The best school operators in the country

After spending two days with the best charter school operators in the country, I was impressed by three things:

1. Passion: the room was packed with smart hard working teachers, principals, and network leaders passionate about improving the life choices of low income and minority students. It’s energizing to be around so many mission-driven “no-excuses” people. However, it was a pretty white crowd—we still need to develop more minority school leadership.

2. Operational excellence: the simple innovation that the best charter operators bring to the sector is management. They set high goals, higher talented people, develop smart organizations, and manage for results.

3. Data: as Colorado Lt. Gov. Barb O’Brien said, “Data is our BFF.” This crowd lives by regular student performance data. Compared to flying blind 15 years ago (when I was a superintendent), a new generation of assessment and data tools leave no excuse for not identifying and intervening with students and teachers that need help.

I’m optimistic about three things:

1. Stimulus: the Race to the Top and Invest in Innovation (and related) competitive federal grant programs hold enormous promise for progress. States, districts, and charter networks with the best leadership and plans will soon have funding to carry out aggressive improvement plans.

2. Scale: The best three dozen charter operators have built efficient growth engines and are ready to scale. They’re ready to help meet Secretary Duncan’s goal of replacing hundreds of failing public schools.

3. Partnerships: growing charter enrollments, now 20% in a handful of markets, is putting pressure on public school districts. Undeniably good results, parent pressure, and federal grants will make charters hard to ignore. Some district relationships will get ugly, but I think we’ll see more cooperative relationships as cities, like Denver, adopt a portfolio approach.

I’m worried about three things

1. Equity: Charter schools still operate on less funding than traditional public schools and typically don’t get access to public facilities. The combination is like a 20-30% hit on the budget. We need to right this inequity—these are public schools serving disproportionally low income kids.

2. Funding: we need three times the number of high quality school operators to transform urban education. Foundation funding dropped off this year due in large part to the recession but also change in focus. Next year will be time to hit the gas and foundations will need to do their part.

3. Advocacy: this is a heads-down crowd that doesn’t spend much time telling the stories of thousands of lives changed. In dozens of cities, good charter schools are dramatically increasing the number of students graduating and going to college compared to surrounding public schools. Parent organizing by the Los Angeles charter operators was instrumental in passing a school board resolution requiring new schools be put out for bids. Other cities will need to follow LA’s leadership if we’re going to transform the worst 5,000 schools in the country.

By the way, some of the best school operators in the country that I visited with this week include KIPP nationally; YES, Uplift and IDEA in TX; Achievement First, Harlem Success, and Brighter Choices in NY; PUC, ICEF, Alliance, Aspire, Green Dot in CA; Great Hearts in AZ, and DSST in CO.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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1 Comment

Nancy Driscoll

So important to remind people: charters are public schools, charters provide an option for poor and minority students who need a smaller setting with educators dedicated to their success. Education is a process, not a place. Only a system of educational options (public, charter, virtual, private, home) can meet the needs of 50 million + students. If communities developed these systems, ala your portfolio comment, and allocated resources accordingly, we'd be losing fewer children.

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