All Hail Don Shalvey

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I’ve been on conference panels with many exceptionally talented district superintendents. On these panels, the superintendents at some point talk about how they’ve raised student achievement in their district through some method of reform (data-driven instruction, teacher development, principal recruitment, etc.).

When the discussion centers on their reform efforts, I try to respectfully make the point that these leaders should launch charter management organizations (CMO) rather than lead traditional school systems. I say this for three reasons:

  1. Student Achievement: Ultimately, I think great leaders can help students more by leading charter organizations, as the best charter organizations generally achieve better results than the best districts. Without the constraints of the bureaucracy, great leaders can have a more significant impact on student learning.*
  1. Scale: Many leaders respond by saying “I want to lead districts because that’s where the children are.” True, that’s where they are presently. But top CMOs such as KIPP serve over 50,000 students – which puts them on par with the size of many urban districts (New Orleans, Newark, etc.). If our best leaders were all leading great CMOs, I think we could potentially see enough large CMOs to serve the vast majority of low-income students in the country. Additionally, CMOs can scale across cities, so the impact of great leadership is not artificially restricted by municipal boundaries.
  1. Proving Themselves: When someone achieves modest result in leading a government monopoly that is also the regulator of the system (and thus controls many important resources, such as facilities), I’m always left wondering if they could achieve results in a more competitive environment.

Which leads me to the tile of this post: All Hail Don Shalvey.

Don is a former traditional school system superintendent who launched a CMO, Aspire Schools, which he led for over a decade. Aspire now serves 13,500 students across the country.

Aspire has achieved positive results. According to CREDO’s CMO study, Aspire has an average reading + math effect size of .055, which equates to about two months of extra learning per year as compared to what the same students would have achieved in a traditional setting. Additionally, Aspire appears to have a large impact on high school graduation rates (though this data is not the result of rigorous quasi-experimental research). 

Yes, a .055 effect size is not earth shattering, but it is positive and statistically significant. Students across the country would be much better off if all their schools achieved at this level. 

It took immense courage for Don to launch Aspire. And it took immense effort to build an institution that has achieved significant results. Other superintendents should consider following in his footsteps. Without the leadership of educators serving in traditional systems, the charter sector will never achieve its full potential. 

Lastly, Don has spoken and written about the need of charter schools and districts to collaborate – so please don’t impute my views (that charter districts should replace traditional districts) to him. 

* I feel differently if superintendents are leading districts with the aim of transitioning management control of schools to excellent non-profit organizations

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