Authorizing High Performance

Paul Hill's Reinventing Public Education

Good measures, clear targets, transparent results, and strong authorizing are all key to improving educational outcomes.  Effective authorizing is the quality lynchpin to the Digital Learning Now framework which suggests that “States should hold schools and online providers accountable using student learning to evaluate the quality of content or instruction. Providers and programs that are poor performing should have their contracts terminated.”
This is the first of two blogs this week on Digital Learning Now Element #8, Assessment and Accountability.  Here’s a video of Gov Bob Wise, discussing next gen assessment and accountability.  We’ll take up testing and data on Wednesday.
In Differentiated Authorizing for Innovation, Scale and Quality, a paper published by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, I attempted to make the case for a robust system of performance contracting system as a strategy for provisioning educational services.  The paper recommends that states have six authorizing pathways:

1. Standard. An updated authorizing process should focus on qualified first-time applicants proposing a single school based on a proven school model with demonstrated community support.
2. High Performing. A short-form application with quick turnaround should be available for operators of two or more high-performing schools.
3. Innovation. Qualified applicants with a strong hypothesis should be able to seek conditional approval for innovative school models that incorporate novel assessment systems, performance-based progress, unique staffing and compensation models, distributed learning, blended institutions, and/or year-round learning. State commissioners could modify criteria to target specific reforms, populations, or geographies.
4. Online. Reflecting the Internet’s ability to cross municipal and state borders, virtual and blended operators should have the ability to enroll students statewide and/or across a multi-state region under a reciprocal charter agreement.
5. Turnaround. School improvement providers should be invited to propose in a two-step process that would result in a list of preapproved vendors that are subsequently matched with turnaround or restart opportunities.
6. Conversion. The conversion of a high-performing public or private school to charter status warrants special consideration. Conversions warrant a statewide (non-district) authorizer to ensure real charter status and treatment.

A statewide contracting framework like this could be used as a state’s primary education governance and accountability system (as Paul Hill suggested in the ’97 classic Reinventing Public Education).
States will need robust capacity to run a contracting system like the one described above.  Differentiated pathways creates the opportunity to create specialty authorizers that, in addition to a state education authority, could include a nonprofit organization and universities.  Authorizers could take a 1% fee to fund their oversight.
It makes me nervous that some authorizers, DC Public Charter School Board, are starting to act more like districts and becoming very active in their recommendations and requirements to authorized schools.  Their involvement reflects a commitment to quality schools for all students, but it is also reflects how difficult and disruptive it is to close a struggling a struggling school.  It’s possible that active authorization will prove to be the key to quality, but I’d rather see appropriate measures, clear targets, and a depoliticized renewal process where outcomes define status.
State authorizing, or more broadly performance  contracting, is the new key to quality. NACSA’s guidelines provide a useful framework.   We’ve learned enough in the last 20 years of authorizing charter schools to successfully expand its use to a multiple provider environment for online and blended  learning and special services. As Paul Hill suggested, it could the the policy frame for the future of American education.

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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