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NACSA’s Alex Medler and I have published an op-ed over at Real Clear Education on steps that charter school governing boards, authorizers, and policy makers can take to prevent charter school collapse:

While many charters will thrive, inevitably some will need to close. But not all charter school closures are the same. Many of the schools that have closed over the past month never should have been approved to open in the first place, or the boards of these schools should not have tried to start the new school year. It’s only a month into the new school year, and already charter schools have closed in Arizona, California, Florida, Idaho, Indiana, New Mexico, Pennsylvania North Carolina, and Ohio.

It doesn’t have to be this way. There are steps that charter school leaders, authorizers, and policymakers can take to ensure that bad schools never get approved and that those that do fail are closed with as little disruption as possible. With smart policy, strong authorizing, and responsible governance, many of these closures are preventable. Others can be timed and managed better.

Check out the whole thing here.

 

logoEPNACSA President and CEO Greg Richmond has joined the Advisory Board of Education Post, a new organization created to foster a better conversation “about public education and what our children need — an honest and civil conversation of many voices, united by a common belief in the power of education to transform lives.”

Greg made his own contribution to this better conversation in a post about the need for ideologues on both sides of the charter school debate to turn down the rhetoric and consider ways that we can learn from each other and work together. Greg notes that “Charter critics often dismiss [Al] Shanker’s vision of collaboration because the debate is consumed by an “us versus them mentality” and the baseless notion that charters exist solely to “privatize” education, destroy unions and drain traditional schools of money and motivated students.” Opponents, he says “should be delighted to learn that Shanker’s vision is alive and well in district-charter partnerships across the nation” but that these partnerships, while promising are far from the norm.

Too often, the political rhetoric surrounding charter schools is so toxic that district and neighborhood educators feel uneasy meeting with “the enemy” — much less acknowledging they may be able to learn from each other.

Read the whole thing here.

 

The National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA) released the following statement in response to the recommendations in a report on authorizer accountability released yesterday by the Annenberg Institute at Brown University:

“The Annenberg Institute’s report on “Public Accountability for Charter Schools” is a disappointing entry in the important discussion of how to improve education for America’s children. Its recommendations are incomplete, judgmental, and not based on research or data. If the report’s recommendations were implemented, charter schools would become clones of traditional public schools, losing the flexibility needed to be innovative and better.

In Annenberg’s report, a significant number of important accountability standards and authorizing practices are unaddressed or superficially addressed. Throughout the report, the author repeatedly assumes the worst about charter schools and fails to acknowledge the thousands of charter schools that are working well and the millions of families who believe a charter school is the best choice for their children. The citations that the author offers in support of her recommendations are almost entirely newspaper articles and blog posts. This is surprisingly sloppy work for an institute housed at Brown University.

We appreciate that the author did take the time to look at our work and our Principles & Standards for Quality Charter School Authorizing, which were developed with funding from the U.S. Department of Education and are considered the most comprehensive and detailed authorizing standards in the country. Our standards have been publicly developed, reviewed, criticized, tested and modified for more than ten years. Numerous states have embraced our standards in law and in practice. Unlike the Annenberg report, the names of our board members and the individuals who contributed to the development of our standards are printed clearly on the front cover of our Principles & Standards. Almost all of those individuals actually work in this field.

More importantly, when put into practice, our standards enhance accountability in order to strengthen school quality and honor the autonomy charter schools need to innovate, while protecting the rights of students and the interests of the public. We need more states to set truly high standards for their authorizers, through mechanisms like endorsing our own Principles & Standards. We welcome all allies in our effort to promote high expectations for authorizers, but a new set of deeply flawed recommendations is not helpful. And while we appreciate Annenberg’s interest in this important topic, its report leaves much to be desired and makes little progress toward our shared goal: for all children to have the opportunity to attend great schools that prepare them for success in life.”

 

This is the final in a series of letters from NACSA President and CEO Greg Richmond to Michigan authorizers, operators, policymakers and advocates highlighting the importance of quality authorizing practices.

Last week, I shared with you my response to the Free Press series on charter schools and the ways that NACSA’s Principles & Standards speak to many of the issues identified in the series. Today, I want to share with you a few of the ways that Michigan could strengthen its law. NACSA supports policies that promote the growth of quality schools, the closure of those that fail, and flexibility, transparency and accountability for all. These include immediate steps as well as some that would likely require a longer process and a more comprehensive approach. The following ideas should be part of those discussions.

  • Require authorizers to implement practices that meet professional standards;
  • Strengthen the current default closure provisions;
  • Strengthen the state’s existing authorizer accountability provisions;
  • Give authorizers the authority and tools to implement best practices; and
  • Pursue comprehensive changes that improve governance and transparency.

None of these policy changes are silver bullets and the details of their design will take considerable care. But they can promote high standards for students, schools and authorizers and better protect the public trust without impeding on school success.

