If partnership schools prove able to turn around persistently struggling schools, they may be well the effort—but this is still a big if.
Why Collaboration Can Be Harder Than Herding Cats
Researchers at CRPE use “Herding Cats” as a metaphor to describe the complications of district-charter school collaboration. I think they describe the challenges well, but they are also being polite. Really bad charter schools and the chance of changes in district attitudes toward them can make collaborating even harder than cat herding. As CRPE explains, collaboration should accommodate different interests and perspectives among all the actors. Collaboration is even more likely to succeed if it is designed around districts’ interests in closing the worst charter schools, and around the unfortunate potential of districts to backslide into ideological opposition to charters and collaboration.
A key insight from the CRPE report is this: charter schools and school districts can work together—just not necessarily all charter schools and not necessarily on the same tasks. Charter schools and their interests are too different to treat them all the same; collaborations based on a generic charter perspective are likely to suffer from the real-world differences between schools and what they want or can do.
What CRPE politely understates is the fact that some charter schools are just too bad to justify districts collaborating with them, and that collaborative districts are at risk of political turnover, which could lead to district leadership that opposes further collaboration. Thus, some reasonable leaders from districts and charters are skeptical about the long-term prospects of collaboration. But even these more severe differences are manageable.
To illustrate the differences among charter schools, CRPE distinguishes between charter schools interested in “sharing” and “replicating.” Generally, the sharers operate one school and are motivated to deeply implement a particular approach to teaching. These sharers gladly share what they do and learn with local people who support their objectives and appreciate their approach. The replicators, meanwhile, focus on growth. They may be skeptical that the local district is capable of serving the kids well; many see their long-term goal as replacing much of the district’s schools. Their skepticism is off-putting to the district, just as their desire for more school buildings and larger student populations can be threatening.
The differences between sharers and replicators are just two characteristics that affect collaboration. CRPE’s analysis describes several more attributes, and would be even more helpful if it acknowledged that the differences among some of the local education stakeholders’ interests can be extreme.
Quality and propriety are also key measures. Some charter schools perform so badly that districts are right to ignore these schools as models for anything. In fact, a district’s primary interest in many failing charters is to close them down as quickly as possible. Some charters have broken the public’s trust through inappropriate behavior while others simply can’t educate their students.
By designing collaboration that encourages reputable schools to opt-in to controversial work, or that makes distinctions between charter schools based on their results, it is likely to be more meaningful and sustainable, even if some schools are left out. There are things a district would share with a strong charter school they trust which they would not share with a school that is failing or has already violated the public’s trust. Improved charter school authorizing practices can lead to improved transparency about school performance that makes these distinctions more justifiable—and hopefully more palatable to the broader community. The Florida Department of Education, for example, supports district efforts to improve their authorizing practices. They expect that as districts feel more confident that they can exercise true quality control over the portfolios of schools in their communities, stronger operators will be encouraged to locate there and future opportunities for district-charter collaboration will expand.
Divisions within districts also reinforce the need to be smart about collaboration. These divisions are reflected in school board elections and the selection of superintendents, thus playing out over time. A school board election can mean the collaborative progress under the current administration will be reversed by the next administration. The latest struggles in districts like Metro Nashville Public Schools illustrate the risk of political campaigns affecting a district’s ability to work with charter schools.
Collaboration can address the issues of low-quality schools and future district reversals in a few ways. First—as CRPE recommends—when designing the collaboration, improve charter authorizing to add transparency about school quality, and then differentiate between schools based on quality. Groups of schools or individual schools can participate in some aspects of a collaboration that other schools are not involved in. Likewise, having schools opt-in to some aspects of a collaboration can help.
Second, institutionalize progress whenever possible. When a collaboration leads to a change that makes the whole system better, cement that change. Practices that produce rigorous authorizing, family-friendly polices like a single application process, or improved access to special education services are all unlikely to be reversed after they are implemented for a while. In contrast, an annual meeting to share strong practices can be cancelled by just not scheduling it the next year. When collaborative practices are treated as “the way we do things here” and they work for schools and families, it is unlikely that the next regime running the district will reverse those changes, even if leadership is replaced with more charter-hostile folks.
Denver Public Schools has a strong collaboration, in no small part because they both differentiate among the schools in their portfolio and institutionalize strong authorizing and family-friendly practices.
The challenges of both failing charter schools and internal district tensions can undermine trust among potential partners. But all these tensions are relatively predictable. When we understand the differences among all the actors, and the different goals and pressures they face, charter-district collaboration is inevitably going to be more complicated, but it will be better for students.
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