How to expand a charter network

The charter-school movement faces a big problem: Advocates want it to keep expanding, but there’s a shortage of effective leaders. Although people have long bemoaned the pool of candidates to lead public schools, the problem has risen in prominence in the charter-school sector.

Indeed, in reporting for a Washington Post article about charter school leadership in Washington, D.C., I heard from a number of experts that the difficulty of recruiting, training and retaining high-quality leaders was one of the biggest threats—if not the biggest threat—to the movement’s ultimate success.

This week, the Center for American Progress released a report, “Preparing for Growth: Human Capital Innovations in Charter Public Schools,” which looks at the strategies used by six charter management organizations, or CMOs, to ensure they have sufficient numbers of high-quality teachers and leaders for continued expansion.

Although in recent years charters have grown by about 400 schools annually, they still make up only about 5 percent of all U.S. schools. And, to be sure, among the 5,000 charter schools nationwide, many are no better—or are actually worse—in terms of student outcomes than their traditional public-school counterparts. A June 2009 study by the Center for Research on Educational Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford, oft-cited by charter critics, found that only 17 percent of charter schools outperformed traditional schools in their districts. Many charter advocates are therefore careful to say they want to increase the number of “high-quality” charters.

It’s through this lens that the Center for American Progress, a pro-charter organization, looked at Green Dot Public Schools, IDEA Public Schools, High Tech High, KIPP, Rocketship Education, and YES Prep Public Schools, to try and glean some larger lessons.

The report’s authors, Christi Chadwick and Julie Kowal, found three main areas of commonality among the six CMOs. They all had formalized processes through which they recruited, inducted and supported their new hires.

They also “made the most of the people they attract” through additional training and a narrowing of job responsibilities for teachers and principals. (It’s worth noting that one of the struggles for many charter-school leaders is that the job demands not only managing teachers and monitoring student progress, but often other things like fundraising, balancing the budget and recruiting students.)

And finally, the six CMOs all hired teachers prepared through “nontraditional routes,” and they’ve  “become adept at choosing teachers with great potential and providing resources and training to help them be successful.”

The report’s authors also urged charter schools to look for charter leaders from outside the sector.

Of course, while strategies like these might serve large charter networks that are resource-rich and have well-developed infrastructures, it’s less clear how useful they’d be for those hoping to open more individual, independent charters. And these schools, in some ways, have greater potential to hold true to one of the original visions for charter schools: to offer experimental ways of educating students in community-based and community-run schools. But as CMOs find more ways to expand rapidly, these independent charters might well become an ever-smaller slice of the sector.


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[...] A report looks at the qualities of charter school networks that grow successfully. (Hechinger Report) [...]

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