Michigan’s charter sector is not broken. There are many schools that are doing amazing things for kids. But much work remains to be done. Stronger policy, stronger authorizing, and stronger governance are needed.

I reiterate NACSA’s commitment to working with authorizers, policy makers and other stakeholders to ensure that the bad behavior of a few does not further impede the amazing work of the many great charter schools across Michigan and the nation. We look forward to your continued partnership.

Sincerely,

Greg Richmond
President and CEO

 

 

This is the third in a series of letters from NACSA President and CEO Greg Richmond to Michigan authorizers, operators, policymakers and advocates highlighting the importance of quality authorizing practices.

As promised, I am writing again to share some of the principles and practices that define quality authorizing and that are important to keep in focus as we consider ways to address the legitimate concerns raised by the series in the Free Press. Today, I would like to highlight standards related to making decisions to renew or not renew a charter.

NACSA’s Principles & Standards state, “A quality authorizer designs and implements a transparent and rigorous process that uses comprehensive academic, financial, and operational performance data to make merit-based renewal decisions, and revokes charters when necessary to protect student and public interests.”  Specifically, a quality authorizer:

  • Clearly communicates to schools the criteria for charter revocation, renewal, and non-renewal decisions that are consistent with the charter contract.
  • Grants renewal only to schools that have achieved the standards and targets stated in the charter contract, are organizationally and fiscally viable, and have been faithful to the terms of the contract and applicable law
  • Does not make renewal decisions, including granting probationary or short-term renewals, on the basis of political or community pressure or solely on promises of future improvement.

The charter school renewal process is intended to be a summative evaluation leading to a high-stakes decision. It should not be a formative, school improvement process.

Two years ago, NACSA looked at performance data from across the country and saw many high performing schools. Unfortunately, we also found roughly 1000 charter schools performing in the bottom 15th percentile of all public schools in their state.  While it is true that many charter schools serve a high proportion of at risk students, the charter school idea is supposed to be about providing those students better schools, not more failing schools.  We launched our One Million Lives campaign to open 2000 more great charter schools and to close 1000 failing charter schools.

Michigan authorizers are an important part of this work.  Without doubt, Michigan authorizers have closed dozens of failing schools over the years, but too many failing schools remain open.  Working together, by improving our policies and practices in the weeks ahead, we can deliver on the charter school promise to provide better schools to more children.

Sincerely,

Greg Richmond
President and CEO

 

 

This is the second in a series of letters from NACSA President and CEO Greg Richmond to Michigan authorizers, operators, policymakers and advocates highlighting the importance of due diligence when screening applications from existing operators.

Yesterday, I shared with you my response to the Free Press series on charter schools and the ways that NACSA is helping authorizers do more to prevent violations of the public trust in the future. It is not enough to respond to wrongdoing when it is reported by others. Authorizers have a responsibility to conduct rigorous, ongoing oversight without infringing on school autonomy. Even though many of the events reported are old news and have been addressed by authorizers and in state law, there is clearly still much work to be done.

Today, I’m sharing with you another excerpt from NACSA’s Principles & Standards, this one addressing elements needed in an application for a new charter school when the applicant is proposing to hire a management company. We know that great schools can be replicated, but we also know that replicating bad schools only produces more bad schools. Authorizers should not approve applications for new schools operated by providers that have a track record of failure or governed by boards that lack independence and capacity needed to oversee and hold the provider accountable for its performance. Good due diligence is paramount.

NACSA’s Principles & Standards state that applicants proposing to hire a management company should be required to provide:

-        Evidence of the service provider’s educational and management success;

-        The proposed management agreement with all key terms including roles and responsibilities of the parties, services and resources provided, performance evaluation measures, fee structure, financial control, oversight and disclosure, and renewal and termination.

-        Disclosure and explanation of any existing or potential conflicts of interest between the school governing board and proposed service provider or any affiliated business entities.

These requirements are critical for the evaluation of replication proposals involving a management provider, and should play a key role in whether an application is approved.

Operating a charter school is an enormous undertaking involving great public trust and responsibility. When operators have a track record of performance, they should be judged on that record. As we emphasize in our One Million Lives campaign, we need thousands more great charter schools, and we need to close those that are failing. What we don’t need is any more bad schools.

Tomorrow, we will share with you some of the principles and practices that are more broadly applicable to good authorizing, beyond situations that involve management companies.

Monday, we will share ways to strengthen Michigan’s charter school law.

NACSA is committed to working with authorizers, policy makers and other stakeholders to ensure that the bad behavior of a few does not further impede the amazing work of the many great charter schools across Michigan and the nation. We look forward to your continued partnership.

Sincerely,

Greg Richmond
President and CEO

 

 

No Excuses

The publication this week of an extensive series of articles in the Detroit Free Press on the state of the Michigan charter school sector has triggered a variety of responses across the state and around the country.  The following is the text of a letter from NACSA President and CEO Greg Richmond that was sent to authorizers, operators and advocates in Michigan yesterday:

Like you, I have read this week’s Free Press series on charter school oversight with deep frustration. While many Michigan charter schools are providing a quality education for their students, the actions of others are costing the public millions, jeopardizing the education of students, and undermining public confidence in charter school oversight generally.

