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Table of Contents

Title Page

Praise for Mission Possible

“The authors describe their schools as places defined by ‘joyful rigor.’ Having visited a Success Academy, I can attest to that. If we are going to change the odds for children living in poverty, we need to create more opportunities to replicate what is working at places like Success Academies. This book does just that, taking the best practices from the Success Academies and creating a framework for educators, parents, and policy-makers to learn from their successes.”

 —Sen. Michael F. Bennet, Colorado

Mission Possible is a testament to what can be achieved in public education when the focus shifts to improving rigor in instruction and continuing education for teachers and principals.”

 —Doug Lemov, managing director, Uncommon Schools; author, Teach Like a Champion

“It is long past time to end the needless conflict between district-run and charter schools, and instead spend our time working together and learning from each other. That is why this book is so important and so timely. We need to learn from the best practices of our successful public schools, whether district-run or charter, and reflect on ways to improve public education for the benefit of all our kids.”

 —Tom Boasberg, superintendent, Denver Public Schools

“Among the most promising urban charter schools, like the Success Academies, we see sustaining cultures where adults focus on student learning and performance and on supporting each other. As always, we need an intimate glimpse into how those cultures build and grow stronger, and what is the ‘stuff’ that goes on within classrooms. This book gives us that glimpse, in ways that can benefit all schools.”

 —Andres Alonso, CEO, Baltimore City Public School System

“Success Academy schools are not just great public schools, they are the wave of the future. But great schools can't be left to chance. The stakes are too high. Just as we expect children of all backgrounds to learn more every day in school, Mission Possible shows us how a culture of continuous improvement also allows teachers themselves the gratification of continuing to learn and grow professionally each and every day to better meet student needs.”

 —Eli Broad, founder, The Broad Foundations

 

 

 

To our indefatigable director of instruction, Paul Fucaloro; our hardworking and talented faculty; and our nine extraordinary principals, Jackie Albers, Jim Manly, Richard Seigler, Danique Loving, Stacey Apatov, Michele Caracappa, Vanessa Bangser, Monica Burress, and Carrie Roby

This book would not have been possible without the generous support of the Ford Foundation and its president, Luis Ubiñas.

List of Video Clips

Please note: For the e-book version, the video content can be accessed online at . When prompted, use access code 67281.

Clip 1 Introduction to THINK Literacy and Success Academy
Clip 2 Read Aloud, Kindergarten
Clip 3 Book Discussion, Kindergarten
Clip 4 Book Discussion, Third Grade
Clip 5 Prepared Versus Not Prepared
Clip 6 Singsong Versus Spark
Clip 7 Book Discussion, First Grade
Clip 8 Guided Reading, Level K (First Grade)
Clip 9 Coaching During Guided Reading (Levels E, H, and K)
Clip 10 Book Club, Fourth Grade
Clip 11 Reading Workshop Direct Instruction, Second Grade
Clip 12 Eduspeak Versus English
Clip 13 Emergent Storybook Practice Group, Kindergarten
Clip 14 Emergent Storybook Direct Instruction, Kindergarten
Clip 15 Reading Practice Group, Third Grade
Clip 16 High-Level Think Aloud Versus Low-Level Think Aloud
Clip 17 Read Aloud, First Grade
Clip 18 Book Discussion, First Grade
Clip 19 Book Discussion, Fourth Grade
Clip 20 Setting Up Quality Independent Writing in First Grade
Clip 21 The Quality of Model Writing Matters
Clip 22 Writing Direct Instruction, Second Grade
Clip 23 Writing Direct Instruction, Fourth Grade

Introduction

It sounds like a pipe dream: open a public elementary school in the middle of Harlem, take all comers through a random lottery, and within three years win recognition as the top charter in New York City and one of the very best public schools in all of New York State.

It's fact, not fiction. It's what we did with the first Success Academy Harlem and now are doing with eight more Success Academies in Harlem, the Bronx, Brooklyn, and the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

The students in Harlem, the Bronx, and Brooklyn are almost all minorities, the majority of whom live below the poverty line. Their parents seek to escape from failing district schools and to send their kids to college. You might have seen some of their stories in the documentaries The Lottery and Waiting for Superman.

We're making that hope a reality against long odds. We think we're on to something, and we want to share our story and describe how we created such successful schools where the common wisdom said they couldn't exist.

