueprint. After all, who wants to be the designer that builds the last twentieth-century school building?

Michael B. Horn Michael Horn speaks and writes about the future of education and works with a portfolio of education organizations to improve the life of each and every student. He is the co-founder of and a distinguished fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, a non-profit think tank, and he serves as a principal consultant for Entangled Solutions, which offers innovation services to higher education institutions. Horn is the author and coauthor of multiple books, white papers, and articles on education, including the award-winning book Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns and the Amazon-bestseller Blended: Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools.

Michael B. Horn is the EDspaces 2018 Keynote Speaker at the Opening Plenary on Wednesday, November 7, 2018 at 9:30 am at the Tampa Convention Center.

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