This is not the time for charter school proponents and opponents to re-state their usual positions. Michigan has the unique opportunity to implement improvements that will establish high standards and protect student and public interests while maintaining the autonomy that is crucial to charter school success.

Here is what the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA) is doing:

1)      Disseminating elements of NACSA’s Principles and Standards that speak to issues identified this week.

2)      Inviting Michigan authorizers to work with NACSA to identify and implement improvements to their practices.

3)      Working with education reform advocates to propose opportunities to strengthen Michigan’s charter school laws.

NACSA’s Principles and Standards have been in place for a decade. They identify a comprehensive set of authorizer actions that are national best practices, including actions directly relevant to the issues raised this week.

Today, we provide the provisions that should be present in a charter when a charter school board hires a management company.

Thursday, we will share with you the elements that should exist in an application for a new charter school when the applicant is proposing to use a third-party school management company.

Friday, we will provide standards that are more broadly applicable to good authorizing, beyond situations that involve management companies.

Next Monday, we will share opportunities to strengthen Michigan’s charter school law.

Here is the section of our Principles and Standards that articulates what should be present in a charter when a charter school board hires a management company.

Charter contracts (between the authorizer and the charter school board) for schools that are contracting with external (third-party) providers for comprehensive services or management should include additional provisions that:

  • Clearly identify the school governing board as the party ultimately responsible for the success or failure of the school, and clearly define the external provider as a vendor of services;
  • Prohibit the third party from selecting, approving, employing, compensating, or serving as school governing board members;
  • Require the school governing board to directly select, retain, and compensate the school attorney, accountant, and audit firm;
  • Provide for payments from the authorizer to the school to be made to an account controlled by the school governing board, not the third party;
  • Require all instructional materials, furnishings, and equipment purchased or developed with public funds to be the property of the school, not the third party;
  • Condition charter approval on authorizer review and approval of the third-party contract.

The good news is that many of the issues raised this week have been addressed elsewhere and have led to better authorizing practices and overall, a stronger, more accountable charter school movement.  These are not fundamental flaws in the charter school model; rather, they are important implementation issues that can be successfully resolved.

I look forward to communicating and working with you in the weeks and months to come to improve Michigan’s charter schools.

Sincerely,

Greg Richmond

President & CEO

 

 

Guest Post: Larry Miller and Betheny Gross

Charter schools are leading the nation in seeking new ways to personalize learning with a blend of teacher-led and technology-based instruction.  If they are successful, these schools will dramatically accelerate student learning and use their funding much more strategically. Unfortunately, early bumps in the road (bumps familiar to anyone who has started a new school) are steering some of these schools off course.  But as authorizers, you can help these schools stay on track with hard but pointed questions to leaders proposing these new models.

Over the last year at CRPE we’ve been examining the finances of 8 new charter schools that opened in 2012 with personalized learning models that incorporated strong technology elements. The schools were all recipients of startup grants from Next General Learning Challenges (NGLC).

In the first year of implementation many of these schools missed enrollment projections and fundraising targets leading to budget gaps.  That they faced these challenges is not surprising – missed projections are fairly common in startups. The way these schools handled those budget gaps, however, raised some red flags. Six of the schools severely cut their technology budgets, potentially jeopardizing their efforts to personalize learning and more productively use their resources.

Authorizers reviewing applications for these schools can do themselves and the prospective school leaders a favor by asking a few pointed questions like the following:

  • What are your plans for student recruitment and private fundraising?  What will make these efforts successful?
  • How will your resource allocations change if you miss your enrollment target?
  • What will you cut if you miss your revenue target?  What if your budget gap is $200,000 or more?
  • How will your contracts for software, hardware, and even facilities allow you to flex costs with enrollment fluctuations?
  • What contingency plans do you have in place for technology that does not work out?

Charter schools, with all their flexibility and incentives to improve, are the perfect testing ground for the most innovative and modern approaches to personalized learning and more productive ways to organize staff and time. But new charter schools, whether or not they use technology, are often overly optimistic about enrollment and fundraising projections. And when revenues fall short, they can easily fall back into very traditional thinking: that technology is an add-on, not a new way of doing business. Authorizers can help by pushing schools to be both realistic about budgets and ambitious about new, more productive ways to approach schooling.

 

bdFor our grandparents or great-grandparents, a visit to the doctor was a different experience than it is for us.  Certainly, the level of medical technology available today dwarfs that of long ago, but I believe there was another more fundamental difference: a century or so ago, neither doctors nor their patients were confident that the doctor’s treatment would actually work.  The practice of medicine was highly differentiated, with amateurs, quacks and professionals plying their trade to the general public. How was a patient to know which doctor could successfully treat them and which could not?

