The Charter Blog

 

Nora Kern

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The Quest for Quality

A recent op-ed by Douglas Thaman, Executive Director of the Missouri Charter Public School Association (MCPSA), makes a strong call for the enforcement of quality in public charter schools operated by Imagine Schools Inc. While the issues generally facingMissouri charter schools—and those specifically perpetuated by Imagine Schools—are extreme, they are problems universally faced by charter schools: high facilities costs, the need for a strong governance body to set policies for sound business operations, and authorizer enforcement of quality and accountability. MCPSA is right to call for a state auditor investigation of the Imagine Schools practices that shortchange its students of a superior education. As a sector, we are only as strong as our weakest link. Whether it is through additional support or ultimately the closure of underperforming schools, or setting a new performance bar for high achievers, the public charter school sector must be vigilant when it comes to enforcing quality. And as MCPSA’s demand demonstrates, enforcement of quality starts in our own back yard.

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Taking Excellence to Scale

The good news to come out of the new study of Charter Management Organizations (CMOs) is that there is strong evidence that high quality public charter schools can be taken to scale.  Several of these CMOs produce outcomes equivalent to three years of learning gains in just two academic years. The even better news is that the apparent drivers of these impressive performance gains are educational practices that the entire charter sector (and probably all schools)  can put into practice. There are two promising practices identified in the study:  intense instructional coaching, particularly with new teachers, and the implementation of a culture of high expectations through comprehensive behavior policies.  Broad application of these approaches could lead to more widespread academic quality, a true scaling of excellence.  Importantly, these practices can be adopted without diminishing individual charter autonomy over curricular content or instructional strategies.  In short, the practices associated with high performance in large CMOs don’t require a central office or multiple locations. Let’s take a closer look at the study, by Mathematica and the University of Washington’s Center for Reinventing Public Education (CRPE). It examines nonprofit CMOs that had a minimum of four schools open in 2007, direct control over the decision to hire and fire school leaders (which excludes most KIPP schools), and served students who were not primarily dropouts or similar special populations. Forty CMOs with 292 schools met these criteria. For the achievement impact analysis, the sample was further decreased to 22 CMOs based on having schools with middle school grades and data to compare with traditional public schools. Some interesting findings:
  • The overall impact of CMOs on student achievement is positive, but not statistically significant.
  • On average, large CMOs made larger gains. The magnitude of the positive gains experienced by highest performing CMOs are great enough to overcome black-white and Hispanic-white NAEP achievement gaps.
  • The study found no evidence that CMOs focus on one subject area at the expense of another. Rather, CMOs that perform well in math also perform well in reading.
  • There is a positive relationship between math performance and a larger percentage of CMO teachers  who are from Teach for America (TFA) or other teacher fellowship programs.
  • Compared with schools in traditional school districts, CMOs are less prescriptive in determining curriculum and instructional materials, log more instructional time (mostly through longer school days and more time on task), are more likely to hire teachers based on sample lessons and teacher commitment to the mission of the school, have larger applicant pools of teachers for each open position (63 vs. 20 applicants), are more likely to employ performance-based compensation, observe teachers and provide feedback more frequently, more often require teachers submit lesson plans for review, and use coaching and monitoring more often than “in-service” or workshop days for professional development.
  • States with higher scores on the components that lead to more autonomy in NAPCS’ model law have more CMOs.
This report provides lots to dig through, and there will certainly be a lot of discussion around this report. But the big takeaways are that a good number of CMOs are taking high quality education to scale, and there are common, high quality practices that can be implemented in more charter schools.

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Practice Makes…Effective

Charter management organizations (CMOs) are in the news. And we are going to hear a lot more about the impact of CMOs on student performance after tomorrow’s  release of Mathematica/CRPE’s report that represents the most comprehensive look at  CMO effectiveness to date. But before the release of tomorrow’s report, let’s revisit the first report, which detailed the practices of CMOs, drawn from observations, interviews, surveys, and reviews of financial documents. The first report is packed with information about the national CMO landscape, CMO characteristics, how CMOs operate, and plans for growth. The report notes that, despite the relative newness of the CMO landscape, they are already a significant presence in the charter school movement. The report provides insight into the commonalities across CMOs—such as being highly concentrated in certain urban areas and having a mission to serve disadvantaged  youth and reform large school systems, as well as hurdles many CMOs face—such as extending program design into new grade configurations, increasing the pool of talented teachers and school leaders, reducing staff burnout, and watching out for bureaucratic creep. The first report is definitely worth a read as it gives context for the upcoming performance evaluation. Like the charter sector as a whole, there is a good deal of variation in terms of how CMOs operate. It will be interesting to see how the variation in practices translates into student performance. And while you’re waiting for tomorrow’s release, you can also get lots of facts about CMOs and EMOs here.
Nora Kern

