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Choosy:Picky - Requires Recognition
Earlier this month, the Pennsylvania Legislative Budget and Finance Committee (LBFC) released a report titled “The Feasibility of Alternative Methods for Authorizing Charter Schools in Pennsylvania.” The report itself is a rare attempt by a state to take a step back and ask itself “What type of authorizers would be a good fit for our state?” Pennsylvania leadership deserves kudos for taking that step. It pulls from an array of sources (including NACSA) to present a survey of authorizing structures and practices and addresses specific policies that the Legislature has been talking about for years.

 

One of the most striking sets of findings is about Higher Education Institution (HEI) authorizers. The Committee contacted colleges and universities in the state and asked them “If the law allowed you to, would you be interested in authorizing charter schools?”

The overwhelming answer was no.

“The Chancellor’s Office reported that ‘a small percentage’ of their universities indicated they would consider authorizing charter schools. The majority of the SSHE universities, however, indicated they would not take on the responsibilities of authorizing charter schools, citing concerns such as potential costs and the risk of jeopardizing relationships with nearby school districts.”

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Earlier this month, Colorado Governor Hickenlooper signed House Bill 1184 into law, which will help grow and expand Colorado’s networks of quality charter schools. Colorado has a mix of individual charter schools and those that operate within networks. As the number of charter schools within networks increases in the state, these schools have asked for tools to do their job well.

Identifying and replicating high-performing charter schools is a powerful way to provide a great education for more children. While operating more than one campus isn’t always what a charter school sets out to do, state policies should enable a smooth process if a school that is succeeding wishes to expand.

Colorado’s bill does just that and we voiced our support of HB 1184 throughout its journey in the Colorado legislature. The bill creates incentives for the best charter schools to replicate their success, allowing multiple schools to be operated under one tested and proven charter agreement. Allowing experienced, and high-functioning charter boards with a history of success to expand is good for future charter schools in Colorado.

Parents and community members concerned about unrestrained growth can also rest easy, as the bill ensures each school’s performance will still be assessed individually – a necessary check for responsible growth.

 

We applaud Gov. Hickenlooper and the Colorado legislature for helping facilitate the expansion of quality educational choices for parents and children throughout the state.

#AskAuthorizers

Each year since 2008, NACSA has conducted the nation’s only targeted survey of charter school authorizers and authorizing practices. We will release the latest survey results starting on April 15 in an email series designed to connect data about authorizer practices with real implications for kids, families, schools, and communities. More on that another day.

Today, I’m thinking ahead. As Senior Research Analyst at NACSA, my job is to collect the data that will be most useful to people in the field. Right now, authorizers tell us a lot, including:

  • How many new school applications do authorizers receive and approve?
  • How many schools did they review and renew or close?
  • How many staff members do they have?
  • How do they oversee schools?
  • Do they have policies to encourage replication of schools?

These—and many other areas—have traditionally formed the core of our survey.

What we learn is used far and wide. State policymakers use the information to improve charter school accountability, members of the media use it to build stories about local authorizers or schools, and authorizers themselves use it to benchmark their practices against peers across the country.

For the upcoming 2015 survey—which we will begin right after we release the 2014 results—we are reserving space to ask hundreds of authorizers your questions about authorizing, especially questions that get at what is beyond the “nuts and bolts” of authorizing.

Here are some of our ideas about what else we’d like to know:

  • What do authorizers think about using chartering to “turn around” failing schools?
  • Do authorizers see it as their responsibility to help kids find new quality schools after a charter is closed?
  • What about equity issues?
  • What are authorizers doing related to suspension/expulsion and special education?
  • What do authorizers think the future of authorizing looks like?
  • What about overseeing virtual schools?

The number of potential areas to learn more about is huge. That’s why we are asking you to help us: what do you – as an authorizer, a reporter, a parent, a legislator – want to know more about when it comes to charter school authorizing?

What do YOU want to know?

Tweet us your questions using our Twitter handle, @QualityCharters, using the hashtag #askauthorizers.