The establishment and maturation of the American Medical Association began to separate the good from the bad.  By setting professional standards and enforcing them through professional collaboration and statutory mandate, the practice of medicine has made amazing advances.  Today, we expect that doctors will be able to accurately diagnose most of our ills.  Because of the establishment and enforcement of professional standards, amateurs and quacks are no longer allowed to practice medicine; successful outcomes are the expected norm.

In 2004, the oldest charter schools in the country had existed for more than a decade. School districts, state education departments, universities and others were authorizing hundreds of more charter schools each year.  Who was doing this work well and who was doing it poorly?  How was one to know which authorizing practices were good or bad?

Ten years ago today, NACSA published the first set of Principles and Standards for Quality Charter School Authorizing.  They were developed after lengthy dialogue and work by authorizers, school operators and advocates across the country.  We were guided by a central question: which authorizer practices are most likely to lead to good schools for kids while also meeting the public’s expectations?

Practices that had been disparate across the country, like interviewing applicants, establishing performance contracts, and requiring annual audits, became standards for all.  At first, the standards were mostly informational and voluntary.  Over time, many states began to acknowledge the standards in law and require authorizers to follow them.  During the past decade, with input from authorizers, operators and advocates, NACSA has revisited and revised the standards three times. We will continue to do so as we all get smarter and better at this work.

Today, we pause briefly from that work to acknowledge this important 10-year anniversary, to complement the authorizing profession on the progress we have made, and to rededicate ourselves to continued improvement in pursuit of the day when all children will have the opportunity to attend a great school.

Happy Birthday Principles and Standards and may there be many more.

inex13There are now more than a thousand charter school authorizers in the United States – 1,045 to be exact, according to the brand-new State of Charter School Authorizing 2013 (which in NACSA shorthand we call “the Facts Report.”).  The sheer number of authorizers has grown by 47% in just the past five years, keeping pace with the impressively sustained growth of the charter movement overall.

The report is based on the nation’s most comprehensive annual survey of charter authorizers, and it’s a feast for ed-data wonks. But there’s plenty for the casual observer to think about as well. For example, did you know that school districts constitute by far the largest number of authorizers: 945, or 90% of the total?   Yet they authorize just over half of charter schools because 90% of them have 5 or fewer charters.

At the other end of the scale, there are just 104 of what we call “large” authorizers –those with 10 or more charters – but they account for 66% of all charter schools and nearly three-quarters of charter students.

You can find data on funding, staff size, and all sorts of other stuff, but the heart of the matter is what authorizers are actually doing, to wit:

They’re really closing failing schools. Next time you hear someone moan that there’s no real accountability for charter schools, draw their attention to page 10 of the report. In 2013, nearly 12% of charters up for renewal were shuttered. That’s a slight dip from the year before, but the relatively high rate seems to be holding steady. And looking at the data by authorizer type, both state education agencies and college/university authorizers had significantly higher closure rates. Lest anyone doubt the importance of this finding, take a look at CREDO’s mammoth 2013 study finding that the marked 4-year increase in aggregate sector performance was driven largely by tougher action to close low-performing charters.

They’re adopting more professional practices. In 2011 NACSA developed a list of 12 Essential Practices emblematic of high-caliber authorizing. The 2013 survey reveals strong rates of implementation for most practices – and increases among all authorizer types from the prior year’s survey.

Large authorizers are leading the way.  Authorizers that manage a growing portfolio develop systems and strategies for quality improvement that just elude smaller authorizers. Nowhere is this more apparent than in their approach to replication. Big authorizers tend to create explicit policies that enable high-flyers to add new campuses and, not surprisingly, they attract more replicators.  It’s actually a shame that smaller authorizers (and I’m looking at you, traditional school districts!) don’t seize on the opportunity to let quality schools spread.

This time next year, we expect to be reporting on authorizer practices in additional depth. The 2014 survey will ask not only whether they implement a certain practice, but also how they do it. This is another step down the road toward understanding how specific authorizer actions lead to stronger outcomes in the classroom – which is, as John Madden would say, “what it’s all about.”

This week House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline (R-MN) and ranking Democratic Representative Miller (D-CA) introduced HR 10—the Success and Opportunities through Quality Charter Schools Act—to reauthorize the federal Charter School Program for another five years.

H.R.10

NACSA president and CEO Greg Richmond announced NACSA’s strong support for this important legislation during a congressional visit to Global Academy Charter School in Minneapolis by Chairman Kline and committee member Representative Luke Messer (R-IN).

HR 10 continues many of the initiatives that currently support quality charter school growth in the Charter School Program–a state-based and individual school grant program that provides support for new and expanding charter schools, charter facilities assistance, and support for national charter quality initiatives.  It would also formally authorize a program to support high quality charter management organizations (CMOs) that has for years only been funded through the annual appropriations process and puts new focus on encouraging charters schools to increase their outreach to students with disabilities and English learners.

