States have a historic opportunity to invest in initiatives that will lead to systemic change and address long-standing inequities.
Asking the Hard Questions about District-Charter Collaboration
Egocentric standoffs between charter and district leaders too often get in the way of smart negotiations and collective action that would benefit students. That’s the reason many cities are pursuing portfolio reforms and district-charter collaboration agreements. But we also know that collaboration between historically hostile parties takes time, and that time is too often not well spent.
We at CRPE have spent the last two years studying and supporting the implementation of District-Charter Collaboration Compacts across the country, and we’re about to embark on another two years. We have learned that implementation of a simple principle is often complicated by adult agendas and pressures to maintain the status quo. In cities with little appetite for change, little has changed.
Collaborations that address real issues of equity and transparency and result in large-scale impact for student learning are worth pursuing. But there are too many exercises in the name of collaboration that result in little more than feel-good meetings, small-scale efforts to share best practices, or short-term deals that settle a dispute between the two sectors.
District leaders in some cities with entrenched anti-charter politics have risked careers to reach across sector lines only to then hold meetings where everyone enjoys getting to know each other but very little actually changes in schools. Other cities have made great fanfare of their collaboration work, but a deeper look reveals a handful of cross-sector professional development efforts that are sparsely attended and don’t even provide time for teachers to mingle across sectors. Those kinds of efforts consume a lot of staff time in meetings, but they do little to foster systemic changes.
At the end of this month, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation will convene superintendents and charter leaders from 29 cities across the country who have already signed or who are interested in signing Compacts. Those cities that have been unable to use collaboration to create space for real innovation over the last two years should use the convening to regroup and take an unflinching look at what has or has not been accomplished. Then they must decide if and how to proceed. By committing to collaboration, these cities must be much more ambitious. District and charter leaders should sign on to the core conviction of the portfolio strategy: that results for students matter more than who drives the change. This is a long-term governance strategy that commits to leveraging the innovations that come from competition into large-scale systemic changes.
Some districts have developed systems to collaborate meaningfully in service of this bigger mission with impressive results. Spring Branch Independent School District in Houston, Texas, engaged in a partnership with two of its strongest competitors: local high-performing charter schools KIPP and Yes Prep. For the district, the partnership’s objective is to build a district-wide “no excuses” culture so every child can go to college. The charter schools moved outside their comfort zone and co-located in a struggling district school. The three organizations also jointly began to track data on how prepared high school graduates were for college.
Other districts have agreed to share local levy dollars with charter schools or to hold district and charter schools accountable to an aligned set of performance standards. In exchange, charters agreed to couple their enrollment process with district schools, open new schools in neighborhoods the district identified as in dire need of high-performing seats, or open professional development up to district teachers and leaders. In some cases, high-performing charter schools are training aspiring district leaders and placing them in district schools. In other cases, districts are providing charter schools access to Common Core training and resources.
Not all of these efforts will be successful, but they are serious attempts to expand the reach of high-performing schools, whatever their label. They also reflect a long-term commitment among top leaders to address cross-sector problems as they arise.
For these reasons, it’s also true that cities that are serious about meaningful and systemic collaboration need to take steps to make sure the changes will outlast the tenure of current education leaders. Fewer than half of chiefs who signed collaboration Compacts are still in their posts. In the last six months alone, superintendents in Baltimore, Sacramento, Boston, and Hartford have either stepped down or been asked to leave. That kind of turnover is the rule, not the exception. Only systemic, embedded collaboration that reaches the classroom teacher is likely to weather leadership transition.
CRPE will continue to help facilitate common sense, well-conceived collaborations to determine whether they move cities closer to real, sector-agnostic governance. But we will also continue to document and report on collaborations that turn into little more than numerous meetings or deals that temporarily quell adult squabbles. Collaboration in name only is not worth the time it takes away from other work. But collaboration that tackles turf issues and ego-driven agendas that hinder equity or access to high-quality schools allows competition to push all schools to be better.
The downsides of the rush to jam everyone back into classrooms are evident.
We set out to assess what family-teacher partnerships have looked like in high school throughout the pandemic—paying close attention to promising new developments and enduring areas of need.