Charters & Choice

Alex Medler

Here follows the eighth entry in Fordham’s “Charter School Policy Wonk-a-Thon,” in which Mike Petrilli challenged a number of prominent scholars, practitioners, and policy analysts to take a stab at explaining why some charter sectors outpace their local district schools while others are falling behind.

To achieve success and scale in the charter sector, nothing else matters without (1) strong authorizing and (2) strong applicants.

The highest-performing charter sectors can’t be measured just by the difference between the average performance of charters and traditional schools. What matters is the full portfolio of schools. Success means there are lots of charter schools and most of them are great, while few schools are failing. If we look at some of the highest-performing jurisdictions—Massachusetts (or really Boston), New Orleans, Tennessee’s Achievement School District (ASD), New York, and Washington, D.C.—we see strong authorizing and a supply of strong charter applicants. The absence of either fatally undermines quality and scale.

Various support structures lead to regular crops of strong applicants. Because there is no single support that matters most, the nature of the best structure will depend on local assets. Strong authorizing includes the approval of strong proposals, as well as the regular rejection of weak applicants and the timely closure of failing schools. These elements are at the heart of NACSA's One Million Lives campaign. Any jurisdiction would benefit from strong authorizing and great applicants.

Good authorizing is a balancing act

Bad authorizers can either be so hostile...

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Todd Ziebarth

Here follows the seventh entry in Fordham’s “Charter School Policy Wonk-a-Thon,” in which Mike Petrilli challenged a number of prominent scholars, practitioners, and policy analysts to take a stab at explaining why some charter sectors outpace their local district schools while others are falling behind.

The short, but unsatisfying, answer to Mike’s question: It’s complicated.

Since we released our first rankings of state charter school laws against our model law in 2010, we’ve been asked about the relationship between a state’s ranking in our report and the results of that state’s charter schools—so much so that we’ll be releasing a new report in a couple of months that begins to tease out this relationship in each state entitled The Health of the Public Charter School Sector: A State-By-State Report. In the meantime, here are a few thoughts about this relationship.

Supportive laws are necessary but not sufficient

First, to quote directly from our model law,

It is important to note that a strong charter law is a necessary but insufficient factor in driving positive results for public charter schools. Experience with public charter schools across the country has shown that there are five primary ingredients of a successful public charter school environment in a state, as demonstrated by strong student results:

  • Supportive laws and regulations (both what is on the books and how it is implemented);
  • Quality authorizers;
  • Effective charter support organizations, such as state charter associations and resource centers;
  • Outstanding school leaders and teachers; and,
  • Engaged parents
...
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Six inches of squish

On this week's podcast: A lunch fight, a School Choice Ohio lawsuit, the DOE's My Brother's Keeper initiative, and Amber reviews NCTQ's Roll Call report.

Amber's Research Minute

Roll Call: The Importance of Teacher Attendance by Nithya Joseph, Nancy Waymack, and Daniel Zielaski, (Washington, D.C.: National Council on Teacher Quality, June 2014).

Here follows the sixth entry in Fordham’s “Charter School Policy Wonk-a-Thon,” in which Mike Petrilli challenged a number of prominent scholars, practitioners, and policy analysts to take a stab at explaining why some charter sectors outpace their local district schools while others are falling behind.

Mike raises a question that I get all the time from policymakers: what explains the pretty extreme variation we see in charter school outcomes across states? The easy answer is that’s it’s policy, and by changing policy we can ensure quality.

But it’s not that simple. Policy guarantees nothing, and good state laws don’t necessarily result in good schools. Instead, charter quality depends mainly on implementation, school-design development, and the talent pipeline.

Macke Raymond and her colleagues at CREDO have done some initial work with their massive data set to see whether state caps, multiple authorizers, and other factors bear any relation to outcomes. They didn’t find much, and what they did find was sometimes counterintuitive: for example, charter caps were associated with worse quality. In looking over the CREDO outcomes by state, there are also no obvious patterns related to state funding levels—for instance, Pennsylvania charters underperform other public schools, at a cost of $12,000 per pupil, while California charters outperform their peers, for more like $8,000.

Does all this mean that policy doesn’t matter—that charter outcomes are random? Absolutely not. It just means that we haven’t yet amassed the right evidence to know precisely which policies matter...

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Greg Richmond

Here follows the fifth entry in Fordham’s “Charter School Policy Wonk-a-Thon,” in which Mike Petrilli challenged a number of prominent scholars, practitioners, and policy analysts to take a stab at explaining why some charter sectors outpace their local district schools while others are falling behind.

For the rest of the nation, California is a land of paradoxes. Stunning natural beauty comes with earthquakes and wildfires. Hollywood comes with Kim Kardashian. And the nation’s biggest charter school state comes with both the most excellent charter schools and the most that are failing. 

One thing that is not working well within California’s charter school sector is authorizing. There are too many authorizers (more than 300), authorizing too few schools (just one or two). And the process for approving new charter schools is often adversarial and litigious. I draw two conclusions from this: Authorizing matters and we should not replicate California’s authorizing practices across the nation.

When one looks at CREDO's 2009 and 2013 studies, two types of performance emerge. First, states with the best charter school performance are those with good authorizers who have maintained high standards and have closed failing schools. See New York, Louisiana, and Massachusetts. The lowest-quality states have been those with authorizers who have had low standards. See Texas, Ohio, and others.  

Second, states where overall charter performance is no different than traditional public schools have had random, often adversarial authorizing practices. See California. Too often under California law and practice, authorizers are purposely powerless—powerless...

