Charters & Choice

Guest Blogger

This post, written by Bryan C. Hassel and Emily Ayscue Hassel of Public Impact, is a response to Andy Smarick's June 25 post about turnarounds.

Andy Smarick's June 25 post "IES and turnarounds" makes the case against trying to turn around existing failing public schools. Instead, he says, we should put all our eggs in the basket of starting new schools.?? His rationale? The lack of gold-standard studies that show what makes turnarounds successful.?? Hmmm . . . what if we had applied that thinking at the dawn of chartering?

He misses the main point: turnarounds (bad-to-great transformations, typically with a new leader) and start-ups sometimes work--in other sectors and, it turns out, in schools. We don't have perfect knowledge of the "why," but we know more in both cases than Andy lets on.

It's true: most of the research on successful turnarounds come from case studies of successful efforts to fix failing organizations, without a rigorous control group methodology.?? But the same goes for the new-school startups that Andy (and we) find so enchanting.?? We're not aware of gold-standard studies that definitively prove what makes KIPP, Achievement First, and the other high-flyers tick. What we have instead is, you guessed it, case studies of successful efforts without rigorous controls.

The good news is that in both the turnaround and new-school cases, the case study research reveals a remarkable consistency in the ingredients of successful efforts.?? Turnarounds happen all the time across sectors, and...


Two weeks ago, our friends at released a report highlighting the academic progress made by students in Ohio's "Big 8" (large urban) districts and charter schools in those same cities.?? It's fair to lump these two groups together, and to compare them with one another.?? The vast majority of students in urban charter schools hail from those eight districts.?? Yes, there are some stragglers from the suburbs, but not nearly enough to invalidate such research.

Today, the Ohio Alliance for Public Charter Schools, also our friends, followed up's work with a ??report of its own (not yet available online that I can find) comparing academic achievement, preparation, and progress levels of students in the Big 8 districts with students in the Buckeye State's seven statewide e-schools.?? OAPCS found similar results between the two groups, perhaps providing cause for saving e-schools from the budget chopping block.

The problem is, e-schools don't get their students from the large urban districts like most brick-and-mortar charter schools do.?? In fact, last school year just 22 percent of students at statewide e-schools came from such districts.?? A fairer comparison can be made between e-schools and statewide average performance, like Fordham does in our annual analysis of Ohio school performance.?? Such a comparison shows that Ohio's e-schools routinely under-perform their district peers.?? This is largely due to a few perennially weak performers who drag down the good work being done by the decent cyberschools....


Voucher opponents often argue that it's unfair to hold public schools accountable for results under the No Child Left Behind Act and various state rules while allowing private schools that participate in voucher programs to receive taxpayer dollars without similar accountability.

We at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute don't entirely buy that argument but we also believe there's room for a reasonable middle ground. It's time for the school-voucher movement to embrace accountability done right, just as most of the charter-school movement has done. But it's also vital to preserve the capacity of private schools to be different and not to deter them from taking children who would benefit.

In pursuit of that middle ground, we sought the advice of twenty experts in the school-choice world. This paper presents their thoughts and opinions, as well as Fordham's own ideas.

The majority of experts agree that participating private schools should not face new regulation of their day-to-day affairs. They also see value in helping parents make informed choices by providing data about how well their own children are performing.

However, experts are not of one mind when it comes to making academic results and financial audits transparent. Some would "let the market rule" and are averse to transparency or accountability around school-level results. Others would "treat private schools like charter schools" when it comes to testing, financial transparency, etc. Some would also like government (or its proxy) to intervene if individual schools aren't performing adequately.

We suggest a "sliding scale" approach...

This yearly report covers Fordham's sponsorship practices throughout the year as well as newsworthy events related to our sponsored charter schools. You can also find detailed reports on all of Fordham-sponsored schools.  Each school report contains information on the school's academic performance, educational philosophy, and compliance for the 2007-2008 school year.

As Gov. Ted Strickland concludes his 12-city "Conversation on Education" tour to gather ideas for reforming public education in Ohio, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute has put forth a report of five recommendations designed to keep improvements in the Buckeye State's public schools on track toward three critical goals: 1) maximizing the talents of every child; 2) producing graduates as good as any in the world; and 3) closing the persistent academic gaps that continue between rich and poor, and black and white and brown.

The five recommendations include:

  1. Creating world-class standards and stronger accountability mechanisms. 
  2. Ensure that funding is fairly allocated among all children and schools. 
  3. Recruit the best and brightest to lead schools and empower them to succeed. 
  4. Improve teacher quality. 
  5. Expand the quality of, and access to, a range of high-performing school options.

