"Secrets of High Performing Charters"

Great article in Ed Next by Jim Peyser. Since his organization funds many different charter school networks, he gets an unusual up-close look at variation among charter schools. So how do good charters outperform weak charters? Jim writes:

Another important factor is the investment that the most successful CMOs (charter management organizations, or small "chains" of charter schools) are making in building the capacity of their central offices, especially the focus on recruiting and developing talent, as well as building instructional support systems that are grounded in the use of performance data. Based on our observations and feedback from school personnel, these deep levels of central-office investment appear to be adding significant value to student performance.

This past spring MATCH recruited harder than in past years. We're not big enough to have a Chief Talent Wrangler like many of the bigger charter organizations. But our deputy director (Mike L) spent more time that he had before. Plus we added one of our rocking former tutors, Tiffany, on a seasonal basis.

That made a huge difference. We had more bandwidth to do the needed tasks. Generate leads (ask everyone we know to recommend candidates). Phone screen. Fly 'em in if promising. Watch them teach. Give feedback, see if they like it. Aggressively check references. Try to authentically discuss the +/- of working with us.

It takes a lot of effort to do well. Like everything else, I suppose. Anyway, it paid off. We've really added some wonderful folks.

It's sort of weird, though. Many times analysts studying good schools of ANY sort (charter, traditional, other) don't want to say "Well one big factor was they assembled an awesome team of ass-kickers."

Analysts tend to prefer to discuss factors that are more easily dictated by policy: curriculum, longer hours, autonomy, money, etc. Look at this report. It asks: Why are Boston charters good?

Study Finds Two Critical Elements in High-Achieving Traditional and Charter Schools: Autonomy in Both Staffing and Designing the School Day

Autonomy is necessary, I agree. But insufficient. That's where the report falls short, and Jim gets it right. Given autonomy to hire whom they choose, many charters pick the wrong educators.

The Oakland Raiders have autonomy to hire the coaches and players they want. But they generally make bad personnel choices. So they are terrible. Autonomy is not enough. The New England Patriots generally make good choices. So they win more than they lose.

I will make a prediction. The new turnaround school in Boston, called UP, will give kids a great education. I believe that is likely because the team of teachers and leaders they pulled together is top top top. When UP is studied, though, I predict the meme will not be "um, they got a top top top group of people in the same building." Meet me back here in 5 years, we'll see how my prediction bears out.

Jim also wrote:

Although several factors appear to distinguish the highest from the lowest performers, there is no obvious or simple pattern....

Although the data can give us some hints about where the answers lie, some of the differences in CMO performance are most likely tied to the quality of management and effectiveness of execution, factors that are difficult to measure. It has been said that high-performing schools are the result of a hundred 1-percent solutions.

I think Brett Peiser first came up with the "hundred 1-percent solutions" line. He was a year or two ahead of me at the Kennedy School of Government. He started a charter called South Boston Harbor Academy (on Whitey Bulger turf), which has since been renamed Boston Collegiate. Brett now runs this network of charter schools in New York City.

Jim concluded:

Not only is there no silver bullet, but there is not even a secret sauce. The key to success is an unflagging attention to detail and an uncompromising commitment to excellence in all things, from the classroom, to the hallway, to the principal’s office.

As difficult as it is to do all of this while growing a new organization, it is even harder to sustain it over time, especially as the original founding teams give way to a new generation of leaders. Some CMOs are already beginning to take and pass this test, but it will remain one of their greatest enduring challenges.

So true. MATCH is going to face a couple huge succession tests this year. Our executive director Alan, after 9 years at the helm, has stepped down from that new role to launch a new MATCH effort he's cooking up, which will be focused on tutoring in other schools. My view is that people of Alan's caliber are the hardest to find in the charter movement -- principals have a "natural pipeline" (teachers), but executive directors do not.

Jorge, our high school principal, is moving with Molly to California, where he'll work for KIPP National in charge of high schools. My 3-year-old son is bummed, because he always calls Jorge and Molly "some of his best customers." I have no idea what that means, though. He has no other customers.

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(Disclosure: Jim is managing a fund that makes donations [they call them "investments"] to several new Boston charter schools, probably including ours).