Here’s an outline of the bill’s key provisions provided by its sponsors:

THE SUCCESS AND OPPORTUNITY THROUGH QUALITY CHARTER SCHOOLS ACT:

  • Promotes state efforts to develop and expand charter schools.
  • Improves the Charter School Program authorizing to support the replication and expansion of successful charter models.
  •  Supports the sharing of best practices between charters and traditional public schools.
  • Encourages charter schools to reach out to special populations, including at-risk students, students with disabilities, and English learners.

These are all important elements, but I personally am most excited about the details of the bill that prioritize and support quality charter school authorizing. Authorizers play a crucial role in advancing charter school quality and protecting student and public interests and HR 10 recognizes that a vibrant, high quality charter sector depends on strong, quality authorizers.

There are provisions throughout HR 10 that support authorizing, but I think the ones that are likely to have the biggest impact are in the State grant program.  The state grant program impacts every state that receives a grant—which in this reauthorization would be at least 15 states over the program’s five year lifecycle—and often influences policy in even more states as policy makers revisit outdated charter laws to compete for future grant cycles.  At every step of the way states that receive grants must demonstrate their support for high quality authorizing, including their commitment to charter school accountability, a plan to improve authorizer quality, and how they will provide support and oversight for authorizers. These commitments are backed up with financial support, as for the first time a state entity must spend at least 7% of its grant on a set of activities that includes improving authorizer quality.

NACSA strongly supports this important legislation and we’re energized by its bi-partisan support for charter school quality and strong authorizing.  You can read NACSA’s statement on the bill here and learn more about it here.

Guest Post: Lisa Graham Keegan, Chair, NACSA Board of Directors

Public charter schools were created specifically to advance achievement. They reflect the vision, the skills and the heart of the team that founds them.  They are intentional schools, schools built to order, to meet a need known but not met, a possibility understood but not yet realized. Public charter schools were envisioned to be the place that we could find solutions for America’s most intractable struggle to realize our children’s potential. And they have been America’s best public education innovation tool.

Until the advent of public charter schools in the 90’s, new public schools were created when there was projected growth and when there was sufficient money in place –period.

Public-charter-schools (1)

Nothing in our traditional school development requirements spoke directly to quality. The rapid growth of public charter schools gives us the opportunity to rethink this process. Instead of planning a new school, boards can solicit offers to operate a new school to education leaders with a track record of excellence. Pre-approval of academic goals and contractual guarantees for progress can be a requirement for any public school.

The advent of public charter schools combined with two decades worth of annual, per-student achievement data has given the entire public school system far more information about what constitutes a quality school than we ever had before. The challenge to all of us now is to make that matter for all students. And in fact, there are leaders on school boards and authorizing boards all over the country who are sharing this information and trying to understand how they might learn from each other.

Our struggle continues to be achieving high quality in all of our public schools. The big divide in our education system is not between charters and district schools – it is between schools that are excellent, and those that are not.

And it feels great to know a lot more than we used to. But I fear any assumption that says we know enough. I fear those who believe that we should codify today’s knowledge and not tolerate future failed attempts at excellence. I’m no fan of failure. But our goal has to be excellence for all students, and we are far from there. The critical balancing act by authorizers and by all governing boards is to act on the best of what we know today, and to be open to learn what is possible tomorrow.

PrintJust over a year ago, NACSA announced an ambitious goal to provide better schools to one million children over five years. We called it our One Million Lives campaign because we knew that, if authorizers could approve 2000 new schools through quality processes and close 1000 persistently failing schools, we would help one million children get into a better school and have a better life.

This week, we announced the results from authorizers’ first year of work. Our analysis shows that authorizers approved 491 new schools through quality processes and closed 206 failing schools, affecting approximately 232,000 students. One year into our five-year goal, we are more than 1/5th of the way there in each category. This is a big accomplishment, touching the lives of more students in one year that all but the biggest school districts in the nation.

In the charter school sector, a lot of deserved attention is paid to impressive charter networks like KIPP, Noble, Aspire, Uncommon and others. Yet, the Year 1 OML results are larger than the enrollment of any of those networks. How is that possible? Simple: while an individual network may add five or ten schools a year, the nation’s authorizers touch every single one of the 6000+ charter schools in the country. The quality and scale of the nation’s charter schools is inescapably linked to the work of charter school authorizers. If authorizers do their job well, we will have a healthy charter school sector; if they don’t, we won’t.

These are strong results for the first year of One Million Lives, but the work is far from done. You may recall that, when we announced OML, we pointed out that more than a million children drop out of school in America each year. We have only begun to put a dent in that figure. At NACSA, we will continue to work hard every day to support authorizers, schools, lawmakers and other stakeholders who are working just as hard to provide a better school and create a better life for children across America.

