Archive for October, 2010

Examining the Success of a Chicago Charter School

Tuesday, October 26th, 2010

As more and more charter schools turn to management organizations to handle their operations, researchers are asking how this approach affects important functions such as resource allocation and student performance, and how these schools differ from other charter and traditional public schools. A new research brief on the NCSC Web site explains a study that examined a successful charter school – Chicago International Charter School (CICS) — whose unusual structure includes several campuses and contracts with multiple education management organizations (EMOs). While CICS has a strong academic record overall, there is variation among the campuses, so the study sought to better understand CICS performance at both the system-wide and campus levels. It focused on resource allocation decisions by the EMOs and management practices by CICS to hold the EMOs accountable. The central research question was: To what extent can fiscal and operational decision-making processes used by Chicago International and its partner EMOs explain student success at the school?

 The research brief also includes a box describing Chicago International, which enrolls more than 8,000 students on campuses across the city. The CICS network has a central office that functions like a mini-school district, providing administrative services across the network. Each EMO is responsible for all activities that occur “within the walls of the school,” such as hiring and training staff, designing curricular maps, maintaining the school environment, and handling family and community relations. The EMO contracts include performance measures to hold the organizations accountable.

The main findings of the study, which is described in the paper Resource Allocation and Performance Management in Charter Schools: Connections to Student Success, were:

  • Student achievement patterns cannot be linked, through statistical analysis, to differences in EMO spending across CICS campuses. One reason for this finding was that annual audits did not provide enough detail to fully understand decisions about allocation of resources. Nonetheless, the analyses did indicate that achievement gains were across the board regardless of student race and special education status.
  • The success of Chicago International can be attributed to a mission-driven approach that focuses on high-quality instruction, insistence on a disciplined environment, and ongoing performance evaluation. Chicago International hires EMOs that share its mission and vision and that are contractually obligated to meet specific goals in statutory compliance, site-based budgeting, curricular design, and student performance. The CICS central office assesses the performance of each campus and EMO continuously, according to these targets.
  • Collaborative processes with EMOs – and the clear delineation of duties between EMOs and the CICS central office – also contribute to CICS success. The EMOs participate in developing their annual performance targets and are invited to verify all data used in their evaluations.

The findings have several implications for policy. The lack of financial detail discovered through the analyses makes clear the need for more comparable financial data as well as a method for reliably comparing charter and traditional school spending decisions. This study also highlights the value of forging performance-based contracts with EMOs that hold them accountable for student outcomes, not educational inputs. Finally, the paper suggests that performance incentives are at least as important for student achievement as levels of funding.

As with all NCSC research briefs, the text is written in lay language and the main points of the research are explained.


To read more about charter schools in Chicago and charter school management check out these papers from the NCSC archives:

Charter School Governance

Renaissance Schools Fund-Supported Schools: Early Outcomes, Challenges, and Opportunities

Findings from the City of Big Shoulders

The Future of New Orleans Schools

Thursday, October 21st, 2010

A school district with one of the most broad-based school choice plans in the country may be in for some big changes, and the possibility has many in New Orleans stirred up.

 Louisiana State Superintendent of Education Paul Pastorek has issued a proposal to start allowing the transfer of schools out of the Recovery School District, a state-operated jurisdiction that has attracted national attention for turning around failing schools after Hurricane Katrina, frequently using charter schools as a fulcrum for change. Transfers could begin in the 2012-13 school year.  

The debate for many centers on a question of local control vs. state takeover, according to a recent story and follow-up  in the New Orleans Times-Picayune, with many assuming that schools leaving the Recovery district would move to the Orleans Parish School Board, which the Times-Picayune notes was “stripped of all but 16 of the city’s best schools in the post-Katrina reorganization” because the schools were failing. The newspaper said charter school operators and parents also are expressing wariness about leaving the Recovery incubator, with its successful track record and unusual levels of autonomy. With the Recovery district, charters now outnumber traditional public schools in New Orleans 2 to 1.

But a move to the Orleans Parish board would not be guaranteed. Pastorek’s proposal includes a provision for “the City of New Orleans to affirm that it wishes to continue with the governance structure represented by the Orleans Parish School Board, substitute it with a different governing body or provide an additional authorizing entity, or otherwise establish a governing structure that is suitable to manage the kinds of schools that have been developed in the Recovery School District.” Further, transfer would not be automatic. Only schools that met certain academic criteria would be eligible, and those schools would have the freedom to choose whether to stay in the Recovery district or move. The plan includes transfer procedures for schools run by the Recovery district as well as independent charter schools, which would sign MOUs with the new governing entity. Schools not academically eligible for transfer would be required to stay in the recovery district “until eligible for transfer.”  The Recovery district oversees 23 traditional schools and 46 charters in New Orleans, according to its Web site.

Pastorek’s proposal would require the state board of education to ensure that schools choosing to leave the Recovery district, known as RSD, “are afforded conditions and expectations that provide support and oversight similar to their experiences in the RSD, which led to their improved performance.” The new arrangement must protect the schools’ autonomy, set clear academic goals, provide support, and guarantee funding levels. The Recovery district gives its schools unusual freedoms, including control over hiring and firing and length of the school day and year, with the provision that failure to improve will lead to closure, restructuring or conversion to charters.

The Orleans Parish district restructured its school board and operations after Katrina and now oversees both charter and traditional public schools. Recently, the local district began publicizing its readiness to take on additional schools from Recovery. One flier entitled “We are Ready!” highlights academic achievements of schools still under the board’s control and ticks off fiscal improvements since Katrina.

The Recovery district was created as a temporary solution for resuscitating failing schools, with the authority to operate schools put under its jurisdiction for at least five years. The state law creating the special district required the state and Recovery superintendents to come up with a recommendation for the future of schools under the Recovery district’s control by the end of the five-year period, which occurs this fall.   

The Cowen Institute at Tulane, a think tank dedicated to education reform that was created after Katrina, issued a paper criticizing Pastorek’s proposal for providing too little detail on some important points. For example, the institute says the proposal should include a detailed, proactive plan for immediately overhauling a group of schools that have failed to improve significantly under the Recovery district’s control, including five high schools that the district has said it eventually plans to convert to charter schools. The Cowen paper also puts too many constraints on the Orleans Parish board as conditions for receiving transfer schools.

 The state board of education is scheduled to vote on the proposal in December.


Read these papers from the NCSC archives about charter school governance and operations.

Charter School Governance

When urban school districts innovate: The politics of turning around low performing school organizations through charter schools

Charter School Outcomes in California

What Happens When Regular Public Schools Convert to Charter Schools?

School Choice Options, Instructional Conditions, and Student Achievement Gains

The NCSC is funded by a 5 year, $13.3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education's Institute of Education Sciences. Its lead institution is Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. The center is housed on the campus of Peabody College, one of the nation's top graduate schools of education.