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It’s not a stretch to say that charter schools are some of the biggest winners in this year’s high school rankings list. Even though charters educate just five percent of American students, they represent 30 percent of the top ten schools in this year’s rankings. What’s more—and this is really the kicker—they’re the only ones in the top ten that do not use selective admissions. That is, BASIS Scottsdale, BASIS Oro Valley, and Signature School are the only schools in the top ten who don’t choose their students. They’re open-enrollment schools: anyone can come, and if there are too many applicants for the available seats, they determine the student body by lottery. Nonetheless, they’re still competitive with the hyper-selective private and magnet schools rounding out the rest of the top ten.

What’s going on? What makes charter schools different—and how does it contribute to their success? I taught at a charter school in Brooklyn some years ago, and my principal would frequently call out three types of flexibility that made our school successful: 1) hiring (and firing), 2) schedule, 3) and curricula. That’s about it.

There’s a clear theory of action here, and it responds to a pretty incontrovertible diagnosis: American public education is chaotic. Our schools operate in an extraordinarily dense, disorganized regulatory environment. They work within district, state, and federal systems that prescribe various programs and data reporting, all of which are often at cross purposes. Some funding streams run directly from the Feds to local districts. Others run through states on their way to classrooms. At its best, the education “system” is about as organized as a pinball machine.

American classrooms are also often shaped by the various clauses of collective bargaining agreements, which can prescribe precisely how many minutes teachers may be required to undertake particular tasks with their students each day (and how many days they’ll be in class each year). Teacher contracts alone can assume biblical proportions—they’re many hundreds of dense pages long.

Sadly, this accretion of regulations hasn’t appreciably moved the needle on achievement gaps like those between students of different races or between students from families . In response, charter reformers propose to trade freedom from some of these rules in exchange for accepting a higher degree of accountability. That is, they get more autonomy to build a school that meets their students’ needs, but have to answer for the results.

Charter administrators can hire the teachers they want—they’re not assigned personnel from the district, or forced to choose from a pool. They can dismiss ineffective instructors quickly if necessary. If their students need lots of remedial instruction, the school can extend the school day, the school week, or the school year. If the curricula seem to focus on skills that students have already mastered, they can scrap it in favor of other materials. And then, if the school’s model works, it can be expanded; if it doesn’t, the school can be shut down relatively rapidly.

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