Or post to our Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/qualitycharters

How can authorizers track progress in the absence of commonly accepted measures?

Photographed by Jeff Sheldon

In Washington DC, there are 66 early childhood public charter school programs that serve more than 15,000 students from age 3 to second grade. Collectively, they use more than 30 different assessments to measure reading and math skills and evaluate their programs’ academic performance… and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Standardized testing kicks in at the 3rd grade, but accountability is just as important for schools that serve children at a younger age.

 

How can authorizers track progress in the absence of commonly accepted measures?

The Public Charter School Board (PCSB) in Washington, DC measures school quality using its Performance Management Framework (PMF) for grades 3 -12 and  adult education programs. In thinking about how to evaluate early childhood programs, we first noticed that some of the reading assessments measured several different literacy skills while others only evaluate one, such as vocabulary identification. This makes comparisons and identification of quality programs problematic for our board, as well as for parents and other stakeholders. Another challenge we have found was that the PCSB’s enabling statute states that it cannot mandate all EC schools to adopt the same assessment. Charter schools have the freedom to choose assessments that align with their mission, while DC’s public schools use the same assessments to measure the quality of all of their early childhood programs. An additional hurdle is determining how quality indicators are typically defined for EC programs. Early experts tend to look at inputs as indicative of quality EC program, such as the ratio between the number of students to teachers or the quantity of teacher certifications – but, again, that very Washington, DC law does not allow authorizers to hold schools accountable for these inputs. We determined that in order to assess school quality, and thus the academic performance of its programs, we would need to measure student outcomes.

 

Developing an Early Childhood Performance Management Framework

Beginning in 2013 we met monthly with the PMF Task Force, comprised of representatives from charter schools and charter advocacy groups. This group was tasked with creating a common accountability framework for early childhood programs and considering the pros and cons of implementing different approaches. Task force members focused especially on student progress and/or achievement measures. To fully understand what the measures implied we investigated the assessments schools had already been using, and researched the grade level expectations determined by each publisher. We also identified a cohort of students whose second-grade achievement on the assessment and third-grade proficiency rate on the state assessment could be reviewed. This step helped us determine if the grade level expectations were reasonable yet rigorous enough to help students succeed by third grade and beyond.

After several task force meetings we determined that the early childhood PMF would give each school an overall numerical score and locate it within a tier, the same general approach we have used in our other PMF, based on:

  • Student progress for those in pre-kindergarten (ages 3 and 4)
  • Student achievement or progress for grades K-2
  • CLASS, spell out and identify, scores for pre-kindergarten classrooms
  • Attendance
  • Parent satisfaction as indicated by the number of families re-enrolling their child

Schools are rated tier 1, 2 or 3, with 1 being the best. Tier 1 schools are high performing scoring between 100-65; tier 2 or mid performing schools score 64.9-35; and tier 3 or low performing schools score 34.9 to 0.

 

Strengthening the Framework

As with any plan, report or assessment tool, our work had just begun. Last year PCSB released the first Early Childhood Performance Management Framework (EC PMF) for the 2013-14 school year. Because this new framework was drastically different from previous early childhood accountability plans the task force asked us, PCSB, not to publish the overall score and tier. As we plan to release the second EC PMF for the 2014-15 school year we realize that the framework needs to be strengthened in order to show the difference between high and low quality programs. We are focusing more on ensuring that this PMF highlights schools which are truly preparing students to achieve proficiency by the third grade. This means extending the dialogue with the PMF Task Force and schools that continue to use multiple assessments. Our number-one priority is to provide a PMF that measures real rigor and positive outcomes for students.

We know that designing a framework to measure early childhood program quality is a work in progress. As we work to strengthen the early childhood performance framework, our door remains open for comments, suggestions and ideas. If your organization is also struggling to develop an early childhood performance management framework, please sign up here or drop a comment below.

 

 

Erin Kupferberg is a manager in the school quality and accountability department at the DC Public Charter School Board. The board is responsible for academic achievement for the 112 public charter schools in Washington, DC.