SchoolView® Foundation

SchoolView® Foundation

Last week Education Next published an article entitled “Choosing the Right Growth Measure” that compares three types of growth models and claims that the “best” model is a two-step value-added model (VAM) that fully controls for student characteristics (e.g., race, gender, free or reduced-price lunch eligibility, English-language-learner status, special education status). The authors claim that this approach provides the most useful information to educators and local decision makers. I was immediately struck by a headline in a press release on the article which proclaimed “Measuring student performance correctly helps set the right expectations for students and teachers in both high-poverty and advantaged schools.” This enraged me.

Is this article telling me that the “right” expectations for disadvantaged students should be lower than the expectations for advantaged students? That “measuring performance correctly” means telling teachers in disadvantaged schools that their students will never grow as much as students in advantaged schools, so they shouldn’t worry about helping their students catch up? This is what people refer to as the “soft bigotry of low expectations.” I believe that all students can and must learn at a high level, regardless of their circumstances.

Poverty and other disadvantages are real factors that do impact students’ performance. We can’t ignore that. Poverty makes things harder, but we shouldn’t say that it makes things impossible by setting a lower bar for disadvantaged schools. It’s like saying, “You’re attractive…for your age” or “You’re smart…for a girl” or, literally, “You’ve learned a lot…for a poor kid.” How about instead of lowering expectations for students who are at a disadvantage, we maintain high expectations and work that much harder to make up for those disadvantages? It’s not easy, but we’ve seen disadvantaged schools whose students are successful regardless of how they compare to others. We should create opportunities to replicate these schools. And we should hold them up as examples to remind ourselves that students and teachers can rise to the challenge if we maintain high expectations for everyone.

While I object to the idea that the two-step VAM described in the Education Next article is the single “best choice,” I do think that this model could be useful as one of many measures in a comprehensive accountability system. The two-step VAM model alone won’t tell you if a school or teacher is doing a great job of getting students to proficiency; but schools and teachers that perform poorly on this measure can no longer dodge closures or firings by using the all-too-often-accepted excuse that the disadvantages of their students are the reasons for low performance.

Authorizers do need to be able to identify and close the very worst schools, and the two-step VAM will help them do that. But authorizers also need to set expectations for what a quality school looks like and evaluate whether schools are adequately preparing students for future success. In order to do that, they need to look at additional measures like proficiency, college and career readiness, and even additional types of growth models, such as student growth percentiles and growth-to-proficiency models. We have to be careful not to pretend that there’s any one perfect measure of school or teacher performance, or that looking at a “fair” comparison of schools serving similar students as a stand-alone measure doesn’t lower our expectations for what disadvantaged students can achieve. We need to look at academic achievement from multiple angles. And more than anything, we need to believe that all students can and must learn and reflect that in our accountability systems.

The oversight of charter schools has changed dramatically from the beginning of the movement.  States and authorizers are applying increasingly sophisticated tools to assess the performance of the schools they oversee.  A key concept that helps authorizers do their jobs well is differentiation.  This concept informs the increasing use of Performance Frameworks.  Under a differentiated system, schools are divided into groups. Often they fall into five categories. These categories represent schools that:

  1. Should close as soon as possible;
  2. Are struggling, but might improve;
  3. Are meeting expectations but not exceeding them;
  4. Amaze us, and ought to replicate if they are willing and able; and
  5. Are unique because of their mission and student population, and consequently require specialized evaluation.

NACSA Core Performance Framework Guidance

By distinguishing among schools based on how well they are doing, and treating schools with different performance differently, authorizers are better able to make the types of high-stakes decisions that modern authorizing requires. Once the schools are differentiated, the authorizer faces different kinds of work for each group of schools.
The work of differentiating among schools is generally captured by school performance frameworks. These are tools that strong authorizers are developing and that NACSA has put a great deal of effort into supporting. In the coming years, differentiation and well-crafted performance frameworks are going to be more and more wide-spread among strong authorizers.

The differentiated approach to school quality differs from the two alternatives that predated it. When evaluating traditional schools, states and districts used a standardized approach.  This approach primarily determined which schools were not meeting a standard.  It produced a “pass/fail” system.  Authorizers applying this standardized approach can identify schools that are in trouble, but not much else.  For traditional schools systems, this morphed into a measure of Adequate Yearly Progress, which schools did, or did not, achieve.

Two emerging themes in charter quality can get side-lined by this old pass/fail approach.  People want to close the schools that are terrible, and they seek to replicate the schools that are amazing. Sometimes they act as if there were no schools in between those extremes.  But the truth is that many charters are not bad enough to close, nor good enough to replicate.  Recent proposed priorities for the administration of the federal charter school program echoed this replicate or close fallacy.  The language defined “quality charter schools” based on a standard for what would deserve replication, and then implied that all schools that didn’t reach that replicable standard should not be in any authorizer’s portfolio.  That is a case of misunderstanding modern performance management.

For many authorizers, the early efforts at accountability in the charter movement were different from a pass/fail system applying one standard.  Authorizers and school leaders often thought of each charter school as a wholly unique institution, deserving an individualized approach to accountability.  As special cases, each charter school was measured with accountability measures created specifically for it based on its own charter application.  Or, if authorizers were unable or unwilling to individualize measures, the charters were measured with the single and undifferentiated tool of the standardized traditional system.