It may sound odd to hear educators talking so much about “beating the odds.” But that's what we do. Great teachers are in the odds-beating business. When we do our jobs well, we alter the lives of the children and families we serve. We give children an opportunity to live the American dream that the odds-makers suggested they couldn't possibly have.

Walk into any one of the Success Academies in New York City and enter a new kind of school, a colorful, enchanting place where the kids we call “scholars” are doing phenomenal things thanks to their hard work, great teaching by exceptionally well-trained teachers, and the support of parents willing to do whatever it takes to get their children a world-class education.

Our talented educators and committed staff fully understand the reality of what we're dealing with: were it not for these dynamic schools, and the ability of our families to exercise choice over what school their child attends, most of our young scholars would have been consigned to zoned district schools that offer little hope for a bright future.

We're talking about schools in which most students are not on track to graduate, in which success itself is an anomaly, whether it is on the third-grade reading test or in mastering the skills required to attend a college or university. Beating the odds means shattering that trajectory and starting all over with much higher expectations about what is possible for students. It means offering hope for a better life to students who otherwise would be forced to attend the kinds of failing public schools where dreams usually go to die. It means not giving up on the romantic notion that public education can do better for these students—much better.

This is the world that Eva Moskowitz envisioned in 2005 when she took off her hat as elected city official and became a charter school founder and not-for-profit entrepreneur.

She was motivated by a deep commitment to educational justice and educational excellence. As a former college history professor and city councilwoman, Eva believed passionately that children deserved and needed a much better education than most were getting in the public schools of New York City and indeed in cities, suburbs, and towns across the country. And she knew better than most people how destructive the schools in neighborhoods like Harlem could be, because she attended them herself as a child growing up in New York City in the 1970s. Her parents, both college professors, taught their daughter after school what she should have learned in the classroom. Later she attended the elite Stuyvesant High School, regarded and respected as one of the best public schools in America. But even Stuyvesant, Eva knew, wasn't anywhere near as academically rigorous as it needed to be. It was packed with students whose parents, like her own, were able to academically compensate for the weak education they were getting from the city's public schools.

When Eva had children of her own, she wanted them to have the kind of high-caliber public education that all parents want for their kids. As a public school parent, she was frustrated with what she saw in the schools. Even at well-regarded public schools she saw a lack of rigor and a “pretty good is good enough” attitude. And then there were the absurdities. Despite the $24 billion city education budget, parents were required by schools to bring in toilet paper, paper towels, and Windex. In less affluent neighborhoods, kids simply went without. Whether looking at high school graduation rates, test scores, or student writing, Eva saw firsthand that we were miseducating and grossly undereducating children.

Eva successfully ran for the New York City Council in 1999 because she wanted to change the broken education system that served 1.1 million schoolchildren. Once in office, she jousted with the city bureaucracy and unions over mismanagement; misplaced priorities; lax standards; and crazy work rules that left science labs without equipment, art classes without art supplies, buildings without lights working, and restrooms without toilet paper in a system that spends a whopping $19,000-plus a year per student.

Week after week, Eva held public hearings that probed into every corner of school operations. She demanded answers and often ran into brick walls and powerful forces, like Mayor Michael Bloomberg and teachers union leaders, who continually urged her to lower her expectations for public education. But after six years in office, and a bruising defeat for the position of Manhattan borough president, she left the city council frustrated that the schools were nowhere near where they needed to be.

Eva possessed the confidence to think she could create from scratch elementary schools that were much better than the dysfunctional ones she had visited as chair of the council's Education Committee. She jumped into the public charter school arena at a time when education visionaries and pioneers, such as Dave Levin and Mike Feinberg at KIPP, were showing the world that bigger and better things were possible for students whom many had long ago written off. Eva borrowed what she saw as the best approaches from successful schools of all types—public, charter, parochial, and private—and in August 2006 Success Academy opened the first Success Academy Harlem on 118th Street and Lenox Avenue, located on one floor of a building shared with P.S. 149, the Sojourner Truth School. Eva herself worked as both the founder of the network and the principal for the first two years. She consulted with every successful education expert she could find, and studied every style of instruction under the sun.