I offer a tip of the hat to the State University of New York (SUNY) Charter Schools Institute for their oversight of a struggling charter school that posed exceedingly tricky politics.

This whole thing was political from the start. The New York City teachers union, the UFT, created the charter school intending to demonstrate that running a school under the city’s collective bargaining agreement was not an impediment to success. It didn’t turn out as planned. The school has struggled. With the exception of the high school from this K-12 endeavor, performance has been unacceptable. Last week the school’s board decided to close the elementary and middle-grade portions of the school.

That is an appropriate action that is in the best interests of the students. It makes sense to close a chronically low-performing charter school. But it is easy to imagine this process devolving into the ugly politics of a proxy fight. That didn’t happen. Credit for the relatively smooth course of events should go to the SUNY authorizing shop–in addition to the board from the school.

One of the strategies SUNY employed, which we have discussed on this site previously, was a short-term renewal with a set of mandatory benchmarks. When the school came up for latest renewal in 2013, it was granted a two-year renewal. The renewal contract listed outcomes that the school had to meet within two years to be renewed. By agreeing to the pre-established standards, both sides agreed the school would close if it did not meet the benchmarks.  A similar strategy has also been used in recent years by Denver Public Schools.

At NACSA we generally recommend against short-term renewals of failing schools. Ideally, the original charter contract is based on similar benchmarks. A performance framework, based on multiple measures, articulates metrics that inform the contract. That contract clearly outlines what is expected of every school if it is going to be renewed. SUNY’s leadership and other stakeholders in New York have argued that the first five years is not enough time to have measures of growth. So, the authorizers in the state frequently employ a short-term renewal strategy.

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Buckeye Blues Again

Back in 2006, NACSA, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, and the Thomas B. Fordham Institute issued ‘Turning the Corner to Quality,” a tough report on Ohio’s charter sector whose message was summed up in its first major recommendation: “Clean House.”  There were too many failing charters, oversight had gone from bad to worse after the legislature removed chartering authority from the state education department, and the state’s charter cap was effectively shutting out strong operators.

In the intervening 8 years, a lot of good things have happened, including successful charter ventures like Cleveland’s Breakthrough Schools;  a default-closure law that has eliminated 24 low-performing charters; and most recently, a concerted effort by the state agency’s Quality School Choice office, led by former NACSA staffer David Hansen, to bring accountability to the state’s multitudinous authorizers.

Yet the muck persists. Last week, CREDO at Stanford reported that on the whole, students in Ohio’s charters are getting 14 fewer days of learning in reading and 36 fewer days in math than their counterparts in district-run schools.  There are some bright spots. Cleveland charters outperform the district; performance is better in charters for black students and those in poverty; middle schools do comparatively well; and there seems to be a trend toward improvement among urban charters. But overall performance hasn’t improved since CREDO’s 2009 Ohio study, and is particularly weighed down by woefully deficient results in the roughly half of Ohio charters operated by charter-management organizations.

There’s been some giddy blogging about one comment made by the report’s author Macke Raymond, in a Columbus speech introducing the findings: “[Education] is the only industry/sector where the market mechanism just doesn’t work.” Expect to hear that repeated ad nauseam as an indictment of choice itself,  which it assuredly is not. Raymond’s early work was on regulation in the telecommunications industry and she has always linked good outcomes to good oversight.  And in Ohio, you simply can’t discuss the weak results without asking what role authorizers are playing — as noted in the rest of her comment: “We need to have a greater degree of oversight of charter schools. But I also think we have to have some oversight of the overseers.”

So it was good to see that issue taken up forcefully in another report issued yesterday by Bellwether Education Partners in conjunction with the Fordham Institute (which, let’s remember, is not only a DC think tank but also a successful Ohio authorizer).  My former Alliance colleague Andy Smarick, who’s emerged as a formidable education thinker and activist, is co-author of the report, which bears the fire n’ brimstone title “The Road to Redemption.”

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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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