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OntheRodLinkedIn recently reminded me of my five-year anniversary at NACSA.  Like most unsolicited emails from an App, it was an unwelcome reminder that an algorithm in a server farm is better at tracking my life than I am. It also led me to think about the last decade of charter school policy development. That is timely because this week NACSA released a report on policies that support strong authorizing. On the Road to Better Accountability: An Analysis of State Charter School Policy, presents eight policies we recommend that support accountability and excellence in the charter sector and details the extent to which each state has adopted similar policies.

We hope this report will inform and stimulate discussions about each state’s charter authorizing environment.  In the coming weeks, I’ll write about specific policies and lessons learned. In this post, , I’d like to share a note on where these ideas came from.

All of the ideas in this report – bar none – came from the inspiring work of authorizers, charter educators, policymakers, and leaders in our field.

My colleagues at NACSA have been busy for the past 15 years.  They have reviewed more than a hundred charter applications for various authorizers; they have evaluated or provided technical assistance to authorizers responsible for overseeing about 40 percent of the charter schools in the country. Our staff have been on the ground, evaluating authorizers, helping them to design and implement tools for performance management; and they have helped emerging professionals engage in the work of authorizing.

The experiences of these authorizers informs all our work at NACSA. In my five years, one of the tasks has been to bridge between that knowledge and a parallel set of knowledge we have gained by working with charter advocates and authorizers in the field involved in state policy discussions.  We are regularly invited into state-level policy discussions by authorizers, charter school advocates, legislators, governors, and other education leaders and asked to respond to policy proposals.

Leaders in the charter school sector often advance what opponents of charters consider “ironic” proposals. That includes proposed laws from charter support organizations seeking to mandate the closure of failing schools in Ohio and Florida; or schemes to sanction the worst authorizers, promoted by pro-charter chiefs in Indiana and charter advocates in Minnesota.

The heads of state-wide authorizers, in places like Nevada and South Carolina, asked NACSA to help them establish policies that gave them the authority and responsibility to use performance frameworks, performance contracts, and differentiated strategies to replicate high-quality schools.

After policies were underway, we were asked to help refine policies.  In Indiana, the State’s Charter School Board and major authorizers sought help in closing the worst schools. Soon they needed to figure out how to stop authorizer hopping by failing schools that were attempting to switch from a rigorous authorizer, intent on closing their school, to one willing to let them stay open.

In Colorado, I had the pleasure of personally chairing a state task force composed of school district leaders and charter school and authorizer representatives. That effort was prompted by the Colorado League of Charter Schools. We were charged with reviewing and recommending standards for charter school authorizing that were based on NACSA’s own Principles & Standards and eventually adopted by the State Board in state rules.

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Whenever a federal announcement capitalizes 19 out of 32 words (including prepositions and conjunctions) you can bet it is important. It can also require translation. Last week, the U.S. Department of Education announced the publication of its “Notice of Proposed Priorities, Requirements, Definitions, and Selection Criteria (NPP) for the Charter Schools Program (CSP) Grants to State educational agencies (SEA).”  The CSP grant for SEAs is the primary source of funding for States that award start-up grants to new charter schools.

Here’s what this means:

  • The feds released draft materials that outline how they plan to evaluate applications and award the grants they give to states under the CSP.
  • After a comment period (going on NOW), the feds will finalize priorities, requirements, and definitions and release a final Notice Inviting Applications for New Awards—this will likely incorporate some of the material in this current notice.
  • Many states will decide to compete for this program. States that have programs and policies that best match the new priorities will have a slight advantage in the upcoming competition in 2015. State applications will also be scored in some manner based on the plan the State puts forward to carry-out certain activities reflected in the proposed selection criteria.
  • If a state receives a grant, the new provisions may place a few new requirements on these states regarding charter school oversight, as well as on what states, authorizers, and schools do to ensure that students with disabilities’ have access to charters and are well served when they enroll.

