Who will Learn from Whom?

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Many people view charter schools as a vehicle for innovation. They believe that charters will best serve children by developing innovative practices which districts can then adopt.

The primary rationale of this argument, I think, is one of scale. Districts are where the children are, as they say.

I think this argument is founded upon two shaky premises.

First, it is unclear whether districts can learn from, or adopt, the successful practices of charter schools, especially given their structural limitations.

There are plenty of amazing district schools, if districts could be fixed from adopting best practices, their woes would be have been solved a long time ago by scaling what worked within their own organizations.

Second, while districts are where the children are now, if charter keep growing at 14% annually, this will not be the case in the future.

A more interesting question to me is whether charter schools will learn from other charter schools – and why.

I don’t have any hard data on the question, but I did watch the New Orleans charter market develop over nine years, and I’m familiar with many of the growing CMOs across the country.


1. I think basic practices will scale across the charter sector. Call this “lite” adoption. Many New Orleans charter schools: utilize Teach for a Champion practices; implement some form of interim assessments, data days, and overall data-driven instruction; extending the school day, doubling down on reading and math; and have developed some sort of basic practices around trying to raise cultural and achievement expectations.

2. I’m worried another set of practices will not scale rapidly. Much of these are tied to human capital and operational excellence. I don’t think the following practices will scale with any real fidelity: delibrately developing leaderships pipelines; providing useful and frequent teacher feedback; transforming students’ identities in terms of what they believe they are capable of achieving; executing rigorous lessons where children lead complicated discussions; and so forth.


1. I think the scaling of the basics will serve students well. My guess is that the a decent portion of the ~.05 effect sizes that charters achieve with African-American low-income students is due to adopting the “no excuses lite” model.

2. My guess is that charter schools will generally be in first in line to adopt the “lite” versions of the best schools, and will do so with more fidelity than district schools, on average. There will likely also be a linear relationship between charter authorizer oversight and “lite” practice adoption.

3. I don’t think human capital and operational excellence will scale very well. However, I think there might be some sort of “Flynn effect” for these improvements, whereby overtime we see gradual increases in performance due to broad educational and societal factors. When everyone reads Jim Collins, what is normal might change over time. And my guess is charters will be somewhat ahead on this curve.

4. It’s possible that some extremely innovative charter schools will innovate in ways that allow technology to substitute for human capital, and these practices, even if adopted sub-optimally, may help all schools.

In Sum

The best schools will always be better than the rest.

The rest will improve based on the practices of the best, even if they can’t emulate the practices of the best with great fidelity.

Schools with structural incentives and adults cultures that promote best practice adoption, will likely do so at greater raters than schools that do not have structural incentives and adults cultures that promote best practice adoption.

On average, I believe that the charter sector has structural and cultural advantages that will lead to greater “lite” adoption of best practices than district schools.

I hope to be proven wrong. It would be great to see all schools, in some form or another, learn from the best.

Lastly, all of the aforementioned is based anecdote and theory – so take it for what it’s worth…

1 thought on “Who will Learn from Whom?

  1. Pingback: On Roland Fryer’s 21st Century Inequality: The Declining Significance of Discrimination | relinquishment

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