Monday, June 28, 2010

Report highlights strengths, exposes challenges of charter school management organizations

Seattle, WA - The nonprofit organizations that manage many of the nation's public charter schools are implementing many innovative practices, but they also face significant challenges in extending their reach, according to an interim report released today from the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) and Mathematica Policy Research.

Charter management organizations (CMOs) are nonprofit organizations seen as vehicles for promoting the replication of high-performing charter schools while capturing economies of scale. The National Study of CMO Effectiveness is examining CMO structures and practices and will assess the impacts of CMOs on student achievement, as well as the factors influencing those impacts.

The interim report finds that CMOs place great emphasis on teacher accountability and student achievement: they focus intensely on the schools they oversee, make extensive use of data on student and school performance, emphasize continuous academic improvement, and are more likely than school districts to pay teachers for performance. CMOs also offer significantly more time in their school day and year than the average school in the U.S.

But as these organizations have grown, they have also encountered problems, the study shows. Larger CMOs subject affiliated schools to increasing amounts of oversight and central control, raising the fear that some CMOs might become rigid and bureaucratic. Without changes in public policy (such as more equitable funding for charter schools and access to district-owned school buildings), most CMOs are likely to remain heavily reliant on philanthropy to fund their central offices. If CMOs are to maintain or quicken their pace of growth, the interim report suggests, they will need long-term philanthropic commitment, more public funding, or new and more efficient ways of operating.

CMO leaders also said that they struggle with extending their designs, many of which are based on elementary and middle schools, to high schools. Other challenges cited include collaborating effectively with school districts, increasing the pool of capable educators, and reducing staff burnout associated with longer days and a 'no excuses' approach to instruction.

Said report co-author Robin Lake, associate director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education: "Our findings so far confirm that the work of CMOs is important, but they also make it clear that scale brings its own challenges."

Lake co-authored the report with Paul Hill and other CRPE researchers. The findings are based primarily on visits to 10 CMO central offices and 20 CMO-operated schools, a survey of 43 CMO central offices, interviews with school district officials, and a review of financial data, business plans, and other CMO documents.

"The CMO model is a force in the school reform movement that should not be ignored or dismissed," said the authors, "but CMOs represent just one approach to the important challenge of replicating high-performing charter schools. It is possible there are more cost-effective and sustainable approaches to achieving quality schools at scale."

The study is being conducted by the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington and Mathematica Policy Research. It was commissioned by NewSchools Venture Fund, a venture philanthropy firm focused on transforming public education in underserved communities, with generous support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation.

The study's final report, to be released next year, will describe the effects of CMOs on student academic performance, and will examine which CMO structures and practices are associated with instructional quality, school stability, and student achievement.