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.

word choice

A quietly edited report and dueling blog posts reveal a divide over the ‘portfolio model’

Diane Ravitch speaks at California State University Northridge. (Photo by Michael Buckner/Getty Images)

A report on school choice released last month offered this in a list of strategies for improving schools: “creating a portfolio approach that treats all types of schools equally.”

Today, that reference is gone from the report — a small edit that reveals notable disagreements among prominent names in education who often agree.

The report was issued by the Learning Policy Institute, an education think tank started by Linda Darling-Hammond, an influential Stanford professor. Then came a critique from Diane Ravitch and Carol Burris of the Network for Public Education, a pro-public education group that opposes charter schools. And then came the edits to the original report, first noted by Burris and Ravitch.

At the center of the disagreement is the report’s use of the word “portfolio.” The portfolio model is a strategy offering parents the choice of different school types (typically including charter schools) and having a central body holding all schools accountable for results and manages certain functions like enrollment. And the Learning Policy Institute praises Denver, a district that has adopted it.

Denver’s collaboration agreement with its charter schools “drives equitable funding and access for all schools, and strives to replicate the most effective schools of all kinds,” the report says. The report also recommends putting the “focus on educational opportunities for children, not governance structures,” and notes that most school choice in the U.S. involves options within traditional districts.

Ravitch and Burris pushed back on the Washington Post’s Answer Sheet blog. “School governance directly affects the rights and well-being of students,” they wrote, pointing to instances where charter schools have pushed out students with disabilities or shut down abruptly.

That criticism seems to have gotten through. Since the debate began, the Learning Policy Institute has edited its report to remove the term “portfolio” and changed other language. One recommendation — “focus on educational opportunities for children, not governance structures for adults” — became “focus on high-quality learning for children, not the preferences of adults.”

“The language change was made after some public feedback suggested that the use of the word ‘portfolio’ in the report was being misinterpreted,” Barbara McKenna, a spokesperson for the Learning Policy Institute, said in an email. “The report used the word ‘portfolio’ in one of the recommendations in the most straightforward sense of the term — an array of options.”

The report does not indicate that it has been updated since it was published late last month. McKenna said that’s because the revisions weren’t substantial.

Meanwhile, Darling-Hammond and co-authors have responded, and Ravitch and Burris offered an additional rejoinder.

Darling-Hammond said in an interview that she neither rejects nor wholly subscribes to the portfolio model. “Unplanned, uncoordinated, unmanaged choice has a lot of challenges and problems,” she said.

This debate comes as a new group, known as the City Fund, has raised at least $200 million in order to spread the portfolio model to dozens of U.S. cities. Whether the approach reliably improves academic outcomes remains up for debate.

public comment

What to expect from six hours of charter school hearings Wednesday night

PHOTO: Chicago Tribune

The public can weigh in on three new charters, 11 renewals and one potential revocation on Wednesday night during a marathon session of hearings at Chicago Public Schools headquarters on 42 W. Madison Street.

One school, the Near West Side campus of Urban Prep Charter Academy for Young Men High School, could lose its charter and be forced to close. Parents and families will have a chance to weigh in during a public comment section.

Urban Prep operates three campuses in Bronzeville, Englewood, and University Village. Only the latter, which reported 176 students this fall, is on the list to potentially shutter.

The first hearing, from 4 p.m. to 5:30 p.m., will be about new charters with proposals to open in the fall of 2019:

  • Intrinsic Charter School for a traditional citywide high school;
  • Project Simeon 2000 for a school that would serve at-risk students in middle grades in Englewood, where the district is planning a new $85 million high school to open in 2022;
  • Chicago Education Partnership to open a traditional K-8 school in Austin.

From 6 p.m. to 10 p.m., the district will hear public comment on renewal applications from 11 private operators as well as the proposal to revoke Urban Prep’s University Village campus. The charter and contracts under consideration for renewal are:

  • Noble Network of Charter Schools (whose founder Michael Milkie just resigned amid allegations of improper conduct with alumni)
  • Namaste Charter School
  • Kwame Nkrumah Academy Charter School
  • Horizon Science Academy Southwest Chicago Charter School (Chicago Lawn Charter School)
  • Great Lakes Academy Charter School
  • Foundations College Preparatory Charter School
  • Chicago Math and Science Academy (CMSA) Charter School
  • Hope Institute Learning Academy
  • Excel Academy of Southshore
  • Excel Academy Southwest
  • Chicago High School for the Arts (ChiArts)

Those interested in submitting comment may register in person before the meetings, send a fax to 773-553-1559, or email iandipublichearings@cps.edu.