Why Boston: Continued

Last week I wrote about the Stanford CREDO studies that showed Boston charters far outperform charters in every other city. 

By a lot. 


Three folks wrote in to opine.  Neerav Kingland, the CEO of New Schools For New Orleans.  The whole city there, post-Katrina, is now charters.  Scott Given, who now operates quasi-charters called "turnaround schools" for two school districts, Boston and Lawrence.  And Jon Bassett, a teacher at Newton North High School and the head of Newton Teacher Residency. 

A. Neerav: 

Some thoughts:

1. Boston charters are awesome. Any sane politician would let them scale* to serve all kids in Boston. They are clearly some of the best charters in the nation.

2. Other ways to look at the data: I think Boston charters have ~10% market share.  In NOLA we have 93% market share.  What if we just looked at the effect sizes of the top 15% of NOLA charters? Well, I can help you with that -- it's about a 0.25 effect size!

3. So the % of kids in NOLA and Boston getting served by schools with + ~.2 effect sizes is probably about the same.

But guess what - the next 20-30% of NOLA charter schools have average over a .1 effect size. So you could argue that NOLA has duplicated Boston's success and then added another 2-3 Boston's worth of charter market share that also outperform the district by large amounts.

4. One other way to think about it is what is the weighted impact of charter sector on citywide achievement (market share x days of learning impact)? NOLA's much larger than Boston's.

Alright - what do you think? Which of my arguments are genius and which are lame? :)

I responded:

Yeah, I think Boston is nearing 18% cap in seats allocated, and perhaps 13% in kids served.  So small. 

Still I don't know if I get the logic of just looking at your best versus our average.  There are other cities with similar charter enrollment as Boston,  just 7000 or 8000 or whatever, who don't have Boston results. 

I think part of the NOLA puzzle as I've seen it thru Erica's eyes (she runs Match Teacher Coaching) is NOLA may have more charters which either don't fully execute the No Excuses, and more that avowedly reject it and persist with models that definitely have low student achievement gains. 

In some ways I think Boston kids got lucky.  We got a bunch of Ben M types early (Ben founded Collegiate Academies in New Orleans, and was a Building Excellent Schools Fellow here in Boston), which created a lot of peer learning; lucky that two weak schools were shut down early; lucky that a number of would-be-weak charters were rejected, in part because the cap on charters makes granting them more of a precious commodity to regulators.  On top of that, we're lucky that the 2010 cap lift by Deval Patrick heavily favored replication of the top schools ("smart cap").  So my guess is the "second 15 charters in Boston" (created in 2011 and beyond) may well out-peform the "first 15" (created 1995 to 2010). 

An interesting experiment would be if the likes of non NOLA charter folks like Brett Peiser or Doug Lemov or Dacia Toll could predict NOLA charter performance just by a short interview with a leader, or short school visit, or literally just reading the website.  If so, it would suggest that talent-plus-belief-set is what leads to outlier charters that help kids learn more than regular charters. 

To which Neerav replied:

1.       I do think Boston is special – so worth understanding why.

2.       I still think you need to make an argument of whether it could still stay this high-performing if you went to 90%.

3.       I do think there’s something to your No Excuses theory. I might modify it to: high alignment with No Excuses + exceptional CEO talent levels. The former is probably replicable the latter will take more time in cities that have less dense human capital (Boston is probably top 5 in nation in brains).

B. Next up, Scott Given offers this:

Michael - I've been thinking about the "why Boston" question a bit this morning.  A couple of thoughts:

1. This first thought is not a theory but instead an observation that most in the local charter sector already know well.  In the 1990s, some incredible people were drawn to launching and leading charter schools in Boston.  The list includes Brett Peiser (now CEO of Uncommon in NYC), John King (now commissioner of education in NY State), Evan Rudall (now CEO of Zearn), and others.  Anyone studying the out-sized success of the Boston charter sector should understand (1) what factors drew these visionaries to the sector in Boston; (2) from where they learned how to design and lead such great schools; and (3) how closely they worked together exchanging ideas about the design and management of tremendous urban public schools.

2. My own theory for the sustained success of the Boston charter sector over the years -- and there are many factors, so this one theory should not lessen the importance of any others - relates the flow of top talent between Boston's charter schools.  

An examination of the "web" of talent in Boston (and it would be really cool if someone drew this up at some point) suggests that many of the best schools have been deeply influenced by other top Boston schools - yes, through the sharing of ideas, but perhaps more critically, through the movement of people. 

Take just one school - Boston Collegiate - and think about just some of the "people links" it has to other top charter schools in Boston. Jon Clark was a teacher at Boston Collegiate; I imagine he learned a lot about the design and practice of tremendous urban public schools from Brett Peiser and others at that school before founding Edward Brooke Charter School.  Tobey Jackson was a teacher and leader at Boston Collegiate; he is now is able apply all of his learning from that experience as the Chief Academic Officer of MATCH.  Eileen Callahan was a teacher and a leader at Boston Collegiate; she brought her learned wisdom with her first to Excel Academy and now to Building Excellent Schools (which supports several Boston charters).  I believe that Scott McCue spent a good part of a year embedded at Boston Collegiate as he was designing Boston Prep.  I was a teacher at Boston Collegiate; I am forever indebted to the incredible lessons I learned from Sue Walsh and Eileen Callahan before I went on to serve as Principal of Excel Academy and now as CEO of Unlocking Potential.  And Sue Walsh herself, one of the greatest heroes of the Boston charter movement, has influenced countless Boston charter schools via her role at Building Excellent Schools; at least some of Sue's own learning came from her time as phenomenal Principal of Boston Collegiate.

This is just a sampling of folks who have passed through one school and spread that knowledge they gained at other Boston charter schools.  There are surely many others I am missing from the Boston Collegiate list.  And now multiply that one school's web by similar phenomena at other Boston charters.  Many of Boston's current charter leaders have internalized what excellence looks like, and how to create it, by spending time genuinely learning from within the best in class.

Again, this theory doesn't explain all of Boston's success, but I would encourage researchers to study this effect - and determine if this movement of top talent among our sector is particularly unique to Boston. 

Boston's charter leaders (myself included) are protective of their top talent, as they should be.  But it is perhaps the exchange of this talent that has benefited thousands of students in the city.

C. Jonathan Bassett of Newton Teacher Residency:

Scott's point sounds like my idea!

This may be a stretch, but the comparison of Boston Charters to other cities reminds me of part of Jared Diamond's thesis about the rise of the West, which he laid out in his magesterial book Guns Germs and Steel.

Diamond suggests that the political geography of Europe might help to explain that region's surge to power after the year 1000. Europe is a small continent, and it was crowded with many states competing for resources and power. These states are linked by easy communication and trade routes. Thus successful innovations (the 3-field system, good state record-keeping) spread quickly, because the success of a neighboring state was immediately visible, and failure to adopt the innovation meant that you got left behind fast -- and probably conquered. This environment created a hotbed of innovation and adaptation, which propelled Europe to global dominance.

When I looked at the graph about charter school success, the obvious difference between Boston and the other cities is size. Boston is smaller, and its charter community is competing for finite resources (a fixed number of charters, students, and the same philanthropic donors).  Those who don't compete effectively will lose out.  Boston's charter community shares ideas readily (like MATCH's tutoring program), and charter leaders have strong incentives to adopt successful innovations quickly.

Could such an environment be scaled to a larger city?

(*MG note: Our state legislature has deliberated the past 2 weeks on this question.  It's unclear if the state law on charter caps, which limit the number of kids who can attend charters, will stay as is, with the "18% of a district's kids" limit.)