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Broad Foundation Announces New Annual “Broad Prize for Public Charter Schools”

The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation just announced an annual $250,000 Broad Prize for Public Charter Schools which will be awarded starting in 2012. The Broad Prize for Public Charter Schools will mirror The Broad Prize for Urban Education that is awarded to traditional school districts. The prize will be awarded to the public charter school management organization that demonstrates the most outstanding overall student performance and improvement among the country’s largest urban charter management organizations in recent years while reducing achievement gaps among poor and minority students. Check out the Broad Prize webpage for more information about eligible CMOs and the review board. And for one last tidbit: the inaugural Broad Prize for Public Charter Schools will be announced at our 2012 National Charter Schools Conference in Minneapolis, MN!
Jed Wallace

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CCSA’s “Portrait of the Movement” Report Gets National Recognition

NAPCS supports the work by the California Charter Schools Association, and others in the field, to advance the accountability of the public charter school sector. We encourage others to follow CCSA’s lead by setting high performance expectations for the public charter schools in your state. This week, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA) presented the California Charter Schools Association (CCSA) with the “Award for Excellence in Advancing Knowledge” for the Portrait of the Movement report, the cornerstone of CCSA’s accountability work. Accountability has been a top priority for CCSA for many years, and when we released the first Portrait of the Movement report last February, we did so knowing that the data would help the charter movement identify schools that we all can learn from, and those that need a second look. Through this candid and comprehensive snapshot of peformance, CCSA is looking to raise the performance bar and to support the expansion of those charter schools that are having a high impact on their students’ futures. Perhaps the most significant findings in the first annual Portrait of the Movement report were that California charter schools are accelerating the closure of the achievement gap between low-income and affluent students, and that charters serving low-income populations are generating better academic results than traditional public schools.  These results tell us that charters are successfully weakening the link between poverty and under-performance.  Yet there is work to be done.  Too many charters are also underperforming, and it is here where we are taking action. Portrait of the Movement introduced a performance framework, which streamlines and improves upon the existing assessment system in order to strengthen academic accountability for underperforming charters. The Portrait of the Movement report plays an important role in advancing knowledge about the state’s charter schools, as the report features movement-wide analyses to aid efforts to assess, monitor and improve the academic performance of all charter schools, including tools schools can use directly to assess their strengths and weaknesses. As a movement, we need to ensure that all students are getting the quality education they deserve, and need.  We cannot make improvements if we exempt charter schools that are not delivering or producing solid results. CCSA aims to remain the preeminent source for California charter school performance data in order to inform strategic school support and advocacy at the state and local levels and will continue to publish an annual Portrait of the Movement.  Our next report is due in February 2012. We are truly honored for this award, and we thank NACSA for their support. NOTE:  NACSA’s annual Award for Excellence in Advancing Knowledge recognizes the authors of a scholarly report that thoughtfully examines critical issues within the charter sector.  Last year’s winner was the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools for How State Charter Laws Rank Against The New Model Public Charter School Law.

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Great and Still Striving

Yesterday we wrote about positive results from the UCSD meta analysis of charter schools research. The results deserve applause; there is no doubt about that. Further, the results charter schools are experiencing in big cities are truly remarkable. In areas like NYC, Boston, and Chicago that have been the focus of studies, public charter schools are producing very large positive results, results that skeptics thought were unlikely. But are any of these findings enough? A recent study of charter schools in Massachusettsshowed urban charter schools outperformed other urban traditional public schools, consistent with the findings of the meta-analysis. But a back of the napkin estimate (it wasn’t specifically reported in the study) suggests that the large positive results in urban charter schools don’t quite diminish the urban/non-urban achievement gap. Many high performing charter schools are at a turning point. They are exceeding expectations, receiving accolades, and providing good educational options to students. The next hurdle is making these great schools the best schools in the district, state, and nation to make inroads on persistent achievement gaps. And the charter school movement as a whole has work to do in order to make sure that quality is more widespread. The leaders of “no excuses” schools, like KIPP who was featured in the meta analysis, would likely agree that the findings aren’t enough. By all measures in the meta-analysis, KIPP schools are doing phenomenally well on standardized assessments, and the majority of KIPP students graduate from high school and attend college. Except KIPP isn’t satisfied, yet, because many students have faltered when it comes to college completion. KIPP is not trying to keep these facts secret. Instead, KIPP has identified the challenge and is working to make sure that KIPP schools excel on all measures of student success. The meta-analysis should certainly be embraced as it highlights the great work of many charter schools, but we should also take a lesson from great charter schools—even with great results, great charter schools buckle down and strive to ensure that they are the best schools in the nation.