Eva searched high and low to find someone who shared her desire to significantly raise the bar by designing a world-class reading and writing curriculum. She stumbled across Arin Lavinia, who was the first educator Eva had ever met who shared her incredibly high standards for reading and writing. When Eva asked Arin how many of the children in her schools could be expected to achieve mastery, Arin replied, “All of them.” Arin, who had been a classroom teacher in New York City's District 2, and who had become a staff developer for the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, was working nationally as a literacy consultant when her path crossed with Eva's. In 2009 she came on board as Success Academy's director of literacy. We quickly began the task of customizing our own reading and writing curriculum, which we often jokingly describe as “balanced literacy on steroids.” Our approach is built around great books and the power of ideas, with scholars learning from the get-go how to think critically and express ideas elegantly, not just parrot back abstruse skills and strategies.

We plan eventually to run forty K–8 schools with 25,000 students. Currently 3,500 students attend our nine schools, with five more schools slated to open in summer 2012.

We don't cherry-pick our young scholars. Most are eligible for free- and reduced-price lunches. Fifteen percent are in special education. One in ten is still learning English. And, like other charters, we teach them with about 15 to 20 percent fewer dollars from the city and state than traditional or district public schools receive.

In spring 2009 our first scholars were completing third grade, and they took New York State's standardized tests in math and English language arts for the first time. The scores they posted were astonishing. Every child—100 percent—was proficient or better in math, and most scored at the advanced level. Ninety-five percent passed the English exam. We were the top-scoring charter in New York City. Only 31 of the 3,500 schools in the entire state scored higher.

So what's our secret? How do we do it?

First and foremost we focus on the grown-ups, not the children. We believe the adults in the school—principals and teachers—hold the keys to educational excellence. If they step up their performance, and if they set the bar high enough and truly believe that the children can rise to their expectations, then they can propel these students forward with lightning speed.

This is a radical, startling idea in the slow-to-change world of public education. But it is the touchstone of our beliefs, and we see it affirmed every day by the results in our joyful, rigorous classrooms.

Our scholars and their parents have been ready for everything we threw at them and more. Students attend class almost nine hours a day (7:45 a.m. to 4:30 p.m) and stay for an hour of after-school tutoring if needed; and some are back again on Saturday mornings. They bring homework assignments home each night and clamor for more.

We give our teachers extraordinary amounts of training, time, and resources to develop their professional skills. We provide coaching and mentoring to a degree unheard of in regular public schools. Teachers get about three preparation periods a day. The children spend three hours daily learning to become voracious readers and great writers because we believe that literacy is the key to learning. We couldn't find a literacy curriculum that fit our vision, so we've fine-tuned a reading curriculum of our own, which we call THINK Literacy.


1 Introduction to THINK Literacy and Success Academy
This video shows THINK Literacy and our incredible teachers and scholars in action across grades at Success Academies. It offers a window into what's possible when schools put critical thinking, rigor, and grown-ups front and center.

In the chapters that follow we're going to take you on an extended trip inside the Success Academies. We'll show you THINK Literacy in action, and take you through some of the coaching and study sessions that our principals and teachers do together. We'll show you what we mean by doing things fast, a core value at Success Academies. You'll see how we help adults change and improve their practice fast, as well as the incredible scholar learning that occurs when teachers get better every day. We will visit schools, with a focus on the adults, and expose you to new areas of leverage for increasing the quality of student learning. We'll show you that this work is hard and, no less important, fun.

Pardon us if we shoot from the hip a little bit, but that's our style. We do everything with a sense of urgency. There is no time to waste if our scholars are to get where they need to go.

So take a close look at what we're doing at Success Academies. We encourage you to try it yourself. If you're a teacher or principal, we'll show you how we study and prepare lessons together, and the results we get from lots of coaching and feedback in real time. If you're a parent, we'll show you what to look for in your child's school and classroom. If you're an education reformer, we'll show you what policies need to change to support world-class schooling.

Most of all, we want you to believe as we do that the answer to America's school problems is not smaller class sizes or pay-for-performance or any of the other carrots and sticks that have been tried over the past quarter century with little to show. The answer is getting the adults to step up their game, giving them the training and help they need, and setting the bar far higher for everyone than anyone dreamed possible in public schools.

Welcome inside the Success Academies.

Chapter One

Why?

What's Wrong with American Schools?

How can it be that in the United States more than a million teenagers—one in four—leave high school for the streets each year?

How can it be that more than 60 percent of all students and nearly 80 percent of black and Hispanic students in fourth, eighth, and twelfth grade are reading and doing math below grade level?

How can it be that a third of all fourth graders can't read at even a basic level?

And why is it that things get worse the longer our students stay in school? Our nine-year-olds score in the top quarter on international tests in math, reading, and science. By age fifteen they've fallen to the bottom half.

