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School & District Management

Management Networks Strive to Grow Like-Minded Schools

September 08, 2008 12 min read

A new approach to the leadership and management of public schools has taken hold over the past decade, with the emergence of nonprofit groups that start and operate networks of charter schools.

Aspire Public Schools, one of the largest of these charter management organizations, or CMOs, has seen its efforts mushroom. The Oakland, Calif.-based organization now operates 21 schools serving some 7,000 students, making it bigger than many school districts. And it plans to keep growing. And growing.

CMOs have sprung up rapidly across the country, from High Tech High in San Diego, to the Noble Network of Charter Schools in Chicago, to Achievement First, which runs charters in Connecticut and New York City.

The organizations aren’t easy to categorize. In some ways, CMOs are quasi-school districts, creating alternative systems of centrally managed and supported public schools, typically targeting low-income and minority students in urban areas. But they also are entrepreneurial, independent nonprofit groups that take some of their cues from the corporate sector, and often have people with M.B.A.s in their senior ranks.

Bryan C. Hassel, a charter expert based in Chapel Hill, N.C., says he sees great potential in the CMO approach when compared with that of traditional school districts. But he says that potential may not be easily realized.

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Management Networks Strive to Grow Like-Minded Schools

“A CMO, at least in theory, can say, ‘This is the kind of school we’re trying to make, and we’re going to build everything to do that,’ ” he says.

“Most worrisome is just that it’s inevitable if you’re going to go to scale, you have to standardize things, you have to build processes that then are constraints, and there’s not really any way to avoid that altogether.”

It’s too soon to know the staying power of CMOs, and how big a presence they ultimately may establish in the education landscape. Some analysts say many have taken longer to grow schools than proponents had first expected, and at higher costs than anticipated. Most, if not all, such organizations still rely on philanthropies to help pay the tab for what’s usually called the “home office.” And CMO leaders admit that they often struggle with the organizational demands of growth.

“There was a time when everybody knew everybody else,” says Don Shalvey, the chief executive officer of Aspire Public Schools, founded in 1998. “We’re worried about that. ... It’s very important to us that people feel connected.”

A critical question, especially as CMOs open more schools and expand as organizations, is whether they will be able to live up to the promise of delivering consistently strong academic performance over time.

Concerns About Quality

CMOs have emerged, in part, to provide an alternative to the creation of stand-alone charter schools, amid concerns about the wide variations in quality across the charter sector.

“The basic pattern is, it starts with a high-performing school, or alternatively, a high-performing team of experienced school operators,” says James A. Peyser, a partner at the New-Schools Venture Fund, a San Francisco-based philanthropy that has worked closely with and provided financial support for many CMOs. “It’s starting with this core of quality and clarity about the brand, about what the education program and design is, and trying to replicate that, and bring it to scale at multiple schools.”

Wallace Report: Leading for Learning

The fifth annual Leading for Learning report, funded by The Wallace Foundation, examines the leadership challenges facing the nation’s rapidly growing charter school sector.

Click here to read the full report.

Beyond providing leadership in shaping and maintaining the educational approach and culture of schools, CMOs offer business and operations support that individual charters often struggle with.

The closest cousins of CMOs are probably for-profit educational management organizations, or emos, like EdisonLearning, formerly Edison Schools Inc. The New York City-based Edison operates dozens of schools, mostly charters, across the country. But it and many other for-profit companies have struggled to make money from running schools.

The CMO idea, which analysts say lacks the political baggage that trails the for-profit groups, has rapidly picked up steam, with financial backing from deep-pocketed donors such as the Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Los Angeles-based Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation. (Both foundations also provide grant support for Education Week projects.)

But critics say that CMOs are a far cry from the original idea of charter schools, and that the networks have attracted oversize support from foundations.

Michael Klonsky, the director of the Small Schools Workshop in Chicago and a longtime adviser to small-school startups across the country, including some charters, says CMOs go against the idea that grassroots communities should play an integral role in creating charter schools.

“Somebody with a big idea about schools and a million dollars from Mr. Gates or Mr. Broad comes into a community and plops it down,” he says.

“The charter movement was founded as a rejection of public schools managed from a central office,” says Marc Dean Millot, the editor of the Alexandria, Va.-based online newsletter School Improvement Industry Week, in a 2007 podcast for the newsletter. “Today, the movement appears to celebrate top-down strategies that rely on management elites and standardized school designs,” says Millot, who also writes edbizbuzz, an independent blog on edweek.org.

But Hassel, the North Carolina-based expert, says CMOs bring a welcome diversity to the sector.

“We shouldn’t be thinking, ‘Every school should have total autonomy, and any move away from that is a betrayal of the [charter] concept,’” he says. “Freedom from the constraints that get in the way of results is the important concept, whether that freedom resides at the CMO level or the school level.”

Getting an accurate count of CMOs isn’t easy. It depends on how they’re defined, and some are just emerging. One recent estimate placed the number at about three dozen. That figure comes from the designers of what’s being billed as the first comprehensive look at the efficacy of CMOs nationally. The longitudinal study, led by the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, in Seattle, and Mathematica Policy Research, of Princeton, N.J., will examine the impact of CMOs on student achievement, and the internal structures, practices, and policy contexts that influence those outcomes.

Robin J. Lake, the associate director of the center, says the data she’s seen suggest many CMOs are showing strong academic achievement in their schools in comparison with neighboring districts. But she cautions that the results generally are not based on very sophisticated measures, a shortcoming the study aims to overcome.

One factor to consider, analysts caution, is that charters, as schools of choice, may be attracting families that are more motivated than those whose children remain in regular public schools.

‘Growth Is Critical’

Even as CMOs bear some striking resemblances to school districts—the organizational charts, for instance, often look similar—there are plenty of differences.