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Jed Wallace, Elizabeth Robitaille

Here follows the fourth entry in Fordham’s “Charter School Policy Wonk-a-Thon,” in which Mike Petrilli challenged a number of prominent scholars, practitioners, and policy analysts to take a stab at explaining why some charter sectors outpace their local district schools while others are falling behind.

The California Charter Schools Association (CCSA) has been issuing annual research on the academic performance of the California charter sector for several years. California is unique in the sheer size and diversity of the charter movement—the number and range of charter schools in California far exceeds that of any other state. Historically, we have found that charter schools both tend to overperform and underperform relative to non-charter public schools, providing a “U-Shape” spectrum of performance. At the same time, we see that different categories of charter schools are found in different concentrations on the performance spectrum, with some categories tending to overperform and other categories tending to underperform. These same trends are likely present in other states as well, but the numbers of charter schools in those states are not yet sizable enough to yield the clear findings we see here. California can therefore serve as a useful microcosm for understanding the differences in academic performance of the charter movement across the nation.

One clear finding we identify is that a high concentration of nonprofit, mission-driven charter organizations serving historically disadvantaged students consistently yields strong results. In Los Angeles, San Jose, and Oakland, we have large numbers of charter schools (educating 20 percent...

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Here follows the second entry in Fordham’s “Charter School Policy Wonk-a-Thon,” in which Mike Petrilli challenged a number of prominent scholars, practitioners, and policy analysts to take a stab at explaining why some charter sectors outpace their local district schools while others are falling behind.

If I were made omnipotent for a day and charged with creating a single high-performing city charter sector, my playbook would probably look similar to that of other charter supporters…but with one major exception.

Here’s what I’d do based on the lessons of the last two decades.

Acquire as much educator talent as possible

No system of schools can thrive without the best teachers and school leaders. New York City (during its Klein-era heyday), Boston, and New Orleans have been magnets for talents, and they’ve benefitted accordingly. National organizations such as Teach For America and TNTP have been indispensable educator pipelines in leading cities, and a number of homegrown initiatives have also been valuable.

Recruit and build high-quality school operators

Blessedly, we finally have a critical mass of organizations that can start and operate high-performing, high-poverty urban schools. Cities with outstanding CMOs such as KIPP, Uncommon, and Achievement First have a huge head start. These organizations reliably develop and scale successful schools. But there are still too few of these national operators, and it would be understandable if a city were to balk at the idea of having a public school system comprised entirely of “outside” operators. Great charter school incubators like those...

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The #Kimye edition

After discussing what the research says young North West’s likelihood of educational success are, Mike and Michelle get down to brass tacks on Oklahoma’s possible Common Core repeal, the value of a college degree, and what makes Boston’s charter sector so high quality. Amber grades America’s public pension plans.

Amber's Research Minute

The State of Retirement: Grading America's Public Pension Plans by Richard W. Johnson, Barbara Butrica, Owen Haaga, and Benjamin G. Southgate, (Washington, D.C.: The Urban Institute, 2014).

Michael Goldstein

Here follows the first entry in Fordham’s “Charter School Policy Wonk-a-Thon,” in which Mike Petrilli challenged a number of prominent scholars, practitioners, and policy analysts to take a stab at explaining why some charter sectors outpace their local district schools while others are falling behind.

Why do some charter sectors outpace their local district schools while others are falling behind? To begin to answer this question, let me pose a second. Among high-performing charter cities, why does Boston outperform other “good” charter cities (by a country mile)?

Hey, I get it. We Bostonians tend toward annoying self-promotion. Sox, Pats, Bruins, Celts for a while, Harvard, John Hancock, etc. Let me just concede up front that there’s an irritating quality to my question.

But look at the chart. Here are CREDO’s top cities, measured in “days of learning.”

The difference between Boston charters and, say, D.C. charters is bigger than the difference between D.C. charters and their district schools. If we’re to discover why the average charter in D.C. or New Orleans is so much better than the average one in, say, Detroit or Miami, I believe we need to answer the Boston question.

Let’s dispense with some theories of why Boston charters outperform these other cities, beginning with the obvious.

1. Is this a boutique story? It is true that Boston’s charters educate just under 9,000 students. Thus, one could say that even if...

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I’m a huge believer in high-quality charter authorizing. My view is that many of the strengths of chartering today are attributable to good authorizing and that many of chartering’s weaknesses are the result of bad authorizing.

I know from firsthand experience how tough it is to run a great authorizing shop. I oversaw the NJDOE’s authorizing office, the only authorizer in the state, and became intimately acquainted with the challenges of staffing, the difficulties of building the right practices, the competing factors involved in renewal decisions, the regularity of lawsuits, and more.

I’m particularly excited (and concerned) about authorizing because I believe that all urban public schools, including district-run schools, should have contracts with authorizers. I also believe that private schools participating in public scholarship or tax-credit programs should have performance contracts with authorizers.

I think it’s essential to have an accountability body separate from the school itself and the school’s operator. If we’re to adopt this model across two or three sectors, we need to make sure authorizers are ready for the promotion.

NACSA’s sixth annual survey of authorizers is a must-read for anyone trying to become familiar with the ins and outs of authorizing, as well as those interested in seeing big gains in authorizer quality.

The report doesn’t diverge much from previous editions, but the basic descriptive statistics are important, especially as they relate to NACSA’s “12 Essential Practices.” ...

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