We used to be the world leader in graduating kids from high school. Now twenty-five of the world's thirty-four large industrialized nations have higher high school graduation rates than the United States.

Not long ago we set the pace in sending students to college. Now we're thirteenth in the world—not because our college attendance rates have dropped, but because other countries have expanded opportunity and postsecondary capacity faster than we have.

And it isn't just that we have more poor kids (one in five American kids grows up in poverty) and more minorities. The gaps in learning between rich and poor are lower in numerous other countries, many of which also have large numbers of minority and immigrant students.

Sadly, we kid ourselves into thinking that this is an inner-city problem or a poverty problem or a black problem. The reality is that mediocrity is a pandemic in American education. Our schools, as philanthropist Bill Gates put it in a recent speech to the National Urban League, “range from outstanding to outrageous.”

The management consulting firm McKinsey & Company, in an analysis of the 2006 results for the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) administered by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) to fifteen-year-olds in dozens of countries, concluded, “The facts here demonstrate that lagging achievement in the United States is not merely an issue for poor children attending schools in poor neighborhoods; instead, it affects most children in most schools.”

McKinsey also calculated that GDP would have been between $1 trillion and $2 trillion higher each year if the United States had closed the gap between its educational achievement levels and those of such top-performing nations as Finland and Korea.

Scholars from Stanford University, Harvard University, and the University of Munich recently compared the math scores of American eighth and ninth graders with the scores of kids around the world. Their conclusion: “The percentages of high-achieving math students in the U.S.—and most of its individual states—are shockingly below those of many of the world's leading industrialized nations. Results for many states are at the level of developing countries.”

According to the same study, only 6 percent of all U.S. students (and only 8 percent of white students) reached the advanced level. Sixteen countries, from Canada to Switzerland to Finland to Hong Kong to Taiwan, had two to four times that percentage of advanced students. “The only members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development … that produced a smaller percentage of advanced math students than the U.S. were Spain, Italy, Israel, Portugal, Greece, Turkey, Chile and Mexico.”

In Massachusetts, our top state, 11 percent of students were advanced, but even if every American student knew that much math we'd still trail fourteen countries. “The lowest ranking states—West Virginia, New Mexico, and Mississippi—have a smaller percentage of high-performing students than do Serbia and Uruguay (although they do edge out Romania, Brazil, and Kyrgyzstan),” the study said. In Mississippi, only 2 percent of students with a college-educated parent scored at the advanced level.

New research by Jay Greene of the University of Arkansas and Josh McGee of the Arnold Foundation explodes the myth that the problem is confined to inner-city schools and minority students. In an Education Next article titled “When the Best is Mediocre,” they compared the OECD test results with those from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and concluded that students in ritzy Beverly Hills, California, who are approximately 85 percent white, 7 percent Asian, 5 percent Hispanic, and 2 percent black, scored barely above average in math (53rd percentile), and those in Fairfax County, Virginia, an affluent suburb of the nation's capital, fell just below average (49th percentile).

The picture is worse in big cities. Students in Washington DC stood at the 11th percentile compared with those in developed countries, in Chicago at the 21st percentile, and in New York City at the 32nd percentile. Not one of the twenty largest school districts—which enroll more than 10 percent of the nation's schoolchildren—was above the 50th percentile. Overall the results are disappointing “even in our best districts,” Greene and McGee concluded. The “rare and small pockets of excellence in charter schools and rural communities are overwhelmed by large pools of failure.”

In a world where prosperity is almost entirely driven by brains, not brawn, we are losing the education race. We'll have to change our course dramatically if we are to have a prayer of recovering.

Learning algebra in ninth grade is not rocket science. But legions of American kids can't do it. Most public schools ask shockingly little of students. Rich, poor, or in between, our children are being permanently held back by the slipshod standards and mediocrity in our schools.

It's not just our children's futures that are at stake. As President Barack Obama has said repeatedly, “It's an economic issue when countries that out-education us today are going to out-compete us tomorrow.”

Throwing Money at the Problem

Let's start with a close look at how we got into this predicament. Americans have been wringing their collective hands over the shortcomings of our public education system for a half century or longer. As a country, we've repeatedly thrown money at the problem and tried reform after reform to make schools better. Presidents from Dwight D. Eisenhower (the post-Sputnik National Defense Education Act) to Lyndon B. Johnson (Head Start, Title I) to Ronald Reagan (the A Nation At Risk report) to George W. Bush (the No Child Left Behind Act) all made passes at the problem but came up short.

