Governance

In my recent policy brief arguing for a reboot of charter school governance, I said that states need to create the right policy environment to ensure that management companies aren’t acting as puppeteers determining all the moves of a charter school and controlling the governing boards that ought to be in charge. When boards are mere rubber stamps, questions about accountability, incentives, and conflicts of interest are sure to follow (look at the calamity that has befallen the American Indian Model charter schools in California to see how an ineffectual and subservient board can crash even the highest flying charter).

But as my colleague Kathryn Mullen Upton pointed out yesterday, there’s plenty of blame to go around when problems like this surface. Charter boards that agree to arrangements that effectively make them subordinate to managers and vendors are as much at fault, said Upton, who oversees the Fordham Foundation’s charter authorizing operations in Ohio. Moreover, authorizers that grant a charter without even looking at the management agreement bear responsibility, too.

The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools has recommended policies that explicitly assert the independence of the boards that ordinarily hold the charter and ultimately answer to the public. These include performance contracts that not only show how a board will assess a vendor’s performance but will terminate the contract if necessary. And there ought to be laws, just as in Florida, that explain how a governing board will maintain an arm’s-length...

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Redefining the School District in TennesseeTennessee’s Achievement Schools District is the latest character to enter the stage in the most important and interesting act of contemporary education reform: structural-institutional changes in the running and governing of public schools.

For eons, the plot was the same: a district owns and operates all of the public schools in a geographic area. The subplot, if you were in urban America, was that the district-run schools serving most of your community’s kids did so quite badly.

Chartering, entering stage right in 1991, subtly but revolutionarily, showed that other entities could run public schools. A few years later, Michigan and Massachusetts, adding dimension to the character, showed that non-district entities could also authorize (approve, monitor, renew, close) public schools.

The district’s proprietary grip on public education was broken.

Over the course of the 1990s, chartered schools slowly got more and more stage time, growing to capture larger market shares in America’s cities: 10, 15, 20, 30% in some areas.

The plot developed with a new strand: more and more state departments of education were empowered to take over individual schools and entire districts. 

In hindsight, this was the play’s most unfortunate interlude—the jump-the-shark scene, the add-a-precocious-child-to-the-cast strategy, the second season of Friday Night Lights.  SEAs, like a dog who chased and caught a car, didn’t know what to do with...

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Tennessee’s Achievement Schools District (ASD) is the latest character onstage in the most interesting act of contemporary education reform: structural changes in the governance and operation of public schools.

The Achievement Schools District is the latest character onstage
The ASD is the latest character onstage in the most interesting act of contemporary education reform: goverance reform
Image by Alan Cleaver.

For eons, the plot was the same: the district owns and operates all public schools in a geographic area. The subplot, at least in urban America, was that most of those schools weren’t delivering on the promise of public education.

Chartering, which crept on stage in 1991, subtly but importantly showed that entities besides districts could run public schools—and often run them better. Soon thereafter, Michigan and Massachusetts, adding dimension to the character, showed that non-district entities could also authorize (approve, monitor, renew, close) public schools.

The district’s monopoly grip on public education was broken.

Over the past two decades, chartered schools got more and more stage time, breaking into nearly every state and growing to capture larger market shares in America’s cities: 10, 15, 20, 30 percent in some areas.

Then the plot added a new twist, as state departments of education were empowered to take over individual schools and even entire districts.

This didn’t...

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Redefining the School District in TennesseeIs it time for Ohio and other states to take bolder steps toward turning around our most troubled schools and districts? There are a growing number of states that say yes, and they are leading the way in launching “recovery school districts.” The oldest and best known of these efforts is the Louisiana Recovery School District, but other states are embracing the idea: Tennessee, Michigan, and (most recently) Virginia.

Recovery school districts, simply put, are state-created entities that take responsibility for running—and turning around—individual schools that have languished academically for years while under district control. Fordham, as part of its series on school-governance alternatives and reforms, is issuing a three-part series focused on recovery school districts. The first report is on the Tennessee Achievement School District (ASD), which was seeded as part of Tennessee’s winning Race to the Top (RttT) application in January 2010.

Nelson Smith, former head of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools and long-time school-reform leader, was the perfect person to report on the history, challenges, and early successes of the Tennessee ASD. According to Smith, Tennessee’s RttT application committed the state to turning around the “bottom 5 percent” of schools, and Tennessee allocated $22 million of its $500 million RttT award to launching the Achievement School District. Support for this effort was bipartisan, and strong leadership has...

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My colleague, Adam Emerson, recently penned a piece on rethinking charter school governance; specifically, how charter school governing entities (i.e., school boards) are structured and the pros and cons associated with different arrangements. It is a good piece, but I would argue that structure means nothing without capacity.

We have an internal saying within our charter school authorizing operation: “As the board goes, so goes the school.”

More often than not this proves to be the case, which is why board capacity – and by that I mean the collective strength of the school’s board to govern a fiscally, organizationally and academically healthy school that is achieving its goals for students - is critical.

Have a high performing charter school? Chances are it’s got a savvy board whose membership consists of mission-aligned individuals with diverse professional expertise and experience that is leveraged to advance a strategic and defined vision, and achieve a specific set of goals.

As the board goes, so goes the school

School not doing so well? Probably the issues start and end with the board, and will fester as long as the board lets them.

Adam touches on this issue by pointing out that education management companies and other service providers sometimes control charter school boards (as opposed to the board controlling the vendor). He’s absolutely right; this happens and it shouldn’t. However, to place the blame squarely on the vendors who contractually formalize (sometimes egregious) arrangements advantageous to the vendor with charter school governing boards...

