Amidst this environment, the National Alliance, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA), and various stakeholders at the national, state, and local levels, are committed to working together to remove these barriers to growth. That is what makes NACSA’s new report on the successful elements of charter school authorizing so important and timely. The best authorizers view their role as supporting school success and not as that of “compliance cop.” As charter school demand continues to exceed supply – the role of strong and visionary authorizers in providing systemic leadership, setting expectations, supporting schools, and helping developing groups overcome obstacles – is more important than ever.
Over the past several years, NACSA convened a panel of researchers and advisors to collaboratively investigate the perspectives and practices of high-performing authorizers compared with a sample of authorizers achieving moderate outcomes. As a result of this research, NACSA identified a list of “practices and [qualities] that appear similar and different across these two groups of authorizers.” These qualities and practices are highly correlated with success; however, the report notes that “additional research is needed to establish casual relationships between authorizer practices and outcomes.”
NACSA found that “while successful authorizers are grounded [in] smart systems and tools, they are [also] empowered to make the best decisions for children through great leadership, institutional commitment, and strong professional judgment.”
- Great Leadership: “Great authorizers are dedicated to a mission of giving more children access to better schools through the proactive creation and replication of high-quality charter schools and the closure of academically low-performing ones.”
- Institutional Commitment: “Great authorizers reflect their institution’s commitment to quality authorizing. Authorizing is visible, championed, and adequately resourced, rather than buried in a bureaucracy. The people responsible for day-to-day authorizing functions have influence over decision making.”
- Professional Judgement: “Great authorizers make decisions based on what will drive student outcomes, not based on checking boxes or personal beliefs.”
Along with these three essential qualities, NACSA also looked at essential practices among four key areas: culture, staff development, and norms; the application and pre-opening process; monitoring and intervention; and charter school renewal, expansion, and closure. Among these four topic areas, NACSA found a number of practices that differentiate strong authorizers from average authorizers.
- Culture, Staff Development, and Norms. High-performing authorizers developed a culture and staff competencies that were grounded in their mission of providing expanded educational opportunities to students and families. They used data as a tool to help drive decision making, but they also applied their professional judgement in interpreting the data and understanding its limitations. They created a culture where staff felt empowered to make decisions and were not “bound by protocols, templates, or other authorizing tools that limit decision making.” High-performing authorizers built strong and supportive relationships with their schools while also drawing a “very clear line between providing support and direction.” They frequently sought out new and best practices from other authorizers (and at times other sectors) and modified them to fit their organizational context. They created an environment with structured and regular opportunities for “staff reflection and self-critique on practices and systems.” They had a “history of long-tenured senior leadership, including multiple long-tenured executive directors.” And they spent a great deal of time developing their staff, including cross-training on other authorizing functions and developing “explicit strategies to ensure a shared understanding of, and expertise in, quality authorizing.”
- Application and Pre-Opening Process. High-performing authorizers were transparent in their decision making process, they often encouraged denied applicants to reapply, and they supported schools in the pre-opening process. They provided applicants and the public with “detailed information about the application process including timelines, evaluation criteria, [and] previously submitted and reviewed applications.” They looked at the application holistically while also ensuring that “all parts of the application [were] internally coherent and reinforcing.” They assessed geographic and community need while being careful not to “specify a preference for specific types of schools.” They used the approved application as a detailed blueprint for the opening and operation of the school. Unlike in other areas of the authorizing practice, high-performing authorizers were “very hands on (sometimes quite intensively) in the pre-opening process” and they used the pre-opening process to “build relationships, set expectations, and provide technical assistance to schools.” In addition, they reviewed their application process after each cycle to improve its efficiency and validity.
- Monitoring and Intervention. High-performing authorizers conducted ongoing monitoring that was clearly aligned with the expectations laid out in the charter contract, they did not ask for data that they could easily obtain from public sources, and they used professional judgement in determining if interventions were necessary. High-performing authorizers provided formal and informal feedback to schools so that there was consistency and clarity about where schools stood relative to their expectations. They used “formal site visits to collect information about schools [and] facilitate difficult conversations with schools when needed.” They used a transparent, regular, and predictable system to collect data from schools and they did not ask schools for data that they could easily obtain from public sources. In addition, they used their professional judgement to determine if interventions were necessary and, if so, the specific nature of the intervention.
- Renewal, Expansion, and Closure. High-performing authorizers provided clear information about whether or not schools were meeting expectations, they provided incentives for replication and expansion, and they took an active role when a school was closed. High-performing authorizers regularly communicated with schools and alerted them to any potential underperformance or concerns long before formal decision were made about renewal, expansion, or closure. They did not approve replication and expansion plans automatically but they did provide incentives for replication and/or expansion by, for example, reducing per-student oversight fees, expediting the application process, and providing access to facilities. In addition, they took an active role when a school was closed by finding a replacement operator and/or ensuring that students had access to other schools.
Kevin Hesla is the Director of Research and Evaluation at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.