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School Choice & Charters Opinion

Four Tips for Cage-Busting Authorizers

By Rick Hess — October 25, 2012 2 min read
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Just spent the last couple days down in Memphis, at NACSA’s annual conference (National Association of Charter School Authorizers for those happy souls who don’t spend their days memorizing edu-acronyms). In addition to being there as a board member, I had the honor of doing a luncheon plenary that touched on some of the ideas in my forthcoming book Cage-Busting Leadership (it drops Feb. 12th, for those of you breathlessly counting the days) and how they might apply to charter authorizers. For what it’s worth, thought I’d offer a couple takeaways that struck me in conversation afterwards.

There are at least four key things authorizers can and should be doing:

Authorizers need to look in the mirror, diligently and frequently. They need to ask what they’re doing that imposes unnecessary or distracting burdens on charter operators or those seeking to open high quality schools. They need to scour their forms, their applications, and their processes accordingly. For instance, to take a district example, Newark superintendent Cami Anderson notes that she was able to reduce the reporting burden on principals from four binders to about four pages when she took the position--giving principals more time to focus on the job, while tightening the attention on how kids are doing.

Authorizers need to get much more assertive about proactively fighting to preserve autonomy for good schools. For instance, the authorizer community has largely been missing in action during the NCLB “waiver” discussions, even as states have signed onto Obama administration teacher evaluation systems that impose one-size-fits-all definitions (how many categories, frameworks for evaluation) on district and charter schools alike.

Authorizers ought to support and encourage schools to get much more imaginative about how to make smart use of talent, tools, time, and resources. Today, for instance, most charter schools hire, evaluate, pay, and use their staff much like traditional district schools. As I argue in Cage-Busting, this is a dubious way to maximize the value of talented professionals, and leaves me wondering how or why anyone ought to expect charters to do much better than district schools.

Authorizers ought to think about doing more to encourage schools to engage in formative self-monitoring, especially around questions like the use of student and teacher time. Let me be clear: I’m not talking about baking such requirements into authorization processes or about demanding more paper. Instead, I’m suggesting the value of being something more like a “critical friend” and pushing charter boards and leaders to think hard about what they’re doing, and not doing. For instance, Boston’s outstanding Match school recently took a hard look at student reading. Examining the research, the leadership figured kids ought to be reading two hours a day--but that they were only reading maybe 20 minutes a day in school. That kind of attention can get schools focused on identifying opportunities to improve, and recognizing sensible solutions.

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