Connecting high-performing charter schools with those that are struggling is one way to prevent schools in distress from closing. And there’s no shame in partnering with an organization that can provide support long before a school has reached a “multiple-systems failure.”
Those are among the messages that the New York State Education Department (NYSED) is communicating to its more than 350 charter schools statewide as part of a new effort to identify and act on early warning signs before the problems become too numerous to overcome. The work is inspired by research and guidance — including two studies, a toolkit, and various webinars and workshops — from the National Charter School Resource Center, managed by the Manhattan Strategy Group (MSG), in partnership with WestEd.
The first study, Identifying Indicators of Distress in Charter Schools: Part 1—The Role and Perspective of Charter School Authorizers, drew on extensive qualitative research and formal interviews with authorizers to identify 20 indicators of distress that fall into six categories—leadership, governing board, operations, finance, talent, culture, and instruction. A warning sign in finance, for example, is a misappropriation of funds. Mid-year teacher turnover is a clear indication that the school is struggling to hire and retain talent. The second study, Identifying Indicators of Distress in Charter Schools: Part 2—The Roles and Perspectives of Charter School Leaders and Board Members, builds on these findings and describes the characteristics of schools showing signs of early distress, based on the perspective of school leaders, governing board members, and charter support organizations from across the nation.
These indicators of distress can ideally help authorizers and other charter sector stakeholders recognize issues that need to be addressed and intervene early, to stave off more intensive improvement efforts for schools and students.
“Because charters are autonomous, they are responsible for correcting course,” says David Frank, chief of staff for the NYSED’s Office of Education Policy. Understanding why and in what ways schools tend to struggle can help authorizers and others understand the help that schools may need. “If we don’t learn from the mistakes of the past, then we’re just reinventing the wheel all the time.”
The research comes as the charter sector has experienced its biggest jump in enrollment since 2015, according to recent data from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. The role of authorizers — such as state education agencies, universities, and local school boards — has matured as well, and professionals working to improve charter schools have developed deeper insight into how to support those that are struggling.
Before the Decline
With the pandemic causing disruption in standardized testing and accountability — systems that authorizers have traditionally relied on to make decisions about school renewals — drawing on data other than student test scores is even more important and informative to both schools and the authorizers providing oversight and making decisions about the future of schools.
“We find that when schools have gotten to the point where test scores are lagging, they are at an advanced different stage of decline,” says Aimee Evan, a Senior Research Associate at WestEd who has led the studies on the indicators of distress in charter schools. “We want to catch them before that stage.”
Indicators of distress can be used as an early warning system to identify schools as they first begin to show signs of distress. The early indicators can enable authorizers and others to take action before charter schools enter into what organizational theory researchers call a “death spiral” — the point at which a school’s challenges have become almost insurmountable and are negatively affecting a school’s core function of educating students.[i]
In addition to being useful to state education leaders and authorizers, knowledge of those signs of distress can guide organizations that are supporting charter schools and can help charter management organizations and school leaders target areas for improvement.
When a school enters that downward trajectory, the negative impacts on students can multiply. Not only might students be missing out on a high-quality education, but they and their families face further disruption if their school closes. With about 5 percent of charter schools closing annually,[ii] using an early warning system could not only help turn around individual schools, but strengthen the charter sector overall.
Frank notes that the more off track a school gets, the harder it is to attract educators. And technical assistance providers are sometimes unwilling to partner with a school that is destined to close.
Indicators of distress can be used as an early warning system to identify schools as they first begin to show signs of distress.
In New York, operators receive a charter for five years. The NYSED is beginning to have conversations with schools about their performance at the mid-point in that cycle, rather than waiting until they near the end of the charter’s term.
Often, when schools are struggling, they don’t take advice, Frank says. Presenting them with more concrete data across multiple domains could change that, he adds.
A New Lens
This research is not intended to create more work for authorizers, Evan says. “Most authorizers are already collecting this information,” she says. “They’re just not necessarily looking at it with this early-warning lens.” Evan notes that the authorizers whom the research team interviewed for the study “didn’t require costly data systems to identify nuanced patterns. Instead, they relied on data already being collected and professional judgment honed by decades of collective experience.”
While WestEd and MSG identified the 20 indicators of distress in charter schools based on national data, Evan noted that the next step is to work with states to develop more “curated” lists of indicators that reflect the needs of their charter schools. They are currently conducting research for NYSED to identify the indicators specific to New York.
Frank notes that nationally, roughly 80 percent of charters that aren’t renewed close because of financial and operational reasons. But in New York, he says, most closures are due to low academic performance.
Once WestEd and MSG researchers determine which indicators best apply to New York’s charter sector, Frank plans to convene charter leaders to discuss ways to implement an early warning system. “It’s a two-way street,” he says. “We also want to have them help us.”
“Turning the Corner”
Delaware, which has 23 charter schools, is also working with WestEd and MSG on this groundbreaking school improvement work. In recent years, most closures in the state have been due to operators surrendering their charters instead of the state having to deny their renewal. That’s progress, because it means that the charter’s board “sees the writing on the wall,” says John Carwell, an Education Associate in the Delaware Department of Education’s Charter School Office. He described surrender as a “compassionate decision” that gives authorizers and families time to prepare to transition students into new schools.
An early warning system could allow authorizers and schools to recognize trouble even sooner and, like a medical team making a diagnosis, be “laser sharp” in deciding what course of action is most appropriate for a school, says Carwell. Applying an early indicator system to a school, says Carwell, “can help us determine whether they are turning the corner.”
Both Frank and Carwell agree that the early warning system project holds great potential for traditional public schools as well. Carwell says he’s been working with Delaware’s school improvement office, which is responsible for intervening in chronically low-performing schools, as required by the federal Every Student Succeeds Act.
“Our ambitions are the same,” he says. “We want to improve school systems in order to improve outcomes for kids.”
This research is being conducted by Aimee Evan and Ryan Lewis at WestEd, and Hannah Sullivan and Aubrey DeBoer at MSG.
For more information, please contact Aimee Evan @ firstname.lastname@example.org.
[i] Kanter, R. (2003). Leadership and the psychology of turnarounds. Harvard Business Review, (81), 58–67, 136.
[ii] Han, C., Raymond, M. E., Woodworth, J. L., Negassi, Y., Richardson, W. P., & Snow, W. (2017). Lights off: Practice and impact of closing low-performing schools (Volume I). Center for Research on Education Outcomes.