Defining and Promoting Success for Adult Charter Schools

The July 13, 2017 issue of the Washington City Paper included a detailed report by Rachel M. Cohen on adult charter schools in the District of Columbia: Where D.C. has failed on adult education, charter schools fill the void.

This lengthy article is worth reading in its entirety because it provides the context for understanding how DC’s adult charter schools are able to provide strong programs for their learners.

Here are three of the important takeaways:

  • The law: DC’s 1995 School Reform Act specifically included adult charter schools. As Cohen writes, “the D.C. law allows for charters that provide education below the college level for adults who ‘lack sufficient mastery of basic educational skills to enable them to function effectively in society,’ who have not graduated from high school or have not achieved an equivalent certificate, or who ‘have limited ability in speaking, reading, writing, or understanding the English language and whose native language is a language other than English.'” Charter laws are also on the books in 43 states, but many of those laws do not allow for education beyond the traditional public school age range, and others extend only to education for disconnected youth (dropouts ages 16-24). So District law provides a uniquely enabling environment for public charter schools for adults over age 25.

(For more on the charter school movement nationwide, see the law database of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools and the series of issue briefs available from the National Conference of State Legislatures.)

  • The funding: In DC, all charters, including those for adults, receive funding based on the number of students they serve. Cohen writes: “Base per-pupil funding during the 2014-15 school year in D.C. for adult charters was $8,448 per student, compared to, at most, $800 per adult student at a community-based organization.” Having an assured, substantial funding stream allows DC’s adult charters to provide the supportive services, such as case management and career counseling, that adult learners often need in order to persist and succeed in adult education. It also allows for the hiring of full-time instructors, which creates program stability and continuity for adult learners, and for ongoing curriculum development in response to changes in the larger life skills and employment environment.
  • Accountability: Charter schools “are accountable for upholding the promises made in their charters. They must demonstrate performance in the areas of academic achievement, financial management, and organizational stability” (Uncommon Schools). However, as Cohen observes, “accountability in adult education isn’t easy to define or measure.” Standardized tests are useful for demonstrating what an adult learner knows and is able to do, but test scores alone do not define success. Other important metrics include retention rates (how many learners stay in the program for how long); high school equivalency pass rates; certification completion rates for learners in career education; and success in obtaining and retaining employment. These metrics are accessible because they can be calculated, and they are valuable as basic indicators. However, they do not reflect the complexity of adult learners’ reasons for returning to school. Cohen writes: “Often, the students’ end goals are too practical and pragmatic to be easily captured by a standardized test or statistical measure. Some attendees aren’t trying to go to college, or aren’t even focused on getting a specific job. They’re trying to learn basic skills to help with their daily lives.” But defining a charter school’s success in terms of learners’ achievement of their own goals, whatever those goals might be, is not easy in an educational environment focused on external standards and numbers.

The DC experience shows that adult public charter schools can meet community needs for adult education options in creative and effective ways. It also demonstrates the need for careful consideration of the legal, financial, and accountability parameters that underlie the success of such schools.


Two additional recent publications on adult charter schools:

Adult Charter Schools: Creating Economic Opportunities for America’s Families from the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy

Filling the Adult Education Vacuum, U.S. News and World Report

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