The new system of differentiation is a hybrid. It allows a degree of standardization among groups of similar schools. This standardization within groups of similar schools makes the approach viable and realistic for schools and authorizers.  Importantly, it also provides comparability and the ability to apply minimum state standards across the sector. This is especially important as the sector has grown and challenges in quality have been more obvious.  Meanwhile, differentiated systems allow authorizers to respond to each school, based on how well it performs and what it is trying to achieve.

This emerging approach allows authorizers to make the hard decisions they face. Differentiating among charter schools based on their performance can help achieve many goals in the charter sector.  It can:

  • Support the timely closure of failing schools;
  • Focus authorizers’ attention on schools that are the trickiest to understand;
  • Reduce the burden on successful schools, allowing them to focus their time and resources on  their students;
  • Identify the best schools that should be encouraged to replicate their programs so they can serve more students; and
  • Ensure unique schools with special populations are evaluated appropriately.

An under-appreciated aspect of this approach is that once the schools are assigned to these five buckets, for most of the schools, an authorizer doesn’t need to know a great deal of subtle details about the rest of their academic performance.  It is important for authorizers to dive deeper into the data on some schools, which we can identify below.  And it is key for other people besides authorizers to examine performance of most schools at a micro level.  But the finer-grained data on performance would not change what an authorizer would do for most of the schools in their portfolio.

Other people need more detailed analysis of performance certainly.  School operators and their governing boards, for example, can benefit from a much deeper dive.  But authorizers can focus.  By defining a more narrow set of what an authorizer is responsible for measuring and evaluating, we can help authorizers get better at the tasks that follow.

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Guest Post:  Kevin Hall, President & CEO, Charter School Growth Fund

130351558413997381_ReplicationQuality_Web_Page_01As we navigate our decisions in our daily lives, we know that having the ability to make good choices is fundamentally critical to achieving our goals. In K-12 for far too long, we have not provided all parents and students in our country with the ability to be able to choose among a set of high-quality school options. However, it’s not enough just to provide choice; we must aim to provide excellent options for all parents and students that enable them to fulfill their dreams. With the release this week of our report Replicating Quality, the Charter School Growth Fund (CSGF) and NACSA are providing a roadmap of interconnected strategies for systematically improving the quality of the charter school sector and increasing the number of high-performing schools that serve many more students.

We need to focus on both accelerating the growth of high-performing charters, and ensuring the lowest performers close to open up the path for new great schools to emerge.

A growing number of excellent charter schools and networks are poised to expand, but they are constrained by unequal access to funding and facilities, or weak legislation and authorizing practices. These schools and their students are demonstrating outstanding performance, and they have proven that they can do even more. We owe our children the opportunity to attend a great school and to give their families a great choice.

The challenges are complex and the politics difficult, but there are some simple and straightforward steps we can take to move us forward. With partners such as NACSA sharing a common agenda, our goal is to help legislators, authorizers, and other policymakers build a policy environment that encourages the creation of more great schools. At CSGF, we have the opportunity to see firsthand how effective these schools are each day in our work, and we are excited to help invest in the creation of even more high-quality schools to meet the growing demand from parents across the country.

The U.S. Department of Education (ED) recently released a set of draft priorities that would be used in future competitions under the Charter Schools Programs’ (CSP) to award grants under the National Leadership Activities Grant Program.  NACSA and a group of leaders from authorizers, state agencies, and other stakeholders submitted group letters that supported the new priorities and suggested a few technical fixes.  Click here for the NACSA group letter.  The draft was particularly welcome because of its attention to strengthening accountability by improving authorizing, and for its attention to the needs of students with disabilities and English Learners.

We expect the Department to release a similar set of draft guidance in the next few weeks that will address the start-up grants administered by State Education Agencies (SEAs) through the CSP. Based on discussions with the Department officials, we expect the priorities for the SEA grant competition to also advance our goals. These are good victories for trying to promote high quality authorizing in the charter school sector

ED’s guidance included priorities in five areas, including: improving access and services for Special Education and English Language Learners; strengthening accountability through improved charter school authorizing; using economies of scale to provide services and help to charter schools; and supporting the effective use of technology.

In general, we strongly support the Department’s approach in the notice, and applaud the attention to accountability, as well as the prioritization of efforts to enhance access and the quality of services provided to SWD and EL.

There are a few areas of concern in the guidance that we commented on in our letters, and which we are working closely with our partners at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, to jointly influence the Department. One issue the guidance bungles is a definition of “high-quality” charter schools. They tend to treat high quality charters as those worthy of national replication, and all other charter schools as worthy of closure. We, of course, see a much more nuanced distribution of quality — with many levels of school performance. The real world includes many schools that may not be as good as they could be, but which deserve to stay open. There are other schools that are doing fine, but which are not interested in, nor should they be expected to, start replicating at a large scale. We also called for more support for collaboration between the charter school sector, and those in the communities with expertise and experience special education and English Language Learners to work together on common challenges.

