High Five to Charters

Dateline: 35,000 feet over Montana in a middle seat.
About 4000 of us attended the National Charter School Conference in Chicago.  Nelson Smith did a great job kicking off the conference with an animated and honest presentation about where we are and the work yet to be done.  We all appreciate Nelson’s leadership during these occasionally awkward teenaged years.   Here’s 5 reflections on the conference and related meetings:
1. the audience was more diverse than 5 years ago—a sign that BAEO, incubators, and foundations are paying a bit more attention to cultivating leaders of color
2. The NCSC was more diverse in another respect—there were virtual charters, blended charters, alt ed charters, dropout prevention charter, early college charters, and STEM charters.  As the sector matures, it’s clear that we need differentiated authorizing with pathways for high performers, innovators, special needs, and the online providers.  Stay tuned for a NACSA paper on this subject.
3. Billg has high hopes for the charter sector as a source of innovation.  Two problems with that—authorizers and foundation have a different opinion.  The swing to scaling and quality has, in many states, made it more difficult to propose anything new/different.  And, I don’t see a lot foundation interest in innovative charter models, and the support provided comes after charters are approved—innovators need the support during the development/application phase.
4. I participated in 2 blended learning sessions where we highlighted a handful of interesting models including

  • partial blends like Rocketship boosting learning/operating productivity
  • fully blended dropout recovery like AdvancePath (an RL company)
  • learning center models like Commonwealth Connections Academy and CAVA where students can drop in or schedule regular visits
  • schools using online learning in the classroom like VOISE

5. Had breakfast with a new fund focused on digital learning media—finally a couple foundations/funds jumping on the biggest opportunity in learning.  We have a chance to change the cost & learning curve with second generation content and platforms and most foundations (aside from MacArthur, KnowledgeWorks, Hewlett, and that spirited little anonymous shop) are missing the boat.  The new shop will consider grants, PRI, and MRI—also a great sign that thinking about impact investing is maturing.
For charters to continue to boost learning gains and become scalable and sustainable, most will need to adopt/develop blends of online and onsite learning.  We certainly saw the beginning of this trend at #NCSC.

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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