NACSA’s preliminary analysis indicates that several of the new provisions will support and incentivize state action to strengthen accountability in the charter school sector, but, of course, there are also details that should be changed.

This announcement is important to our members for two main reasons:

  1. Your state may be interested in applying for a CSP grant, and this is a great time to start planning. Once the feds receive input on the draft materials, they will release final materials and run a grant competition in late winter or early spring of 2015.
  2. You can have input on the priorities, requirements, definitions, and selection criteria for the CSP grants to SEAs. The public has until January 5th, 2015 to submit written comments. NACSA will provide input on the draft materials, and we are reaching out for input from the field.  Please contact Whitney Spalding Spencer (whitneys[@]qualitycharters.org) if you have comments or just want to stay in the loop on the process.

If you’re interested in the CSP SEA grant competition, be on the lookout for more info from NACSA or reach out to Whitney Spalding Spencer to share your thoughts and get more info.

 

NACSA President and CEO Greg Richmond comments on Sarah Carr’s piece  in The Atlantic on discipline in New Orleans’ charter schools over at Education Post:

…Carr’s article does an excellent job of describing how school leaders, parents, students and communities are re-thinking how the implementation of high behavioral expectations happen on a day-to-day basis.

Many of them come to appreciate the intense structure, but only if they also come to trust the mostly young educators who enforce it. As school leaders in New Orleans are discovering, forging that trust is far harder than teaching someone to say thank you and toe an orange line.

And importantly, it appears that part of that re-thinking is reducing the number of kids who are suspended and expelled—demonstrating that it’s possible to embrace “no excuses” and “strict discipline” without removing a lot of students from school as many effective schools have done for decades…

Read the whole thing here.

 

First Page PCSBA new case study, funded by the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation (MSDF), and conducted by the FSG consultants, was released today.  The study, Transforming Education in the Nation’s Capital, examines the practices of D.C.’s charter school authorizer, the District of Columbia Public Charter School Board’s (DCPCSB). This is a welcome analysis of a top-flight authorizer in the country. We need more detailed examinations like this one that highlight the practices used by authorizers to promote quality charter schools.

The study is important for several reasons.  First, it is empirically focused on a city where there is evidence of success.  As the study outlines, charters have a strong record of performance in the District. The results charters are getting there are among the strongest in the nation’s charter sectors.  They beg the question: what are people doing in DC to support this kind of sector-wide performance?  What role could DCPCSB be playing? This report offers some answers.

Second, it presents a broad range of actionable strategies that authorizers in other settings can bring to their own work. The case study isn’t describing a silver-bullet. Instead, it describes a body of work, and a set of practices that fit together in a comprehensive approach that addresses student performance, equity, and oversight in the public interest. No single piece of the DC strategy likely makes “the” difference. But other authorizers and policy makers can look at this set of practices, which align closely with NACSA’s Principles and Standards, and figure out what they can do to bring about similar action in their community.

Finally, it is provides a substantive and positive counter-foil to so much of what we see passing for policy debate.  Hopefully, additional case studies of other strong leaders in our sector will follow.  And more and more of the stories about what leaders, like Scott Pearson recently, and Josephine Baker before him, have done to give us the chance to acknowledge, and even celebrate, when things work.

We learned a lot about what is working this week at the NACSA Annual Leadership Conference in Miami. Close to 500 authorizers and others interested in advancing quality in the charter school sector shared effective practices, discussing common challenges, and learning from each other. We asked each other hard questions. We focused on difficult issues. We even got worked up sometimes about things that matter, not just to authorizers and others who care about expanding quality educational opportunities but also to the millions of children who are depending on our success. We also made sure to acknowledge the hard work, brave leadership, and successes that authorizers are achieving every day, all over the country.  We still have a lot of work to do, but we are making great progress. Those working in the charter sector see this progress all the time. It is nice to have somebody focus on it and describe it in detail.

