Earlier this week the Washington Post published a blog taking shots at findings from the recent CMO study that demonstrated a correlation between high performing CMOs and the strategies of teacher coaching and strict behavioral management. The blog’s critique boils down to suggesting that we should disregard the findings for being anecdotal (e.g., only five CMOs are highlighted in the study) and failing to establish causal order (e.g., are the CMOs high performing because they use teacher coaching or are they able to focus on teacher coaching because they are high performing?). Sure, these are valid methodological concerns (and they mirror the critiques of the “effective schools literature” of the 80s and 90s). But the authors of the CMO study are very careful to explain that their results are exploratory.
So should we disregard the findings? I would argue no, and here’s why. The charter sector needs more exploratory research. The majority of research on charter schools uses large administrative databases to compare charter schools to traditional public schools at the district, state, and national level. These types of analyses are important, but they are only able to compare the performance of charter schools in the aggregate to comparison traditional public schools in the aggregate. And what has this type of research uncovered? In some instances, charter schools perform better than traditional public schools, sometimes they perform the same, and sometimes they perform worse. The findings are mixed, with evidence that overall charters perform a little better.
But there are a good number phenomenally successful charter schools (too many to ignore, regardless of aggregate results), and when research clumps all charter schools into a homogenous dummy variable, it is difficult to tease out why some charter schools perform so well. What the charter sector needs is a significant amount of exploratory research to identify promising practices. Then the research can move from exploratory to explanatory by taking the promising areas of instructional and governance practices and use experimental and quasi-experimental research methods to determine what practices impact student performance (e.g., the research should move from development to scale-up to validity, the i3 categories).
Rather than boohooing the CMO study results, we should use them as a launching pad to ask more questions about how successful CMOs and other high performing charter schools function to improve student learning.