The Secret to Better Outcomes for Students

In Washington, DC, charter school students get the “equivalent educational benefit each year of 99 extra days in school” relative to their traditional public school counterparts.   Essentially, students in DC charter schools are outperforming their peers in traditional district schools.  Why is the charter school sector in DC so strong, especially when compared to other cities that have high charter market shares, but much lower performance?  While there is no singular answer to that question, I would continue to argue that one key component is the strength of the city’s charter school authorizer.  In short: Authorizing matters. A lot.

So what is it that the city’s only authorizer, the DC Public Charter School Board (PCSB), does to ensure such results?  To answer that question, the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation worked with FSG Social Impact Advisors and the PCSB to develop a case study delving into their practices.  The case study examines the key elements necessary to be a strong and effective strategic authorizer.  It also lays a blueprint for other authorizers – and school districts pursuing the school portfolio management strategy – to follow.

What it takes

First, strategic authorizers, like PCSB, regulate for performance and equity.  They define what a quality schools is – something PCSB has done with its Performance Management Framework – so that policymakers, parents, schools, and the public understand what the standard for operating a school is.  They also track and publicize information on equity to ensure that the public knows which schools are serving all students.

Second,  strategic authorizers set clear goals.  Our experience is that many authorizers simply go about their business with no specific end goal in mind.  But the best authorizers, such as PCSB actually set goals for the strength of their portfolio of schools.  For example, there is a clear goal of increasing the number and percentage of students in high quality charter schools.

Third, strategic authorizers use an intentionally limited tool kit in pursuit of improving the quality of the portfolio of schools they have authorized.  At the highest level those tools include:

  • Starting new schools that have a high potential for success
  • Replicating campuses of existing high quality schools or charter management organizations
  • Expanding grade levels of existing high quality schools
  • Replacing low performing schools with high performing of high potential alternatives
  • Diagnosing (but not prescribing solutions for) areas for improvements in low performing schools
  • Encouraging parents to consider school quality in their choices and ensure they are aware of available slots in high performing schools

Finally, strategic authorizers like PCSB make progress against their goals.  Since the 2011-2012 school year, the percentage of students attending Tier 1 (high performing) charter schools in DC has increased and the percentage of students attending Tier 3 (low performing) schools has decreased.

Results like this don’t happen by accident.

How it happens

PCSB has taken the basic tools in the authorizer toolkit to the next level.  They employ differentiated processes for vetting new school applications (one for schools/teams with an existing track record and one for completely new entrants to the city), they pair quantitative and qualitative reviews to better understand school quality, they track the financial strength of the schools they have authorized, and they employ a “secret shopper” program, where PCSB staff call schools acting as parents of special needs students to see if the school attempts to erect barriers to enrollment for these students.

Yet they also realize the need for continued iteration and improvement.  The team has now developed financial fraud detection processes, are developing methods of tracking school quality for atypical campuses that serve adult education students, and are constantly considering how to ensure quality, while allowing for continued innovation.

To learn more about PCSB and its leading edge authorizing practices, you can find the executive summary here and the full case study here.  Spread the word: Better authorizing = better schools = better outcomes for kids!

Written by Joe Siedlecki, Program & Policy, US Education, Michael & Susan Dell Foundation


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