study says...

Who’s helping and who’s hurting? New national study looks at how charter networks measure up, from KIPP to K12

PHOTO: Andy Cross/Denver Post
Sixth-graders at DSST: College View Middle School in class.

Some charter school networks are significantly improving student achievement, but others are harming student learning.

That’s the conclusion of the latest study from CREDO, a Stanford-based research group that has released some of the highest-profile research on charter schools.

In the new analysis, they set out to answer key questions that are hotly debated in the charter school world. What types of charters are most effective? Which networks are most successful? And what students benefit most?

A number of well known “no excuses”-style school networks like KIPP and YES Prep come out looking good, but others — including large virtual school networks and for-profit charters — don’t. And the authors of the report say too many schools aren’t being held accountable for their results.

“Charter school authorizers are charged with acting as the gatekeepers to ensure schools of choice are beneficial to their students,” the authors write. “Some of them seem to be abdicating that responsibility.”

The study is considerable in scope, and examining hundreds of school networks across 26 states between the 2012–13 and 2014–15 school years. (This and other studies from CREDO were funded by the Walton Family Foundation, which supports charter school expansion; Walton also supports Chalkbeat.)

Here’s what the study tells us:

What kinds of charter schools work best?

The latest study distinguishes between three types of charter schools. The first is independent stand-alone schools, which account for 68 percent of the country’s charter schools. The second is schools that are a part of charter-management organizations — networks that include both for-profit and nonprofit providers and account for 22 percent of schools. The third is “vendor-operated” schools, where a charter board outsources operations to a company (usually run for profit), which account for 8 percent of schools.

Students attending a school run by a charter management organization seem to benefit the most. CMOs lead to small but statistically significant annual gains in math and reading, relative to both traditional public schools and other types of charters.

The impact is roughly equivalent to a student moving from the 50th percentile of performance to the 51st percentile. (CREDO converts that impact into “days of learning,” but a number of researchers have questioned the accuracy of this approach, as well as CREDO’s method of comparing students at charter schools to peers who attend nearby district schools.)

“Despite the wide range of CMO quality, larger organizations of charter holders have taken advantage of scale to the benefit of their students,” the study says.

Both independent and vendor-operated schools perform about the same as district schools in math and very slightly better in reading.

The report also breaks down performance by a school’s tax status. Giving credence to concerns among some advocates, charters operated by a nonprofit perform modestly better in both math and reading than for-profit schools.

There is an even starker divide when comparing fully virtual schools against brick-and-mortar charters. Online schools significantly reduce test scores, while in-person charter schools lead to small gains in performance. That is consistent with past studies, including CREDO’s.

“It is time for operators, authorizers and legislatures to step up to their responsibilities to ensure virtual schools, both traditional and charter, are only used when they are the best option for students,” the authors write.

Which specific networks of schools do best?

Individual networks also lead to dramatically different results. Moderate or large networks with positive impacts included Achievement First, BASIS, Democracy Prep, the Denver School of Science and Technology, Great Hearts Academies, Harmony Schools, IDEA, KIPP, National Heritage Academies, Uncommon Schools, and YES Prep.

Conversely, some big groups of schools produced significant drops in achievement. Those include Chicago International Charter Schools, Connections Academy, K12, the Leona Group, and White Hat Management. These school networks often serve as many or more students than the higher-achieving networks.

K12 and Connections Academy have previously disputed CREDO’s approach.

Who benefits the most?

CREDO finds significant variation from state to state, as well as by student population.

For instance, in both CMOs and vendor-operated schools, black and Hispanic students generally see achievement boosts, but white students and students with disabilities see their test scores drop.

Among charter networks, schools in Massachusetts boosted scores the most, while charter networks in Nevada actually hurt students’ scores.

What should oversight of charter schools look like?

The “grand bargain” of charter schools has been autonomy in exchange for accountability. But what that accountability looks like has ranged widely by location and among authorizers overseeing the schools.

Some charter school advocates believe in strict accountability based largely or exclusively on standardized tests. The National Association of Charter School Authorizers, for one, has pushed for charters to be closed based on poor academic progress.