In 1989 George H. W. Bush and the nation's governors (including Bill Clinton) pledged to make American schoolkids tops in the world in math and science by 2000; that didn't happen by a long shot. George W. Bush, Senator Ted Kennedy, and Congress decreed in 2002 that all students would be proficient in reading and math by 2014. That's not happening either.

No one can say we have not invested in education. We spend well over $10,000 a year, on average, educating each of the forty-nine million children and teens in public schools. No country in the world except Luxembourg spends that much. New York State spends roughly $20,000 per pupil, double the national average. We pay teachers more than $55,000, on average, with summers off. This pay is less than for other professions requiring graduate degrees, but 10 percent higher than the median household income in the United States.

Real spending (after inflation) on K–12 schools has doubled since Reagan was in the White House and quadrupled since John F. Kennedy's inauguration. (Still, it's sobering to realize that as a nation we spend almost two and a half times as much per prisoner as we do on each student.)

We've expanded teaching and support staffs dramatically, cutting class sizes from twenty-five-to-one to sixteen-to-one. We've made some modest gains and trimmed the shameful dropout rates in some places (including New York City), but nothing has really budged the needle. The achievement gaps between white students and minority students have narrowed somewhat on the federal government's NAEP, which is given to a cross-section of thousands of students in a variety of states each year. A third of all fourth graders and a quarter of all eighth graders have below basic reading skills; in math, 9 percent of fourth graders and 16 percent of eighth graders scored below basic. Although black and Hispanic students have made progress in the past two decades, the gulfs between majority and minority students remain monumental. In math, almost half of all black eighth graders and two-fifths of Hispanic eighth graders fall below basic compared with one-sixth of white eighth graders.

Society blames poverty—Who could possibly expect black and brown kids and those from impoverished families to keep up with kids from affluent homes?—but that doesn't explain why children from privileged families are also doing poorly.

Most of the countries that are beating the pants off us—Singapore, South Korea, China, Finland, Belgium, and Canada among them—have a single education system and rigorous curriculum for all students. Singapore in particular puts us to shame. “Remember that in the early 1970s, less than half of Singapore's students even reached fourth grade. Today, Singapore ranks near the top,” Secretary of Education Arne Duncan noted.

We've got a crazy quilt of school districts, curricula, and standards that vary widely. Most standards are way too easy. No Child Left Behind was supposed to boost all schoolchildren to proficiency in reading and math, and to place highly qualified teachers in every classroom. Despite sharp increases in funding, the public schools have fallen far short of the lofty goals, and the U.S. Department of Education is now letting them off the hook. Although the 2002 law required every state to administer statewide tests in reading and math, it let each devise its own tests and use its own yardstick to measure results. This led to a misleading cascade of rosy test data that allowed politicians and educators to claim big progress with the same old sorry results. NAEP assessments told the real story, with a third of fourth graders reading below average and a quarter of all eighth graders scoring below basic in math. The move by forty-five states to adopt the Common Core of Standards could eventually improve those scores, but that will almost certainly take years. For now we are falling behind the countries with which we compete in the international marketplace. Among the sixty-two countries plus Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Macao whose fifteen-year-olds took the OECD's Programme in International Student Assessment exams in 2009, the U.S. teens on average ranked fourteenth in reading, twenty-second in science, and twenty-ninth in math. A majority of students in six countries, Shanghai, and Hong Kong were proficient in math; fewer than a third of the American fifteen-year-olds were proficient.

Just How Low Is the Bar?

Although the NAEP tests are harder than state assessments, even that bar isn't set very high. A typical question on the math test for fourth graders involves dividing a three-digit number by a one-digit number, or telling a parallel line from a perpendicular one. On reading, a third of fourth graders got this easy question wrong:


The article says that some bees “sparkle in the sun.” This means that these bees:
1. Like to fly in the daytime
2. Have unusual markings
3. Prefer warm weather
4. Look very shiny

Half flubbed this question, which the test writers considered to be of medium difficulty:


The author of the story says that Willy hears only “eerie silence.” This means that Willy:
1. Finds the silence strange and frightening
2. Believes the silence will go away soon
3. Wonders what causes the silence
4. Feels alone in the silence

The reputation of Success Academies rests in part on how well our scholars have performed on the New York State Education Department's standardized tests. We're happy and proud of their accomplishments, but also keenly aware how pathetically low the state sets its bar. Here are a couple of sample questions from New York's third-grade test:


Sam and Jenna have been saving pennies. Sam has 232 pennies, and Jenna has 151 pennies. How many more pennies does Sam have than Jenna?
1. 71
2. 81
3. 121
4. 181
Find the word or words that best complete the sentence:
_________ came from the pillow.
1. Feathers
2. Floating
3. Soft and white
4. All over the bed

Look out, Singapore.

