Authorizers: See what replacing failing charter schools, replicating great ones can do

How could cities see their charter school sectors take off in quality, matching or besting the performance of their district schools, and the state? Public Impact researchers working with the Thomas B. Fordham Institute on a new study found that replacing low-performing charter schools while replicating high-performing ones could dramatically improve quality within just a few years. (For Fordham’s take on this, see the Ohio Gadfly Daily.)

Searching for Excellence: A Five-City, Cross-State Comparison of Charter School Quality, with research by Lyria Boast, Gillian Locke, and Tom Koester, and foreword and Fordham analysis by Terry Ryan and Aaron Churchill, considered charter schools in Albany, Chicago, Cleveland, Denver, and Indianapolis—all of which have a decade-long history of charter schools and relatively large market shares of charter school students.

The study shows that the charter school sectors in five cities outperformed their home districts’ schools, which had similar levels of student poverty.

The study points the way to improving the quality of charter schools overall

But within each district, quality varied widely, from very high-performing charter schools to dismal ones.

The study also compared charter performance to average statewide performance—admittedly, a higher bar, as schools statewide had significantly lower levels of poverty than the charters (and their urban districts). Charters in all five cities trailed the state overall—often by a wide margin.

Clearly, something needs to change in cities’ stance toward both their lowest-performing and high-performing charters. And that’s where the study has good news, pointing the way to improving the quality of charter schools overall.

The study ran a simulation to show what could happen when cities:

  • Close or replace low-performing schools and
  • Expand or replicate high-performing schools.

If the bottom 10 percent of schools were closed in Cleveland, for example, while the top performers significantly expanded, within five years the city could have charter schools substantially outperforming their home district and on par with the state’s results.

This is just an illustration. Real authorizers wouldn't want to simplistically identify the top and bottom 10 percent based just on proficiency levels. Instead, they would need more complex performance frameworks that took into account proficiency, growth in student performance, and other important outcomes.

In some cities, authorizers and charter supporters have begun building the systems needed to replace failing schools and replicate great ones

In some cities, authorizers and charter supporters have begun building the systems needed to replace failing schools and replicate great ones.  In Indianapolis, authorizers including the mayor’s office and the statewide Indiana Charter Schools Board have prioritized scaling up schools that have been successful in Indianapolis and elsewhere, aided by funding from The Mind Trust’s Charter School Incubator.  At the same time, Ball State University has recently joined the mayor’s office in aggressively closing low-performing schools.  This report makes clear why all authorizers should follow their lead.

Various resources exist to help. Our report Going Exponential offers advice for authorizers, school operators, and policymakers about growing successful charter schools, based on research about how organizations have grown quickly and with quality in other sectors. We have also worked with the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA) to develop an “academic performance framework” authorizers can use to identify high- and low-performing schools based on clear criteria.  And check out NACSA’s publications about closure and replication, including this monograph.

- Bryan C. Hassel is Public Impact's co-director

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