Tag Archives: Scale

The Wild West, The Timid East – How Best to Grow Charter Sectors?

wild west

A new study just came out on Arizona charter schools. You can read it here. This study, plus the recent Texas study, have me thinking a lot about the how to scale charter sectors.

The takeaway from the Arizona study: Arizona charter are generally underperforming traditional schools, though a subset of schools are delivering strong performance.

The takeaway from the Texas study: Texas charters used to perform worse than traditional schools, but as a sector they’ve improved to roughly the same performance as the traditional sector.

My guess is that the thoughtful replication (funders backing the best charters to grow) and regulation (the Arizona State Board of Charter Schools is tightening up on accountability) will likely increase charter performance in Arizona, as occurred in Texas.

All of which begs the question, what’s the best way to scale a high-quality charter sectors?

See below for two potential models (surely there are more) that hopefully illuminate some of the issues.

Option One: Grow, Clean Up, Grow

To some extent, this has been (or will be), the path taken by Arizona, Texas, and Ohio. Each grew their sectors quickly and then, to varying degrees, closed the worst and expanded the best.

The benefit of this approach is based on the fact that market share matters. District incumbents are very political powerful, and small market share sectors will have less political clout. This dynamic means it that can be smart to grow charters as quickly as possible whenever the political window presents itself. Boston stands as a compelling example that high-quality, low market share sectors can be politically dominated.

Of course, the risks here are twofold: (1) a state might open up a bunch of charters and then fail to clean up the sector, so there is little impact on student achievement; and (2) the political blowback from a bunch of low-performing charters might negatively impact both the ability of high-perfroming charters to grow as well as new high-potential operators to launch.

Option 2: Grow a Little, Figure Out What Works, Double Down 

This model calls for higher barriers to entry; less of a need for a lot of performance management (because of higher initial quality); and then further continued growth of the higher performers.

“Smart Caps” are one way in which this model has been legislatively codified. Basically, a state restricts the number of charters, save for those charters that achieve a certain level of performance. The overall cap limits new market entrants, but the “smartness” of the cap allows for unlimited growth of the best operators.

The pro of this model is that in puts fairly tight quality control on both front end and back end authorizing, which should lead to superior performance at the outset.

The cons are twofold: (1) reducing the number of start-ups may artificially reduce the total potential pool of high-performing operators; and (2) the sector may grow very slowly at first, which could result in it being completely shut down by a “non-smart” cap due to its political weakness.

Which Option is Best?

To be honest, I’m not sure. I’d have to spend a lot more time with actual data to see if there’s enough historical information to give us an indication of which option delivers better academic results over the long-haul.

My guess is that the data would not be conclusive. The sample size is probably too limited, both in terms of the size and age of many state charter sectors. I’d be hesitant to draw strong conclusions from charter sectors that are only 10-15 years old.

Splitting the Difference 

One last thought: I wonder if it could be possible to capture the benefits of both approaches while minimizing the downsides of each.

In New Orleans, we grew the charter sector very rapidly – going from 3% market share to 95% market share in a ten year period. Granted, we attracted a lot of philanthropy and talent to the city, but we still grew aggressively, which has resulted in a more than minimal failure rate (I don’t have exact data, but probably somewhere around 10-20%). Yet, throughout this era of rapid growth, charter schools consistently outperformed the traditional sector as a whole.

My guess is that a decent amount of the poor performance in Texas and Arizona could have been avoided by better authorizing, and a greater pool of high-quality applicants could have been drawn to the sector with a coordinated philanthropic and talent strategy.

In other words, the dichotomy between quality and growth may be, to some extent, a false one.

But, again, I’m not completely sure. I’d need to spend more time with the data to come to firmer conclusions.

*Conflict note: I have done paid work the Arizona charter community.

The High-Performing Charter Sector Will Not Scale


How’s that for click bait.

Here’s my take on three biggest weakness of the high-performing charter sector, and why the high-perfoming charter sector won’t scale unless these weakness are overcome.

#1: Teacher Pipelines

As charter sectors scale, they need more teachers. A simple rule of thumb for sizing teacher need is: total students in charter schools divided by 18 times .25.

So let’s take a school system with 100,000 students. At 10% market share, the charter sector needs ~140 teachers a year.

At 90% market share, the charter sector needs ~1250 teachers a year.

That’s a big difference.

Right now, the pipelines many charters rely on (TFA, TNTP, residencies, etc.) have not demonstrated the potential to scale in a cost effective manner.

Charters will only be able to scale if other pipelines are developed.

My current opinion is that there is only one way to scale cost effective pipelines: train future teachers when they are in college and are willing to pay tuition.

If I were a funder, I would invest heavily in organizations that were attempting to develop educators while they are still in college.

#2 Family Organizing

Charter schools have a built in constituency: their families. Given all the political obstacles preventing charter school growth, organizing families seems like an obvious solution to scaling the sector.

Right now, most charter schools are terrible at empowering their families to be effective advocates for educational excellence and equity.

If this does not change, high-performing charters will grow at significantly slower rate.

#3 New School Incubation

Most of the nation’s highest performing charter management organizations started off in the same way: a great entrepreneur launched a single school.

Right now, far little too attention is paid to new operator creation. There’s only a couple of organizations that incubate schools at a national level; and city based incubators vary significantly in quality.

My current thinking is this: what TFA did for the status of teaching, we need to do for the status of launching charter schools. The nation’s most talented entrepreneurs should be launching charter schools. Imagine if 10-20% of the nation’s top business school students applied to charter incubators after graduation. Students in this country would be able to attend so many more awesome schools.

In Sum

It’s worth noting that ten years ago this list would have been much longer. The sector is maturing in numerous ways.

Moreover, while I think funders should invest in the above areas, they should definitely not stop investing in all the current supports that are enabling high-performing charter growth.

But, ultimately, if we don’t solve these three issues, the high-performing charter sector’s growth will stall, and millions of children will be denied the rich educational opportunities they deserve.

Lastly, drop a note in the comments if you think I’m missing any big rocks. I’m sure that I am.

Conflict note: I have worked, will work, or am working with organizations on all the above issues. You can take that as a sign that I really believe that these issues need to be solved, or that I’m making all this stuff up in an effort to divert funds to clients.