Last week I participated in a meeting with U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan in Washington, DC. It was an honor just to be called – and an overwhelming honor to be the only Hoosier invited to participate! Fifty other educational organizations attended this meeting that was to springboard Secretary Duncan’s initiative to improve education in urban centers.

Our successes in GEO Foundation’s four urban charter schools urge us toward further improvement — and to share with you some of what I learned in Washington:

The day’s meetings were all about school turnarounds and how to achieve them. Secretary Duncan has made this a top four priority and he wants to engage charter school management organizations to help.

The main challenges will be (1) how “turnarounds” can be funded and (2) in defining performance. A question that recurred throughout the meetings was: if states or districts are funded for this purpose, will the agenda be carried out? Or, will it be co-opted by those very states and districts? I recommended putting out an RFP that allows turn around organizations to compete to receive dollars directly. They will then have to find a district willing to work with outside forces to receive the funds and do the work.

On the performance side, education leaders need work toward the retention of students, just as much as test performance. We don’t want to set up a system so focused on test scores that it actually incentivizes schools to kick out low performers. Schools need to be measured both on academic and retention performance.

Data discussed at the meetings revealed that high performing charter schools…

  • have regular data “checkups” and provide teachers specific guidance and expectations for growth for each week and month and then check in to see if the goals were met. Teacher improvement plans are very short–6 weeks.

  • have an extended day averaging 90 minutes more than traditional schools.

  • are getting new talent from the New Teacher Project or Teach for America. They also hire experienced teachers. They don’t get their teachers from schools of education.

  • are very strict on dress code.

  • very strict on homework. If teachers assign it, and students don’t do it, students must stay after school for one full hour that day or the very next day.

  • report that teachers and principals make frequent home visits to get the parents on their side.

  • have merit pay and pay teachers more for performance on test scores.