 

NACSA recently released a set of materials to help policymakers and advocates working to improve their charter school laws. Believe it or not, we think this next session will be a productive one.  Additional states will join the group that endorses professional standards for authorizers; or they will give authorizers the performance management tools they need to truly hold schools accountable for their results while protecting the crucial autonomy schools need to innovate. Hopefully, states will add new state-level authorizers.

Most of the national political news seems hopelessly focused on the horse race for control of the U.S. Senate.  If domestic issues get any attention, journalists seem to think education reform and charter schools represent a proxy-fight between otherworldly forces of good and evil. (Perhaps those two things are linked.)  Meanwhile, outside the beltway and between the add-buys, I remain convinced that most of the meaningful political action in education over the next two years will occur in state capitals. I will even go out on a limb and suggest that, despite grid-lock in Washington, the next legislative session will produce quite a bit of debate as well as meaningful changes to state laws that advance the charter school sector.

If you want to read the latest materials, you can review them on line.  Our full set of policy materials, is available here.   Several pieces discuss the different approaches pursued by states that add new authorizers.  These include specific summaries describing independent charter boards (ICBs), SEA authorizers, and HEI authorizers. One brief describe how states have endorsed authorizer standards in state policy.  We also worked with the team at Public Impact to address the issue of “authorizer hopping”.  States are trying to figure out how to stop failing schools from switching to a new authorizer with low standards when their current authorizer tries to close them for legitimate reasons.  We have also updated some briefs that cover important developments, like the effort in Ohio to pursue the closure of failing schools through a default closure law, or the effort to evaluate and potentially sanction authorizers in Minnesota.

Hopefully you’re joining us this week in Miami for our annual conference, and we hope you find these new policy documents helpful.  We look forward to the work this session.

 

This week at the Fordham Foundation’s event on the National Alliance for Public Charter School’s new state-by-state report on the health of the charter school movement, Scott Pearson, Executive Director of the D.C. Public Charter School Board and a member of NACSA’s Board of Directors made a critical point. When asked about the reasons behind the success of charter schools in his city (D.C. was ranked first in the nation in the Alliance report), Scott explained that in addition to a strong charter law, a vibrant philanthropic and advocacy community and a wealth of great people, the District also has an effective authorizer. Moreover, he said, the District doesn’t just have an authorizer that is committed to quality–one that only approves schools that are likely to succeed and closes those that are failing–but also “an authorizer that has a real commitment to equity, making sure that charter schools act as public schools, that they serve all students.”

Scott is absolutely right. The success of charter schools doesn’t doesn’t just depend on strong policy, great people, and energetic support. Charter school success also depends on quality authorizers–authorizers who uphold high standards, ensure that schools have the flexibility they need to succeed and protect student rights and the public interest.

In describing his authorizing organization’s commitment to equity, Scott highlighted a practice that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately and one that I hope other authorizers across the country will emulate. Scott described DCPCSB’s Mystery Shopper Program–a strategy his organization uses to ensure that charter schools are not discouraging students with special needs from applying and enrolling. Throughout the school year, DCPCSB staff pretending to be prospective parents of special education students randomly call schools to inquire about enrollment. Schools that discourage “mystery shoppers” from enrolling “mystery children” are held accountable, and schools with repeated violations can have their charters revoked.

This is a bold but totally reasonable–and effective–practice that demonstrates that DCPCSB does not just talk about equity. It takes concrete steps to ensure it. It’s not a program designed to punish schools; it’s not used as a gotcha–schools were informed of the effort before it began and know that they could be called at any time. Rather, it puts schools on notice that they are truly public schools with real public obligations and real consequences for failure to live up to them. It demonstrates that charter schools really are accountable in ways that other public schools are not–accountable to their authorizers and to the public whose trust they are charged with upholding.

School choice doesn’t just happen. It takes real work. Authorizers play a critical role in making it work for all children.

Want to learn more about DCPCSB’s Myster Shopper program? Join us at NACSA’s Annual Leadership Conference. We’ll be talking about this and other ways that charter school authorizers are working to ensure that the schools they authorize live up to their promise and act like the public schools they are.

 

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.

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