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Study: Charter Schools Delivering on Promise of Curricular Innovation

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Mystic Valley and Advanced Math and Science Academy charter schools refine traditional curricula, adjust them to fit their students’ need and create something entirely new

BOSTON – A new study profiles two high-performing charter public schools that innovate not by using different content or pedagogical methods, but by combining widely available, often traditional approaches in a way that creates something entirely new.

“One purpose behind the creation of charter schools in Massachusetts was to stimulate the development of innovative educational programs,” said Pioneer Institute Senior Education Fellow Cara Candal, author of Massachusetts Charter Public Schools Best Practices in Curricular Innovation.  “Mystic Valley Charter Public School and the Advanced Math and Science Academy charter school are examples of schools that are living up to that promise.”

Mystic Valley Regional Charter Public School

Mystic Valley is a K-12 school serving students in Malden, Everett, Medford, Melrose and Stoneham that has been named one of the top high schools in the country and one of the eight best schools in Massachusetts by U.S. News & World Report.

Character education is a curricular thread running through all grade levels at Mystic Valley. In addition, it is one of just a few Massachusetts public schools using the Core Knowledge curriculum, which it uses in grades K-8.  The curriculum focuses not only on teaching students how to think, but also imparting rich content that is often reserved for the most fortunate students.  By the time students enter high school, knowledge and achievement gaps among them are minimized.

When it comes to teaching literacy, Mystic Valley uses direct instruction, a highly structured, step-by-step approach.  Research shows that no other method produces such consistently strong results with students of different ages and ability levels.

Mystic Valley is also one of only nine Massachusetts schools – many of them private – to offer the rigorous International Baccalaureate (IB) curriculum and diploma program that is recognized by the world’s top universities.  Eleven of the 96 members of Mystic Valley’s class of 2015 graduated with an IB diploma.

Advanced Math and Science Academy Charter School

Advanced Math and Science Academy Charter School (AMSA) serves students from Marlborough, Clinton, Hudson and Maynard in grades 6-12.  U.S. News & World Report has named it the fourth best charter school in Massachusetts.

The school offers students the kind of college preparatory education commonly found in elite private schools.

AMSA uses a structured curricular approach with individualized support: frequent, targeted assessments and highly effective teaching.  One of the keys to its success is introducing students to complex, abstract concepts at an early age.

Trigonometry and calculus are among the core subjects at the school and are typically completed by the time students enter 11th grade.  They then choose from a variety of “capstone in mathematics” classes that include AP and multivariate calculus.

Students take computer science every year in grades 6-11 and also study Latin in grades 6-8 before choosing another language in high school.

One characteristic Mystic Valley and AMSA share is a clear idea of what students need to know and be able to do at every grade level.

Candal finds that Massachusetts charter schools are living up to the goal of stimulating educational innovation.  Longer school days and years, the incorporation of student support services like tutoring and the “no excuses” model that features high expectations for student performance and behavior and a refusal to accept poverty or other features of a student’s background as a reason for underperformance are among the innovations pioneered here that have been exported widely.

But recent increases in the cap on the number of charter schools have made it harder for them to deliver innovation.  Legislation passed in 2010 to raise the charter cap in underperforming school districts prevented new operators from entering the market by requiring that new schools be operated by “proven providers.”

Candal says the commonwealth should encourage proven providers to differentiate their programs to provide families with additional choices and calls on the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to encourage charter applications to view state curricular requirements as a floor rather than a ceiling.

Finally, she urges policy makers to consider how school structure affects student outcomes.  Creating more K-12 and 6-12 schools in traditional districts could result in greater continuity for students and opportunities for schools to structure intentional, comprehensive curricula.

Cara Stillings Candal is an education researcher and writer. She is a senior consultant for research and curriculum at the Center for Better Schools/National Academy for Advanced Teacher Education, an adjunct professor at the Boston University School of Education, and a senior fellow at Pioneer Institute.

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Pioneer Institute is an independent, non-partisan, privately funded research organization that seeks to improve the quality of life in Massachusetts through civic discourse and intellectually rigorous, data-driven public policy solutions based on free market principles, individual liberty and responsibility, and the ideal of effective, limited and accountable government.