school cloning

Can top charters truly ‘replicate’? In Boston, yes — elsewhere, it’s not so clear

The Renaissance Charter Public School in Boston is pictured on Aug. 1, 2017. (Photo by Keith Bedford/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Excel Academy in Boston started as a single charter school in 2003. Nine years later, its leaders created a second school in the city, bringing their philosophy and some original staff members to the offshoot.

The network now spans four schools, and Nina Cronan, who once worked at the original campus and currently leads one of the newer schools, said they have key similarities: their college pennants on display, their exams and curriculum, even their policy that teachers rotate classrooms while students stay put.

“We have shared and used a lot of the existing systems from the flagship campus in our school, even though we are a different building,” she said.

Excel’s expansion was part of a two-year growth spurt for charter schools in Massachusetts, after the state law changed in 2010 to help charter schools with successful track records add new sites.

Now a new study finds that Excel and the other Boston charters maintained their high performance as they rapidly grew — perhaps because of how closely they were able to emulate original schools’ practices.

“The average effectiveness of Boston’s charter middle school sector increased after the reform despite a doubling of charter market share,” write researchers Sarah Cohodes of Columbia Teachers College, Elizabeth Setren of Tufts, and Christopher Walters of Berkeley.

The results are significant because they illustrate a potential benefit of one controversial aspect of some charter school networks: “a highly standardized school model that limits teacher discretion,” as the researchers put it.

The findings also differ from some past research, which has found that some networks see their academic performance weaken a bit as they grow.

So what’s going on in Boston? The new study, which has not been formally peer-reviewed, is the latest in a long line of research showing that students improve substantially on tests after attending one of the city’s charter schools.

On average, a middle schooler who started at the 50th percentile in performance jumped to the 58th percentile in math and 55th percentile in English after one year at a charter middle school, the latest study finds. (The researchers use lottery data for 14 of the city’s 15 charter middle schools to be sure that the differences in performance were the result of charter attendance.)

Most of Boston’s charter schools seem to use a “no excuses” approach, a somewhat ill-defined term that many charter leaders now reject as pejorative. The researchers define it as including strict behavior standards, a college prep curriculum, student uniforms, and “high expectations.”

The study can’t isolate which aspects of the approach are successful at raising test scores, or if the results are driven by other characteristics of the schools. But the researchers do note that the “expansion” schools had school days and school years of the same length, and devoted the same amount of time to math and reading as their flagship schools.

“Expansion schools similarly implemented their parent campuses’ No Excuses practices, tutoring, homework help, and Saturday school programs,” they write.

Comparisons to Boston’s district schools are tricky, since the data is limited. But Boston’s charters generally had fewer experienced and credentialed teachers, longer school days and higher suspension rates. Charters also enrolled more black and more female students, and fewer students with disabilities and those learning English, though that gap closed substantially after the 2010 expansion law.

The success of these schools’ replication gives a boost to the “portfolio model,” whose backers argue that good schools should grow and that bad ones should be closed.

Others are likely to react skeptically, especially since the Boston results are limited to test scores.

A recent report from the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, questioned that portfolio philosophy, pointing out that there is sometimes a disconnect between schools’ test score growth and high school graduation rates. (In Boston specifically, previous research showed that charter high schools boosted four-year college enrollment, but actually reduced on-time high school graduation.)

Meanwhile, other research on this replication strategy is less rosy.

Studies of KIPP charter schools nationwide and charter schools in Newark, New Jersey (most of which are affiliated with the KIPP or Uncommon networks) show that performance declined as the number of schools grew, though in both cases the charters still substantially outstripped comparison district schools.

Few charter networks have had such detailed analyses of their performance done while they were expanding, but research on networks broadly has found that a number of large ones post high scores, though others are average or low performers. Charter schools also weren’t successful at raising test scores in the case of Tennessee’s Achievement School District, which had select networks take over struggling district schools.

And there may be other reasons Boston families and policymakers don’t want to see charters continue to grow. Massachusetts voters, including those in Boston, roundly rejected an effort at further expand the state’s charter sector in 2016. Critics emphasized that more charters meant fewer resources for traditional public schools.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly referred to certain Boston charter schools that did not use a “no excuses” approach. That reference has been removed.

NEW MOMENT

Tennessee’s struggling state-run district just hired the ‘LeBron James’ of school turnaround work

PHOTO: Yalonda M. James/The Commercial Appeal
Sharon Griffin was the first chief of schools for Shelby County Schools. Starting in May, she will be the next leader of Tennessee's state-run district.

In hiring a Memphis native to save its most vulnerable schools, Tennessee is hedging its bets that she can finally get the job done.

Sharon Griffin’s new job is to fix the state’s struggling Achievement School District and use her experience to strengthen the relationships with local districts across the state.

But can she right the ship and make everyone happy?

“I know through my experience and the relationships I’ve built that we cannot only focus and prioritize our work, but strengthen the relationship [between local districts and the state] so all of our schools can be great places of learning,” Griffin said during a conference call this week.

Tennessee’s achievement district started out as the cornerstone of the state’s strategy to improve low performing schools in 2012. It promised to vault the state’s 5 percent of lowest-achieving schools to the top 25 percent within five years. But the district hasn’t produced large academic gains. It’s struggling to attract students and retain high-quality teachers. And local districts don’t like it because the state moved in and took over schools without input.

