It’s All About the Outcomes: The Next 25 Years of Charter School Authorizing

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It’s All About the Outcomes: The Next 25 Years of Charter School Authorizing

We’ve widened our lens. What are the nation’s best charter school authorizers doing differently to achieve great outcomes within their communities?

NACSA sought to answer this question when we launched our Quality Practice Project (QPP) three years ago, and we share the first findings from this research in our latest report. We examined the practices of authorizers with the strongest charter school portfolios in the country—measured by numerous student and community outcomes—and compared them to the practices of authorizers with average portfolios. We saw clear distinctions that the report lays out in detail, giving authorizers around the country the elements needed to strengthen their own practice.

Top among those elements of success? Of course we need smart systems and tools, and NACSA has spent nearly two decades working with authorizers to create those. But we need more: we need authorizers who are empowered to make the best decisions for children using great leadership, deep institutional commitment, and strong professional judgment. You can dig into our findings to learn more.

During the process of this work, an unanticipated but exciting revelation occurred. In order to learn from authorizers with strong outcomes, we had to define what those outcomes were. We landed on 11 dimensions that define public school quality and used that as our research lens. These 11 dimensions are the brainchild of a group of charter school authorizers, charter school operators, and some other experts in accountability. The people around that table—most of whom are also parents—debated and discussed, disagreed and dreamed, then landed on these 11.

Around that table, we were devising a better way to measure success for all kids, focused not on the inputs, but on the outcomes—and outcomes beyond just test scores. These 11 provide a strong definition of what we want in a portfolio of schools, whether they are district or charter. These things are rigorous but not crazy. They’re not about perfection, but about something attainable: schools making high or very high growth, and not without challenges or bumps along the way.

Why now? Why, 25 years into charter school authorizing, are we recalibrating our research around these 11 dimensions? Let’s say it this way: authorizing has arrived. Like other professions, authorizing has reached a threshold of experience and expertise, which means we can now backwards map. Twenty-five years may seem like a long time, but it’s really not: it takes time to have enough schools in an authorizers portfolio with enough performance information over time to make determinations of quality.

So, we finally have the opportunity to define quality authorizing from an outcomes-based lens.

We think these 11 dimensions are useful not just for our work studying authorizers with strong outcomes, but can be used in states and local communities to check if schools are achieving critical student and community outcomes. We want these 11 dimensions to challenge every charter school authorizer and every education leader that cares about the quality of their schools. We want them to ricochet around conference rooms, lunch meetings, and planning sessions—and provoke change.

Being able to finally define quality authorizing through outcomes also represents an important evolution for NACSA. We will continue to develop plenty of best practice research and tools for authorizers and advocates, and we will continue to build on our wealth of knowledge from years of experience. Going forward, our work to improve and increase great educational opportunities for kids and communities will be much stronger because of the ability to link practices to outcomes. NACSA has long believed that you can’t be a good authorizer of bad schools. Now we center our research and practices on that belief.

I authorized charter schools in the state of Indiana for more than a decade. My team worked constantly to hone our practices to ensure an ever-stronger portfolio of schools. We were hungry for data to help us do that. Authorizers today are also hungry for data to drive improvement and are already using our findings to hone their work.

Authorizing exists to ensure that charter schools are excellent schools for children and the public. As the gatekeepers of quality, measured by outcomes, authorizers now have new ways of knowing how effective they are at achieving that fundamental purpose. It’s time to accelerate our pursuit of those outcomes. Children and communities are depending on us.

M. Karega Rausch, Ph.D., is NACSA’s Vice President of Research and Evaluation. He leads and manages NACSA’s work to increase knowledge of quality authorizing practices and policies by shaping and managing a research agenda that further defines effective authorizing. 

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