Three Lessons Higher Ed Can Learn From Charter Schools

While various aspects of the charter school model remain at the center of hot-button political debates, there are many lessons that can be learned from their successes and failures. A more nuanced look reveals that, when done well, charter schools can provide a high-quality—and greatly personalized—educational experience to students.

The stories found at successful charter schools provide not only examples of programs for other K-12 schools to emulate, but also lessons for higher education at a time when many colleges and universities are struggling to meet the needs of today’s students. Here are three lessons higher ed can learn from high-performing charter schools.

Involve many stakeholders.

High-performing charter schools include many stakeholders working together to create a system that is responsive to all of their needs. Such stakeholders include students, families, teachers, school administrators, community organizations, and even local and state government. Bringing diverse voices together to support students often results in new approaches to learning that, when scaled, contribute to greater success for an entire cohort of learners.

Likewise, a college’s list of stakeholders should begin with and extend far beyond the students they are serving to include community members, employers, taxpayers, and local, state, and federal governments. When all stakeholders are engaged with and responding to one another, the community as a whole can work together to create and sustain an environment that enables students to succeed during college and after graduation.

Meet students where they are.

E.L. Haynes Public Charter School in Washington, D.C., pledges to “prepare every student of every race, socioeconomic status and home language to reach high levels of academic achievement and to succeed in college.” To better serve its diverse student body from pre-K through 12th grade, the school has adopted a competency-based approach to education, allowing students to move through a flexible but intentionally designed set of standards at a pace that makes the most sense for them.

E.L. Haynes is a part of a growing number of high-performing schools that recognize if they are to help students succeed, they must systematically take into account the diverse backgrounds, experiences, and levels of learning of the many individuals in their classrooms.

Today’s college students are more diverse than ever before, entering postsecondary education with a wide array of experiences and levels of learning. Nearly 40 percent of college students are now over the age of 25, and approximately a quarter are parents. More than 60 percent of students work while in college. They require a style of instruction and delivery that allows forand even encouragesgreater flexibility in learning. High-quality competency-based education is a powerful delivery model that can help colleges and universities meet these students where they are.

Treat innovation as ongoing.

When things are going well or there are no glaring problems, it’s easy to stop focusing on innovation and trying new things. Many abide by the old adage “don’t fix what isn’t broken.” But while it’s important to not simply innovate for innovation’s sake, conversations about what schools and institutions can do to better help their students succeed should never stop.

Innovation is a defining characteristic of Peak to Peak K-12 Charter School in Colorado.  Earlier this year, the school convened its first Innovation Summit, bringing together stakeholders from across the state and country to discuss and explore how to better prepare students for 21st-Century educational pursuits and careers. At the end of the summit, school leaders stressed the importance of developing “a problem-solving mindset and culture at the school.” That mindset has led the school to adopt a variety of innovative programs designed to help their students succeed.

Peak to Peak’s current strategic plan also includes building a space that will be known as the “Innovation Hub.” The building would include flexible learning spaces for students and a dedicated area for local businesses to work with students through internship or apprentice opportunities.

The higher education system—designed for recent high-school graduates with neither work nor parenting responsibilities—does not provide today’s college students with the best tools for success. As the needs of today’s  students continue to change, the systems of support in higher education should adapt. Adopting a mindset of ongoing innovation could help all stakeholders in the system remain open to the shifts required for improved college student access and success.

Higher education leaders and policymakers should look to successful models practiced by high-performing charter schools, including  involving many stakeholders, meeting students where they are, and treating innovation as ongoing. Ultimately, success —from pre-K through higher education — stems from a steadfast commitment to supporting students. As conversations about the strengths and challenges of our current postsecondary education system continue, the most important lesson higher education can learn from high-performing charter schools is to put today’s students first.