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The Results Are In…

As we approach the 20th anniversary of the opening of the first charter school, we’re at a critical moment for reflection. Many are understandably asking: are charters performing any better than their traditional public school counterparts? There have been a number of conflicting studies on charter school performance, with some receiving a fair share of attention over the past several years. Making sense of the often wide variation in findings can become quite overwhelming, given the differences in samples and locations, years studied, and research design strategies. But now there is some clarity in the muddy charter school research waters. Researchers from the University of California San Diego just released a meta-analysis of studies on charter school achievement, a must read for folks who want to keep up with the growing charter school performance research base. Meta-analysis, which is a study of studies strategy popularized by the medical research field, pulls together the results from a body of research and analyzes the overall effect of the program. Consequently, the findings from a meta-analysis—in this case, the overall impact of charter schools on student outcomes—are stronger than results from any individual study. The UCSD meta-analysis shows that public charter schools outperform traditional public schools in the following break-outs (drumroll please…): elementary reading and math, middle school math, and urban high school reading. Given the large number of studies on KIPP charter schools, the authors were able to break out the findings and found large, positive results for KIPP middle schools in reading and math. In sum, charters serving elementary and middle school grades by and large outperform traditional public schools. The positive results are testimony to the constant efforts by all the students, parents, educators, and others in the charter world whose daily work makes these results a reality.

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Charter School Bond History: Looking Back and Looking Ahead

The Charter School Bond Issuance: A Complete History, published by the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), provides a comprehensive analysis of the more than $5 billion in tax-exempt bond transactions undertaken by roughly 400 public charter schools, from the first bond offering in 1998 through 2010. The report conveys transparency about the charter school sector of the municipal bond market and the current two-tiered system of public school financing—one for school districts, which frequently access the tax-exempt bond market at favorable rates, and another for public charter schools, which have limited access to the market and pay higher rates. The report finds that charter schools have paid an average interest premium of two percentage points more than triple-A rated municipal borrowers. According to the authors, these higher interest rates translate to an additional $90 million in interest payments annually for charter schools. Charters school bonds’ low credit ratings are generally attributable to the newness of the sector, the absence of taxing authority and the lack of per pupil funding specifically for facilities to secure the bonds. And because low rated bonds carry higher interest rates, facilities become a heavy burden to school operators. If the interest premium could be marginally reduced from the estimated of $90 million per year for the entire charter school sector, it would free up funds that could be used to support instruction rather than to pay interest. The report contains many other findings about  charter school bonds including the upward trajectory of bond issuance that peaked in 2007,  the number of schools that received credit enhancement, default rates, and the void left by the collapse of the municipal bond insurers. To request a hard copy of this report, please contact the EFFC at effc@lisc.org. Now is the time for the public sector to address the two-tiered public school finance system. As stated in the report, short of publicly financing charter school facilities with tax-backed structures, the expansion of state, municipal or federal credit enhancement programs that guarantee charter school debt without any up-front appropriation of monies would be a practical and efficient use of superior government credit in today’s tight fiscal environment. If charter schools could access the capital market with the ease and the lower interest rates of school districts (if not all charters, at least those with demonstrated academic, financial and operational success), the resulting savings would redirect taxpayer dollars to the classroom, while reducing public outlays for public school facilities.
Nora Kern

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Record Breaking

The Guinness World Records was founded on the premise that collecting the superlative facts of the world would help us understand our place within it. Today, the NAPCS releases its annual report of the public school districts with the biggest and fastest growth in the charter school sector. A Growing Movement: American’s Largest Charter School Communities finds that a record number of public school districts—six—have at least 30 percent of their public school students enrolled in public charter schools. In addition, an all-time high of 18 school districts have more than 20 percent of their public school students enrolled in charter schools.  Los Angeles, the Robert Wadlow of districts with the highest number of public charter school students enrolled, again tops the list with 79,385 students. To provide a sense of scale, the number of students enrolled in public charter schools in Los Angeles, alone, would place the city’s charter schools in the top 45 of the 100 largest school districts in the United States. For more exceptional findings from the report, including the “Top 10” districts with highest number, percentage and annual growth of public charter school students, click here.
Nora Kern

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The Indy 1,000,000

The Mind Trust is looking for teams of great people to start public charter schools in Indianapolis, and they’re offering up to $1 million for folks who can make it happen! For more information, check out The Mind Trust’s Charter School Incubator page. If you’re interested in learning more about charter schools in Indiana (or nationally), you can find detailed information about network operators, school performance, growth and more on our data Dashboard.