If you believe in equality for all, if you believe in social justice, if you believe in the American dream, the status quo in our schools is intolerable. In America, of all places, kids should not be consigned by the color of their skin or by poverty to a dropout factory. But the problem in America goes beyond tragic educational injustice. The crisis in public education affects all kids, not just our most vulnerable. Even our best schools are not putting our kids in a position to compete internationally. American children are not holding their own in what is turning out to be a fierce education race.

Changing Kids' Lives

What if it didn't have to be that way? What if poor kids, black kids, and Hispanic kids could learn as much as or more than students in most schools serving rich, white kids? And what if all American schoolchildren got a world-class education? How different would their, and our, futures be?

It sounds impossible, but that's what we're doing in Success Academies. We're doing it by rejecting the conventional wisdom that poor and minority kids cannot possibly become high achievers and that poverty and demographics are destiny.

We're fortunate to be in a position to hire the best of the best—and when they teach in Success Academies, they become even better. We are furnishing our talented principals and teachers with extraordinary amounts of time and resources to develop their craft. And when the principal and teachers are knocking the ball out of the park, the students are rounding the bases right with them. Student achievement soars, and they wind up, as our schools did, posting some of the highest scores in the city and state.

We opened our charter schools and staked our reputation on the conviction that regardless of family circumstances, children are smart and ready and eager to learn if only they have great, well-prepared principals and teachers to inspire, instruct, and direct them straight down the path to college graduation.

A Healthy Dose of Competition

Why is our public school system so feeble? How did it get so bad? The late Albert Shanker, who stood up for serious reform as president of the American Federation of Teachers, once said that public schools had fallen into the same trap as the U.S. auto industry of old, thinking quality didn't matter because it had a largely captive audience for its products. More than two decades ago Shanker—who was parodied in the Woody Allen sci-fi movie Sleeper as a guy so militant he blew up the world—said, “It's time to admit that public education operates like a planned economy, a bureaucratic system in which everybody's role is spelled out in advance and there are few incentives for innovation and productivity. It's no surprise that our school system doesn't improve; it more resembles the communist economy than our own market economy.”

Well, charters came along after that to provide some badly needed competition. The common school was a good and noble thing when Horace Mann worked in the nineteenth century to create schools serving wealthy and poor alike. They educated the children of immigrants who helped make America great. They've made tremendous strides in recent decades in educating children with disabilities.

But somewhere along the line public schools got lazy and complacent, just like General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler. A lot of things came together—grade inflation, social promotion, the breakdown of discipline—and made public education a mess. Sociologist James Coleman, no stranger to controversy, roiled the waters in 1981 when he concluded after an exhaustive study that Catholic schools provided a better education for the same children than public schools.

But with fewer nuns and higher costs, Catholic schools were closing left and right in our cities. Enrollment, which peaked at 5 million during the baby boom of the 1950s, stands at barely 2 million today. Some states experimented with tuition tax credits and vouchers to help families pay parochial and private school tuition, but those efforts never moved beyond a small scale. A growing number of disgruntled parents turned to home schooling their children—1.5 million and growing by the National Center for Education Statistics' last count.

Then charter schools emerged to give parents a new alternative and to give district schools a run for their money. Charters are public schools, often operating with less money from their city and state funders but with a lot more freedom over how the school is organized and run, from who gets hired and let go to how long students spend in class and what they study.

Charter enrollments have quadrupled over the past decade to 1.7 million, according to the Center for Education Reform, a charter advocacy organization. Charters now make up 5 percent of all public schools. There are charters in forty-one states and the District of Columbia. Nine states still have laws preserving the public school monopoly: Alabama, Kentucky, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, Washington, and West Virginia. Other states, including New York, limit the number of charters (although New York recently lifted its limit on charters from 200 to 460).

Not all charters are great. There are lousy ones, and ones that have quickly folded due to mismanagement. In some charters the students fare no better than they did back in their district school.