Review: No Excuses Works But There Are Some Lousy Charters

A few years ago I was involved in commissioning the The National Study of Charter Management Organization (CMO) Effectiveness.  I was pretty sure it would show definitively what we already knew–that purpose built CMOs were a lot more effective that school districts.  It didn’t.The final report came out last week and from the name–Diverse Strategies and Diverse Student Impacts–you can guess that the results were a mixed bag.  Some of it was the way Mathematica structured the study but it’s also clear that there are some crummy CMOs.  For example:

  • Students in about one-third of the CMOs (7 of 22) do significantly worse in math, and
  • Students in about a quarter of CMOs (6 of 22) experience reading impacts that are significantly negative.

The flip side is that the majority had big positive effects on learning.  But fact that a third are worse in math is just unconscionable–authorizers should do better.  There were only six CMOs with high schools in the study and most had a big positive impact on graduation rates but one actually had a negative impact–hard to imagine (who is CMO6 and why are they running schools?).
The study was very conservative and did not to include elementary because they only wanted students with matching test scores.  It was a very poor choice to leave them out because most of the elementary CMOs would have shown a big effect size (but I guess the RFP required the gold standard in methodology).
The factors that differentiate high performers from the dirt bags are behavior policies and teacher coaching–the high expectations, no excuses culture.  Not as significant were extended time and performance pay.
They tried to test tight-tight (prescriptive design, strong control/support) vs loose-loose and found that holding firm to important variables and providing some school flexibility on others worked best and avoided negative impacts on organizational health.
Robin Lake, one of the co-authors from CRPE, said about the disappointing findings, “Multiple scale strategies is the right answer.”

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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