But as Tennessee works to make its state the national model of school achievement, naming a revered, longtime home-grown leader as point person for school turnaround is seen by many as a jolt of badly needed energy, and a savvy move in a state education system divided into many factions.

“I think it is a game-changer,” said Rep. Raumesh Akbari, D-Memphis, who has championed legislation to refine the achievement district. “The ASD badly needs a strong leader…. She definitely could be the bridge to bring us over troubled water in Tennessee.”


Read more about what Griffin’s hire means for the school district she is leaving behind. 


Education Commissioner Candice McQueen stressed during the call that Griffin’s appointment does not mean state-run schools will return to local control, even as she acknowledged that the district is at a turning point. It’s now the state’s tool of last resort.

“Whether that is transitioning a school back into the district when it is ready or whether it’s to intervene and move a school into the Achievement School District,” McQueen said. “This particular moment is about a person who can lead all of the state interventions as well as the specificity of the ASD.”

For Bobby White, the founder and CEO of a Memphis charter organization in the achievement district, the appointment signals a new chapter ahead. Griffin will directly oversee the district’s 30 charter schools in her new role.

He has been around for the highs and lows of Tennessee’s six-year experiment in state-run turnaround work.

“It feels like we got LeBron James, you know?” said White, who runs Frayser Community Schools. “It feels like she will have a vision and take us where we have been needing to go.”

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Frayser Community Schools CEO Bobby White has seen the highs and lows of the turnaround district.

Part of that vision will be finding new ways for charter schools and local districts to work together. In her roles as assistant commissioner of School Turnaround and chief of the Achievement School District, Griffin will oversee more than just the state-run district. She will have a hand in turnaround efforts across the state, such as a new partnership zone in Chattanooga. In the partnership zone, state and local leaders will work together to create mini-districts that are freed from many local rules.

Griffin stressed earlier this week that building relationships and fostering collaboration are among her top strengths — efforts that the state has failed in as local districts have sparred with state-runs schools over enrollment, facilities, and sharing student contact information.

“We have a level playing field now,” Griffin said. “I want to be clear, it’s not us against them. It’s a chance to learn not only from what ASD has been able to do alongside charter schools, but a chance to learn from each other as we move forward.”

Marcus Robinson, a former Indianapolis charter leader, said Griffin’s dynamic personality will be enough to get the job done.

“Dr. Griffin is magnetic,” said Robinson, who has helped raise money for Memphis schools through the Memphis Education Fund.

“She is the type of person who disarms people because she’s so authentic and genuine,” he said. “But she’s also experienced and wise and she knows school turnaround work.”

Griffin leaves behind a 25-year award-winning career with Shelby County Schools, the local district in Memphis. She has been a teacher and principal. She spearheaded the district’s turnaround work, and now serves as chief of schools. She will start her new role in May and will stay based in Memphis — something community members have long asked for.

Student at Frayser Achievement Academy.
PHOTO: Kyle Kurlick
A student walks through the hall of Frayser Achievement Elementary School, a state-run school.

Steve Lockwood has watched the state’s reform play out in his Memphis neighborhood of Frayser, whose schools were home to some of the first state takeovers.

When the state first started running schools in Frayser, it was with the promise that the academics and culture would improve, said Lockwood, who runs the Frayser Community Development Corporation.

“The ASD has struggled to deliver on their mission,” Lockwood said. “But the last few months have been modestly encouraging. The ASD has seemed willing to admit mistakes and shortcomings.”

Lockwood said he sees Griffin’s appointment as a commitment by the state to bettering relationships in Memphis — and added that he was surprised she signed up.

“It’s a tribute to the ASD that they have enough juice left to attract someone like Dr. Griffin,” Lockwood said.

unforced error

Mayor de Blasio says education department has culture of frivolous harassment complaints

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Mayor Bill de Blasio

A “hyper-complaint dynamic” within the city’s education department explains why so few of the harassment claims made against the agency are substantiated, Mayor Bill de Blasio said Wednesday.

“It’s pretty well known inside the education world of some people bringing complaints of one type or another for reasons that may not have to do with the specific issue — and this is not just about sexual harassment,” de Blasio said at a press conference.

“We have to investigate everything but it is a known fact that unfortunately there has been a bit of a hyper-complaint dynamic sometimes for the wrong reasons.”

The mayor’s comments come less than a week after the city released statistics that show nearly 500 education department employees filed sexual harassment complaints over the past four years — but just seven of the complaints were substantiated, according to the New York Times. That means only 2 percent of complaints were found to have merit — compared with nearly 17 percent at other agencies citywide.

During a question and answer session with reporters, de Blasio repeatedly said the education department has a cultural problem when it comes to reporting misconduct.

“I can’t parse out for you who was sincere and who was insincere and what type of offense,” de Blasio said. “I can’t get there. I can tell you the fact it’s unfortunately a part of the culture of an agency that is changing that we need to address.”

De Blasio quickly tried to walk back some of his comments on Twitter.

The mayor’s comments come as activists worldwide have raised awareness about sexual harassment, sparking the #MeToo movement. One element of that conversation has been the  importance of taking harassment claims seriously instead of dismissing them. More than three-quarters of the city’s teachers are women, according to the Independent Budget Office.

De Blasio’s responses drew sharp criticism from Michael Mulgrew, president of the city’s teachers union. “Our teachers have a tough enough job that they don’t have time to make frivolous claims,” he said in a statement.

Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza, who was accused of gender discrimination when he was a top school district official in San Francisco, said the education department has increased the number of investigators who look into such complaints.