Other choice advocates argue that tests are limited measures of performance and that families are best situated to assess school quality. U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has been seen as belonging to this camp. (Notably, though, DeVos met with NACSA last week.)

The authors of the report say their findings show that accountability based on academic performance is needed to ensure students are attending high-quality charter schools.

“Why are charter schools with weak academic track records allowed to replicate? Why are some networks with terrible average growth allowed to continue to operate multiple schools?” the report asks.

charter talks

Hopson weighs charters as school turnaround tool for Shelby County Schools

PHOTO: TN.gov
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson leads Shelby County Schools in Memphis, home to Tennessee's highest concentration of low-performing schools.

Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has opened a crack in the door to charter school partnerships that might help his district avoid losing more schools to Tennessee’s turnaround district.

Hopson emailed his principals this week to clarify his recent comments to the editorial board of The Commercial Appeal about possibly recruiting charter organizations for turnaround work. The report’s original headline read: “Hopson says he’s willing to hand schools over to charters, if they have a plan for improvement.”

The superintendent quickly turned to Twitter to label the headline “misleading and inaccurate” and, as he sought to regain control of dialogue on the thorny matter, dispatched an email to his school principals.

“…It is my top priority to ensure all of our schools have the necessary resources to provide students with the high-quality education they deserve,” he wrote on Tuesday. “If the Tennessee Department of Education offers us the opportunity to select a charter operator that is willing to collaborate closely with District leaders to improve a school instead of losing it to the (Achievement School District), then I believe it is our responsibility to explore the option.”

Hopson’s comments hint at a potentially significant shift for a district that has battled openly with the charter sector over students being absorbed by the state’s 6-year-old turnaround initiative known as the ASD.

They also point to the tough spot that the superintendent is in.

On the one hand, the growth of the city’s charter turnaround sector has been a thorn in the side of local school leaders since 2012 when the state-run district began taking control of low-performing schools and assigning them to charter operators. Now with 29 Memphis schools, the ASD has siphoned off thousands of students and millions of dollars in an already under-enrolled and under-funded school environment — and made mostly anemic academic gains. (The local district also oversees about 50 charter schools that it’s authorized.)

On the other hand, Shelby County Schools has its hands full trying to improve a substantial number of struggling schools. It’s made some important headway through its Innovation Zone, which adds resources, extends the school day, and pays more to top principals and teachers who are willing to do some of the toughest education work in America. But the iZone is an expensive model, and few of its schools have exited the state’s priority school list.

In addition, some education reform advocates are lobbying to shift Memphis to a “portfolio model,” in which districts actively turn over schools to charter operators and manage them more like stocks in a portfolio. In other words, successful ones are expanded and failing ones are closed. Indianapolis has a robust portfolio model and, last fall, the philanthropic group known as the Memphis Education Fund took several Memphis school board members there for a tour. (The Memphis Education Fund receives support from several local philanthropies, including The Pyramid Peak Foundation and the Hyde Foundation. Chalkbeat also receives support from Hyde; read about our funding here.)

In his email to principals, Hopson said the school board ultimately would decide whether to authorize charter schools for the district’s turnaround work, and that he expects to discuss the matter with members in the coming weeks.

“All that said, I want to be very clear that my preference would always be to keep schools under the governance of (Shelby County Schools),” the superintendent added.

Hopson has been in discussions with the state Department of Education about several school improvement avenues available in Tennessee’s education plan under a new federal law. Among them is an option for Shelby County Schools to voluntarily convert priority schools to a charter, according to department spokeswoman Sara Gast.

One school board member told Chalkbeat he needs more information from the district and state before he would support any move forward. Chris Caldwell added that he thinks the board isn’t up to speed on options under the state’s new education plan.

“At this point, there’s so little information that I’ve been given,” Caldwell said. “I don’t want to conjecture what (a charter conversion) would actually will be like, but I have reservations with any kind of collaboration with the state.”

What would it take for such a shift to be successful?

One Memphis charter advocate says the ground rules are already in place because of a charter compact developed in recent years to address turf issues such as facilities, funding, and accountability.