“School districts are kind of like archaeology digs,” says Peyser of the NewSchools Venture Fund. “There are these layers of reform initiatives and programs and practices that get piled on top of one another.”

By contrast, he says, “the luxury CMOs have is they are starting with a blank sheet of paper, which allows them to build the systems and infrastructure around a specific—and, one hopes, high-performing—school design or set of educational principles.”

Also unlike districts, CMOs are not governed by publicly elected or politically appointed school boards. Advocates note that this difference helps them avoid shifting political winds that might dramatically change their work. Instead, like most nonprofit organizations, they are overseen by self-perpetuating boards of trustees. The ultimate accountability mechanism comes through the charter contract for each school with an authorizer, such as a local or state board of education. Authorizers are charged by state law with approving the creation of charters schools, monitoring their performance, and deciding whether to renew or revoke their charters.

Another difference from districts is that some CMOs manage schools in multiple cities or states. Aspire’s network includes schools in Oakland, Stockton, the Los Angeles area, and other California cities. And CMOs must create demand by attracting families to their schools of choice.

‘A Very Clear Opinion’

A crucial goal of the organizations usually is expanding their market share.

“School districts only grow when they absolutely have to,” says Shalvey, a longtime public school educator and former superintendent, who teamed up with Silicon Valley entrepreneur Reed Hastings to found Aspire. “Growth is critical for our strategy.”

Over the next decade, Aspire aims to operate as many as 65 schools, serving some 25,000 students, Shalvey says, but he says the organization might stop short of those marks. “I don’t know how big is too big,” he says.

Aspire also seeks to have a broader influence in California by sparking changes in district practices, building capacity among other charters and CMOs, and advocating policy changes.

Aspire aims to provide consistency in key areas across its small, college-preparatory schools. Among the seven core elements of its education design are high standards with clear learning goals, a sense of community, more time for learning, and rigorous assessments.

“There is a consistent assessment program, a consistent fidelity to the standards, a consistent implementation of what we call ‘cycle of inquiry,’ which is essentially professional conversations about student achievement and teacher practice,” Shalvey says.

Aspire’s “instructional guidelines” set expectations around practice and pedagogy. And, he says, “there is a strong culture of expectation around [students’] going to college.”

Yet a 2007 report by the National Charter School Research Project, part of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, found that both CMOs and their for-profit counterparts struggle with uneven implementation of their instructional designs.

Dacia Toll, the co-founder and co-chief executive officer of Achievement First, which operates 15 academies serving some 3,700 students, says her organization employs a variety of tactics to bring consistency and high quality across campuses, “but we don’t do it through mandates.”

The chief means, she says, come in the hiring and regular coaching of like-minded staff members; the administration of a common set of interim assessments across schools every six weeks, with careful analysis of the results; and ongoing conversations between school leaders and upper management at Achievement First.

“Every school has an assistant superintendent who is a coach and a thought partner,” she says.

Toll also emphasizes that the Achievement First model evolves in collaboration with schools, and that the academies “are by no means cookie-cutter copies.”

When push comes to shove, though, the CMO can take more-serious steps if a school veers off track.

“We still influence a lot at the school site— most importantly, the decision to hire the principal,” says Toll. “If a school is struggling and not improving, we still have enough authority and responsibility to change whatever is necessary.”

Analysts say CMOs wrestle with striking the right balance between central control and local autonomy, and the dynamic tends to evolve. But while there is variation across CMOs, the core vision is usually pretty firm.

“CMOs have a very clear opinion about what kind of education will work in their schools,” says Lake of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, who also is the executive director of the National Charter School Research Project. “I suspect that we’ll see some CMOs that are giving their schools more autonomy [than traditional districts], but most of them are not letting the schools stray too far.”

At both Aspire and Achievement First, schools do have clear autonomy in some areas, leaders of the organizations say, especially in running their budgets and hiring and firing teachers. “We don’t want to lose that important sense of ownership that is one of the truly special things about charter schools,” Toll says.

A Good Strategy?

One big challenge CMOs face is financial. They generally rely on philanthropies to supplement the home-office budget.

“CMOs are being heavily subsidized by foundations, and absent that support, they would be hard-pressed to expand,” says Thomas Toch, who plans to publish a study on CMOs this fall and is a co-director of the Washington think tank Education Sector.

Aspire charges individual schools about 7 percent of their public funds for central-office functions. For the current fiscal year, it is receiving about $5 million in philanthropic aid, but the organization eventually expects to be self-sustaining without the extra support.

Aspire recently went through an important evolution in its leadership structure, adding regional vice presidents for Los Angeles, the Central Valley, and the San Francisco Bay Area. Individual schools no longer report directly to the home office, and are now managed by the regional leaders. “We think some work needs to be done as close to the school sites as humanly possible,” Shalvey says.

As of this past summer, Aspire employed about 45 people, according to Shalvey, including several in regional offices. About half the central-office staff members, he says, spend most of their time in schools as instructional coaches or as providers of special education services.

Some observers question whether CMOs are a good strategy for expanding the charter sector. “Central management doesn’t work very well [in operating schools],” Millot says in an interview.

A more promising, and cost-effective, approach is to focus more on creating support organizations for stand-alone charters, he argues. He also says CMOs face pressure from foundations to open new schools too quickly.

Toll says one of her top concerns, and priorities, as Achievement First grows—as of this past summer, it had about 35 employees in centralized support roles—is maintaining its culture and values.

“We could become large and bureaucratic, the very thing we were reacting against,” she says. “If people somehow perceive themselves as cogs in a larger system, we’re dead.”

A special report funded by The Wallace Foundation
A version of this article appeared in the September 10, 2008 edition of Education Week as Management Networks Strive To Grow Like-Minded Schools

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