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Emily Carter

Redefining the School District in TennesseeOver the past few years, Tennessee has taken important steps to improve public education. With a focus on higher standards, great teaching, turning around low-performing schools, and using data in new and important ways, Tennessee has made significant progress. Even with student achievement improving, there is still a lot of work left to do before every student graduates high school prepared for college and the workforce.

One important way Tennessee has worked to raise student achievement is through initiatives aimed at turning around low-performing schools. Redefining the School District in Tennessee helps to illuminate this work by examining the development, implementation, and ongoing efforts of the Achievement School District (ASD). The ASD is a special statewide district that acts as both as school operator and charter authorizer that steps in to take over and support the lowest performing 5 percent of schools in the state.

Author Nelson Smith highlights key aspects of Tennessee’s turnaround work that other states can learn from, including the importance of community support and buy-in. As Smith notes, “People hate for their schools to be closed and taken over,” and states should consider options that allow communities to participate in and contribute to the decision-making process. It’s important for the ASD to understand local community needs so that they can best serve students.  

While much can be...

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My colleague, Adam Emerson, recently penned a piece on rethinking charter school governance; specifically, how charter school governing entities (i.e., school boards) are structured and the pros and cons associated with different arrangements. It is a good piece, but I would argue that structure means nothing without capacity.

We have an internal saying within our charter school authorizing operation: “As the board goes, so goes the school.”

More often than not this proves to be the case, which is why board capacity – and by that I mean the collective strength of the school’s board to govern a fiscally, organizationally and academically healthy school that is achieving its goals for students - is critical.

Have a high performing charter school? Chances are it’s got a savvy board whose membership consists of mission-aligned individuals with diverse professional expertise and experience that is leveraged to advance a strategic and defined vision, and achieve a specific set of goals.

As the board goes, so goes the school

School not doing so well? Probably the issues start and end with the board, and will fester as long as the board lets them.

Adam touches on this issue by pointing out that education management companies and other service providers sometimes control charter school boards (as opposed to the board controlling the vendor). He’s absolutely right; this happens and it shouldn’t. However, to place the blame squarely on the vendors who contractually formalize (sometimes egregious) arrangements advantageous to the vendor with charter school governing boards...

Categories: 

Is it time for Ohio and other states to take bolder steps toward turning around our most troubled schools and districts? There are a growing number of states that say yes, and they are leading the way in launching “recovery school districts.” The oldest and best known of these efforts is the Louisiana Recovery School District (see our Fordham report here), but other states are embracing the idea – Tennessee, Michigan, and most recently Virginia.

Recovery school districts, simply put, are state-created entities that take responsibility for running – and turning around – individual schools that have languished academically for years while under district control. Fordham, as part of its series on school governance alternatives and reforms, is issuing a three-part series focused on recovery school districts. The first report is on the Tennessee Achievement School District (ASD), which was seeded as part of Tennessee’s winning Race to the Top (RttT) application in January 2010.

Nelson Smith, former head of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools and long-time school reform leader, was the perfect person to report on the history, challenges and early successes of the Tennessee ASD. According to Smith, Tennessee’s RttT application committed the state to turning around the “bottom 5 percent” of schools, and Tennessee allocated $22 million of its $500 million RttT award to launching the Achievement School District. Support for this effort was bipartisan and strong leadership has been key to moving it...

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Redefining the School District in TennesseeAs the challenges of education governance loom ever larger and the dysfunction and incapacity of the traditional K–12 system reveal themselves as major roadblocks to urgently needed reforms across that system, many have asked, “What’s the alternative?”

Part of the answer is the “recovery school district,” a new state-created entity that has the potential to turn around schools that have—often for decades—produced dreadful results under district control.

Nelson Smith investigates the Volunteer State’s Achievement School District (ASD) by analyzing the ASD’s history, politics, and moving parts in the new policy report Redefining the School District in Tennessee.

Smith offers concrete advice to other states thinking of creating similar “recovery school districts.”

  • Due Diligence: Because there aren’t enough high-quality national charter and turnaround networks to fill the demand created by large-scale reform efforts, states need to look for homegrown solutions.
  • Destination: States must consider how to make schools slated for turnaround attractive places to work for high-quality teachers, administrators, and leaders.
  • Expectations: What is an acceptable level of success, and at what point should legislators get the information they need to make further decisions? States must consider how to define “good enough” in turnaround measures.
  • Buy-In: States should follow the ASD’s lead in separating the identification of turnaround schools from the selection of potential operators—people hate for their schools to be closed and
  • ...
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If you asked me that question fifteen years ago, I would have given a pat answer: incentives, or the lack thereof. In our bureaucratic education system, described most accurately as a public monopoly, nobody faced strong incentives to look for ways to build a better mousetrap. And if that mousetrap was threatening to anyone (as mousetraps tend to be), forget about it; the status quo ruled.

Why don't schools extend the reach of great teachers?
Why don't schools extend the reach of great teachers, as recommended by Public Impact?

Change the incentives and watch schools embrace change, I would have argued. Hold superintendents, principals, and teachers to account for raising test scores. Subject them to real competition. Then voila: They would spend night and day looking for promising innovations to improve achievement and better serve families.

Well, we know how that’s turned out. We’ve put a lot of those incentives in place, and schools (and educators) still don’t seem to embrace good ideas, even the non-controversial, inexpensive kind. Take, for instance, the following:

  • Bring “departmentalization” to elementary schools by asking strong math teachers to teach math and strong reading teachers to teach reading. Don’t ask anybody to do both.
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