“In order for a charter to manage a district school that’s underperforming and for it to be successful, that charter needs to have supports from the district to be successful,” said Luther Mercer, the Memphis advocacy director for the Tennessee Charter School Center.

The next school board work session is scheduled for Jan. 23.

School and church partnership

Detroit district aims for faith-based partnerships for every school to support student needs

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti surrounded by religious and district leaders wearing new "Got Faith?" shirts.

Each Detroit public school might soon have its own church, synagogue, mosque, temple, chapel, or parish as a partner.

The district on Thursday announced an initiative to connect every district school with a faith-based community partner to help with academic support, student basic needs, and personal and career development, among other services.

The district is now trying to determine which schools have a defined partnership with a religious institution, but estimates that 25 to 30 percent of schools already do. Sharlonda Buckman, senior executive director of family and community engagement, said that the district hopes that, by the end of the year, every one of its 106 schools “has a religious partner working with them in tandem toward the goal of helping our children achieve.”

The program was announced at a press conference at the N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art in Midtown, attended by educators, school board members, and invited guests.

“It doesn’t surprise me when I look around the room and see our religious leaders, because you guys, for a long time, have been investing in our children and our people, and it’s been an informal effort,” Buckman said. “You’ve worked with a number of our schools across the district, so today we recognize that we don’t need to do it informally anymore — we need to make this a formal part of how we move this district forward.”

The district is not unique in its approach: church-school partnerships are common across the country and in the state. The national partnering organization Kids Hope USA is based near Holland, Michigan. Supporters believe that stronger faith-school ties will not only improve local support for schools, but also help provide vital services for children and a more stable personal and family foundation upon which learning could take place.

District leaders “cannot lift our children up to their full potential by themselves,” Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said at the press conference. “We need help in that work.”

The district is looking to the faith-based partners to provide services such as tutoring, coaching, chaperoning; deliver before and after school support; donate uniforms and other goods; and highlight teachers at their institutions through announcements and bulletins.

R. Khari Brown, a professor of sociology at Wayne State, said the faith community is already deeply ingrained in Detroit in a variety of ways.

“There are a lot of community centers that closed down over the years in the city, and most churches in the city provide some sort of programming,” he said. “They provide backpacks and school supplies, so [the partnership] makes sense.”

Religion is also a large part of the culture of many African Americans, he said, and a significant force in a district where 81 percent of the students were black in 2016-2017.

“Most African Americans want their churches to be involved on the ills that disproportionately affect black people.” he said.

While other communities might balk at such intermingling of church and state, Brown said he believes that it is a “non issue” in this case because the religious institutions are not receiving money from the district.

The ACLU of Michigan said it had no comment at this time but that the organization hopes to “continue to learn more” about the district’s initiative.

Vitti said a more explicit district-faith community partnership could provide both protection and support for Detroit’s children.

“What I’m talking about is developing a stronger safety net to ensure that what students are not receiving in homes, what students are not receiving in school, can be addressed through the faith-based community,” Vitti said. “When we go back to when the city was at its peak, we worked together as a team to lift children up. When children fell through the cracks, there was a safety net to catch them and lift them back up. That happened through the school system, through the churches, the synagogues.”

Vitti said the initiative is part of his larger effort to align schools and the community more closely. Since starting in his position as superintendent in May of last year, he has been pressing programs like the parent academy.

The academy will provide parents with lessons on subjects like what to ask during parent-teacher conferences, how to create stronger readers, how to fill out FAFSA paperwork, and even how to print a resume. Vitti said most of all, it would empower parents to pursue educational goals for their children, even if they weren’t the best students themselves.

“Every parent knows education is important, but parents don’t know how to navigate the system often, and they feel hypocritical when they push their children when they know they didn’t do well in school,” he said.  

Vitti said he envisions a time when faith-based institutions could house some of the parent services.

He said he also sees the faith community working side by side with the district’s 5,000 role models initiative. The program is recruiting volunteers to work with middle and high school African American and Hispanic students, and plans to have sponsors in each school to work with students daily, taking them on field trips and providing an open line of communication.