Last Friday a major study looking at charter school management organizations was released. Here’s my take on it from TIME. And here’s an Eduwonk post about it. Now, below, for the first time the researchers spell out what they see as some key takeaways:
CMO’s: Are We There Yet? By Robin Lake and Paul Hill, Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington
Charter management organizations were built to bring consistency and scale to the charter movement by replicating high-performing schools in large numbers. Have they delivered? A new study by the Center on Reinventing Public Education and Mathematica Policy Research shows that, unfortunately, the answer is not yet. CMOs have created a number of high-performing charters, but many others don’t perform as well as nearby public schools. As is the case with independent charters, there is a great deal of variation in the effectiveness of CMOs.
The good news is very good. A number of CMOs have stellar results. They make it possible for students to make three years of learning gains after just two years of enrollment. CMOs that get strong results in reading and math also do well in other subjects, suggesting that these schools are not simply prepping students for the most tested subjects. And the most effective CMOs have positive impacts that are substantially larger than the negative impacts of the least effective CMOs. We found that high-performing CMOs tend to have intensive professional coaching of teachers and high expectations for student behavior, with clearly defined discipline policies. Teacher coaching is often packaged with a sophisticated use of data and more instructional time. But the news is not all good. CMOs included in our study appear to differ dramatically in the value they add as measured by test scores. While about half of the CMOs we studied produced positive results, about a third showed negative results in math or reading. This is well short of the consistency that we should expect from efforts to replicate high quality charters.
(An important caveat – the overall quality of CMOs may be better or worse than we know right now. Our study used the most rigorous methods available to eliminate selection bias and isolate the value CMOs add to student achievement. That level of rigor requires achievement measures for each student before entering the CMO school—measures which do not exist in pre-kindergarten, thereby eliminating elementary schools from our analysis. What’s more, we haven’t yet looked at college admission and success, which some CMOs emphasize over test scores. A fuller picture of school effectiveness should include college attainment and success. We’ll have more results on that front soon.)
Many have argued that CMOs deserve fast-track approval processes and require more limited government oversight. While streamlined and customized application processes have promise, they can’t substitute for rigorous oversight. And charter school authorizers must realize that scale brings its own challenges. In some cases, CMOS are in danger of being too big to fail, given the thousands of students they serve. Poor authorizing or investment strategies, then, carry all the more risk, putting a premium on discriminating up front due diligence and ongoing oversight.
So where do we go from here? Giving up on replication of excellent schools is not an option. U.S. public education needs thousands more schools that help students excel in the ways that the top-performing charters, CMOs, and conventional public schools do. But funders and charter authorizers need to recognize that all CMOs are not created equal. They need to carefully assess CMOs’ achievement records—carefully measured in “value-added” terms—their instructional and operational models, and their financial viability before they give the green light and dollars to start new schools.
For their part, CMO leaders must attend to uneven quality, perhaps starting by focusing on promising practices such as intensive coaching of teachers and comprehensive behavior policies. In addition, they need to figure out how they can grow without continued infusions of philanthropic dollars. That means experimenting with technology to reduce costs, engage students, and help teachers reduce their workloads. It means innovating with strategies to run central operations more efficiently, partner with other organizations that can provide services at lower costs, or negotiate with school districts to provide affordable buildings. And while doing this, many CMOs need to find ways to serve more students with disabilities and English language limitations.
The bottom line is that many CMOs are very effective, but charter authorizers and funders should not assume that schools affiliated with CMOs are necessarily better than independent charters. More than a half-billion philanthropic dollars have supported CMO development and expansion in the last 10 years. Large grants by the U.S. Department of Education are supporting the replication of effective charter schools generally and the growth of CMOs specifically. Our study suggests that such investments must be directed with care to support quality and scale in the charter sector. Put plainly: The next generation of scaling strategies should build on CMO successes and acknowledge their limitations.