What Is the Future of District/Charter Collaboration?
District/Charter Collaboration: The promise, the peril
In twenty or more major cities, charter schools and districts are laying down arms and coming to the table to figure out how to share resources and responsibility to serve all students equitably. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has a multi-year initiative to support the design and implementation of district-charter collaboration compacts. CRPE is helping these and other cities figure out how to reinvent their central office structures so that charter schools can become a normal part of a district's efforts to better meet student needs. But some of these efforts go much deeper than others and the impact on student learning remains to be seen.
Is it a good thing or a bad thing that the charter-district lines are blurring in these ways? Will charter-district collaborations amount to something that helps students? Or are they just a passing fad to attract the funding and favor of big foundations? Are charters in danger of being co-opted by district interests? Are districts putting themselves in political peril? What will it take to make these partnerships work?
Experts Weigh In
Strategic collaboration yields great options for all students
Tom Vander Ark
School district and charter collaboration is obviously a good idea. When collaboration leads to strategic coordination, it has the potential to create a single portfolio of quality educational options. Jim Shelton and I wrote about this in a 2004 paper—Good Urban Schools: A Portfolio Approach—that still holds up pretty well.
There are four primary areas of tactical collaboration: facilities, communication and enrollment management, transportation, and special education and other support services. Unfortunately, in most cities there is little coordination in any of these areas. New York City is probably the best example of tactical collaboration and it (and strong accountability and a subway) result in good options for every family.
There are three areas of potential strategic collaboration:
1. Authorizing. Districts (and states) should use authorizing and contracting strategies as the basis for service delivery and accountability. In other words, every school and service provider should operate under a performance contract—no tenure for schools (see Performance Contracting: Model for Governance, Provisioning & Accountability).
2. Options. Community boards shouldn’t operate schools, they should ask, “What kinds of schools do our kids need?” And “How do we best leverage our community assets and meet specific challenges?” The authorizing process should create a system of managed choice that is intentional about what kinds of schools go where.
For example, to the extent possible, every secondary student should have access to a college prep school, an accelerated pathway (e.g., Early College), a supportive individualized school, and relevant tech-prep pathways.
3. Online. Choice to the course with portable funding is a whole new way to think about options. It should make it easier to get a good education close to home when secondary students can mix and match. Every student in American should have access to every AP course, to dual enrollment options, to lots of foreign languages. Students should be able to take more than what is currently considered a full load (they’ll graduate early, it won’t cost much more).
Creative blends (what Innosight would call Flex) that leverage local resources and employers are the new frontier for district and charter collaboration.
A threat to "greenfield"?
Frederick M. Hess
When it comes to schooling, I think collaboration can sometimes be a dangerous thing. (I know this marks me as a crazy man, but so be it). There are obviously big potential benefits to the compact model—sharing good ideas, helping charters access much-needed facilities and services, promoting even-handed accountability, forging healthy working relationships, and sending the valuable signal that these are all public schools—but I'll let others address those here.
My biggest concern with educational collaboration is the fascination with sharing practices and routines that "work." For those with a lot of faith in "best practices," or who think there's a lot of transferable magic in the routines of a high-performing charter, collaboration is appealing.
But practices that work well for one school or system frequently don't seem to "scale" when adopted by another school or system. Why? It's not the practices in isolation, but the fact that they depend upon the talent and commitment of leaders and staff, and the presence of complementary work rules, resources, and culture. Unfortunately, those things don't necessarily translate with the practices, meaning that the "best practices" then disappoint when scaled (frequently delegitimizing themselves in the process).
As I see it, the real power of charter schooling is that it presents "greenfield," in which new cultures and models can be established on fresh turf, rather than painfully injected into resistant, calcified systems. The closer charters start to work with existing districts, the more they seem bound to import norms, expectations, and routines from those systems.
Tying charters more closely to districts when it comes to facilities, special education, and accountability offers some benefits, and good public relations, but reduces the degrees of freedom that next-gen problem-solvers will enjoy in those locales. (For instance, the compact-friendly requirement that every charter commit itself to serving every single potential student, regardless of need, imports a premise that has made it difficult for school systems to serve anyone especially well. It then raises the level of difficulty, by insisting that each charter school commit to doing only what entire school systems had previously promised to do.)
To my mind, the promise of charter schooling has only been scratched by the pioneering wave of high-performing charters that hire talented educators, use data, set demanding expectations, and work really hard. Charter success 2.0 depends on providing a space for problem-solvers to increasingly rethink long-held assumptions about the shape of teaching and schooling. And my concern, for all the obvious potential of the compacts, is that linking charters more closely to entrenched systems threatens to make that process less likely.
To change systems, scale charters
New York Times columnist Joe Nocera recently wrote about a burgeoning partnership between The Learning Community charter school and its surrounding district in Central Falls, R.I. You’d have to be a curmudgeon not to applaud what’s going on there: Educators who formerly worked in Providence start a cool little charter school featuring a reading program they developed. Then the local district’s scrappy new superintendent visits, gets the spirit, and throws open the door to collaboration. Kudos all around!
Now, I must admit that I’m slightly allergic to that word “collaboration.” Too often it’s an end in itself, and produces a lot of meetings but ill-defined outcomes. To work, it needs leadership and focus. Robin Lake identifies the central question in her concluding essay: “whether these partnerships will benefit students by providing them with greater access to high-quality schools and an equitable allocation of resources.”
So bravo to Central Falls superintendent Frances Gallo, The Learning Community, and all such partners who join hands to share good classroom practices. But let’s remember that the most potentially transformative charter innovations are in governance, finance, personnel policies, and accountability. These create conditions for classroom innovation to happen system-wide, and are much harder for districts to adapt than specific teaching methods. A recent issue brief from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools showed how effective charter principals use their autonomy to create outside-the-box solutions. It’s hard for such practices to take root in districts that require school leaders and teachers to walk in lockstep.
So it’s unsettling that columnist Nocera borrows a faulty assumption from Steven Brill’s book Class Warfare: Since “you couldn’t possibly scale [charters] to encompass 50 million public school students,” their innovations will have to spread virally, or even serendipitously, as in the Central Falls example.
This is a straw man. Maybe they won’t serve 50 million kids, but charters can and are scaling. If 80% of the school population in New Orleans, 40% in DC, more than 30% in another four cities, and more than 20% in another eighteen isn’t scale, then what is? Charter schools are already a major part of the public education delivery system in a startling number of big cities.
More to the point, some level of scale has to happen before most districts get interested in talking. As Houston, Los Angeles, and New York demonstrate, collaboration isn’t a substitute for scale; it’s a consequence. Ninety percent of state charter laws say that one purpose of charter schools is to improve education for all. That’s a lot more likely to happen when charters are a substantial, thriving, and high-performing sector, rather than a few small schools at the margin.