    The report offers relevant examples of the best practices and thinking from across the nation and world as well as within the state of Ohio. These recommendations were developed on the basis of the work over the past decade of many organizations, including Achieve, McKinsey & Co., the Ohio Grantmakers Forum, the National Governors Association, the Council of Chief State School Officers, the National Center on Education and the Economy, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, and Ohio's State Board of Education and Department of Education. ...

    The most exciting innovation in education policy in the last decade is the emergence of highly effective schools in our nation’s inner cities, schools where disadvantaged teens make enormous gains in academic achievement. n this book, David Whitman takes readers inside six of these secondary schools—many of them charter schools—and reveals the secret to their success: They are paternalistic.

    The schools teach teens how to act according to traditional, middle-class values, set and enforce exacting academic standards, and closely supervise student behavior. But unlike paternalistic institutions of the past, these schools are warm, caring places, where teachers and principals form paternal-like bonds with students. Though little explored to date, the new paternalistic schools are the most promising means yet for closing the nation's costly and shameful achievement gap.

    For review copies, please contact John Horton.


    Other materials

    Education Next Book Club

    George Will writes about American Indian Public Charter School

    George Will writes about Cristo Rey Jesuit High School

    David Brooks mentions the book

    Press release

    Fordham held a book talk for "Sweating the Small Stuff" on September 3, 2008. Watch the video here.

    "Sweating the Small Stuff: Inner-City Schools and the New Paternalism" book talk from Education Gadfly on Vimeo.

    Excerpt of David Whitman's comments...

    America's urban Catholic schools are in crisis. Over 1,300 of them have shut down since 1990, mostly in our cities. As a result, some 300,000 students have been displaced--double the number affected by Hurricanes Rita and Katrina. These children have been forced to attend other schools at an estimated cost to taxpayers of more than $20 billion.

    Fordham's latest report, which includes a comprehensive survey of the attitudes of U.S. Catholics and the broader public toward inner-city Catholic schools, examines this crisis and offers several suggestions for arresting and perhaps reversing this trend in the interests of better education. By looking at seven case studies, the report shows that in a few cities, such as Wichita, urban Catholic education is making a comeback. However, in other cities like Milwaukee and Washington, D.C., despite public voucher programs, enrollment continues to decline and/or schools are being closed or converted into charters.

    Related Resources

    Full survey results

    Fordham VP Mike Petrilli discusses the report on NPR, Fox Business channel, and Fordham Factor

      In A Nutshell brief of the report...

      The Oregonian reports that its state board of education last week gave the green light to "virtual" charter schools in the state, but put them on a "short cord." Under the "compromise," such schools will be limited to 100 students per grade, all of whom must ask their home school districts for permission to go virtual. The enrollment cap is a major disappointment. Such a "slow growth" policy might make sense in states without any virtual school experience; getting a foot in the door is a decent political strategy, and creates an opportunity for the schools to prove themselves, demonstrate parental demand via long waiting lists, and build momentum for more flexible state policies. But Oregon is no stranger to virtual education; it is already home to the 1,800 student Connections Academy, which by all accounts is doing well. Another 900-student school, the Oregon Virtual Academy, operated by K12*, was slated to open in the fall. It's hard to see this cap as anything but a boon to the traditional public school system--and its unions--and a slap in the face to parents looking for a school that fits their child's needs.

      But even worse is the veto power given to local school districts that don't want their students attending these schools. In an age when the value of "public school choice" is widely agreed upon, I can't think of any other "inter-district" plan where the "sending" district can block children at the schoolhouse door. Of course this...


      Liam asks "if urban Catholic schools can't compete with charter schools, why do they deserve special help?"

      But Liam, charter schools are free for the families who choose them, while, outside of the handful of cities with voucher programs, Catholic schools ain't. If we could find a way for both charter schools and Catholic schools to receive public support, then I'd say yes, let the best schools win. Until then, somebody needs to give deserving Catholic schools a lift. And if the Pope isn't willing, how can we expect Uncle Sam to volunteer?

      Liam Julian

      Mike, I may agree with your point that Catholic schools should receive public funding. But it doesn't look likely that they will, on any grand scale, in the near future, especially if come January 2009 both the White House and Congress are run by a party more friendly to public-school teachers' unions and more hostile to choice. And even where voucher programs exist--Milwaukee, for example--several Catholic schools that receive vouchers have closed despite boosting their enrollments. The Catholic schools' troubles can't be remedied by public funding alone, it seems.

      But you haven't answered the main question: Why the big push from education-policy groups to save Catholic schools, in particular? Is the assumption that all Catholic schools are superior to their k-12 public-school, or public charter-school, counterparts? And is the assumption that closed Catholic schools cannot be replaced by high-quality charter-school alternatives?