No Time to Waste

CommonCore_HomePageImplementation of the Common Core State Standards will present an array of new challenges everywhere they are adopted. The biggest challenge for charter school authorizers will be maintaining strong accountability for school performance during the transition to the new standards and accompanying assessments.

Holding schools accountable for their performance is already one of the most difficult of an authorizer’s core responsibilities. The uncertainty, anxiety, and difficulties that come with the introduction of new standards and assessments, will only make that work harder. There will be great temptation to decide that it is easier and more politically expedient to abandon accountability during the transition rather than maintain it.

In the latest installment of NACSA’s Common Core Series, Staying the Course: Maintaining Strong Accountability in the Transition to the Common Core, Rich Wenning and I argue that it would be a serious mistake to pause on school accountability during the transition rather than working to strengthen it.

Except for a lack of political will or a failure to plan ahead and act thoughtfully, there is no legitimate reason not to hold schools accountable for their performance during and following the transition to the Common Core.

We argue that “except for a lack of political will or a failure to plan ahead and act thoughtfully, there is no legitimate reason not to hold schools accountable for their performance during and following the transition to the Common Core.” This is especially true for schools that were consistently underperforming on the standards and assessments before the Common Core and that continue to fail their students after the Common Core. The Common Core must be an opportunity to raise our expectations and strengthen accountability, not suspend it.

In a statement released today, NACSA’s president and CEO, Greg Richmond is also calling on authorizers and state officials to “act immediately to put systems in place to manage the transition” or risk creating “a de facto moratorium on school accountability.” Richmond notes that “the potential lapse in accountability is of particular concern in the charter school sector, where school accountability for results is central to the charter philosophy.” He urges authorizers to act now to ensure they can continue to uphold their responsibilities and maintain high standards.

Just as kids have no time to waste when it comes to their education, authorizers have no time to waste when it comes to maintaining strong accountability during Common Core implementation. Authorizers need to act now to begin preparing for the turbulence ahead. Failure to act will endanger authorizers’ ability to hold schools accountable for their performance in the short term and beyond and will only allow low-performing schools to continue failing their students.

The need to act, however, does not mean that the work ahead will be easy. Rich and I offer a set of practical strategies authorizers can use to assist them in maintaining strong accountability and provide a timetable for authorizer action. The brief also includes a quick reference for authorizers on the new assessments.

NACSA is committed to supporting authorizers as they embark on this difficult journey. In addition to the resources in the Staying the Course series, we are also engaging directly with authorizers to facilitate learning across the profession and to share challenges and successes. This Thursday, January 16 from 2-3 p.m. EST, I will host a webinar with authorizers from Louisiana, Massachusetts, New York and Ohio to discuss their work to prepare for Common Core implementation and to begin a conversation with authorizers and other stakeholders across the country. Join us.

At the heart of the charter school concept is the idea that schools, like all organizations, are most effective when they have the flexibility necessary to be captains of their destiny and when there is real accountability for failure. When charter schools are given autonomy over their time, people, and money, with it comes great responsibility. Part of that responsibility is the possibility of closure. We know that there are many charter schools that welcome accountability and that use their flexibility to accomplish amazing things for their students. We also know that many of the most successful charters are succeeding with students who others say face obstacles that no school can overcome.

Too often, though, charter schools that fail to achieve are allowed to continue failing year after year. Meanwhile, too few promising new schools are allowed to open, and too few great schools are allowed to grow. Changing that reality is the goal of NACSA’s One Million Lives campaign. We want to close a thousand of the lowest performing charters while at the same time working to open thousands more promising new ones.

Our success depends not only on the tireless efforts of thousands of fearless and relentless parents, teachers, and school leaders, but also on bold advocacy and strong authorizing. This week we saw examples of both. Yesterday, the California Charter Schools Association called for the closure of six charter schools across the state that have failed to the association’s bar for quality. And today, the Texas Education Agency announced its intention to close six charters it says have failed to meet expectations. Both organizations support the growth more great charter schools, and both should be applauded for their willingness to take a stand for quality.

Closing schools is never easy. But if we’re serious about giving schools the autonomy they need to successful and about holding schools accountable for how well they serve their students, we have to be willing to take action when they fail.

Driver is quality.Last week, a judge in Washington State held that, with two exceptions, the state’s new charter school law did not violate the state constitution. The case will no doubt continue on appeal but for now the decision means that charters can move forward in the Evergreen State. Nineteen applications have been received by the Charter School Commission and the selection process has begun. NACSA has consulted with the Commission on its process. “We are looking at the merits of the applications,” said Commission Director Joshua Halsey. “The driver is quality. This commission is dedicated to authorizing charter schools that can impact student achievement for the most vulnerable, most at-risk students.” Robin Lake, Director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) at the University of Washington weighed in on the court’s decision here.

 

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