Who's In Charge

What an author’s visit to Memphis tells us about competing ideas for the district’s future

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Marcus Robinson, left, CEO of Memphis Education Fund and author David Osborne at an event Tuesday in Crosstown Concourse.

When education insiders gathered earlier this week to hear from the author of a new book about school governance, they were also getting a glimpse into one big idea that’s reshaping local schools.

The author was David Osborne, and his new book, “Reinventing America’s Schools,” argues that city school districts should stop directly running schools, and should instead hand that power over to non-government groups like charter schools.

It’s a model that some leaders in Memphis, including those who brought Osborne to town, are giving close attention. Among them is Marcus Robinson, the leader of the Memphis Education Fund, which hosted the event with Osborne. Robinson came to Memphis a year ago from Indianapolis, one of the cities Osborne highlights as a beacon of his favored model.

Originally called Teacher Town, last year Memphis Education Fund changed its name and adopted a new mission: to improve every aspect of local schools, not just teaching. But what efforts exactly would get the fund’s support has been unclear.

If Robinson does endorse Osborne’s vision and pushes leaders at Shelby County Schools to embrace charter schools, he and the Memphis Education Fund could find themselves on a collision course with the Shelby County Schools board.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Stephanie Love

Currently, Shelby County’s schools chief, Dorsey Hopson, has made clear that he sees the district as competing with the charter sector, not receding to allow the sector to flourish or even existing peacefully alongside it. And throughout the presentation with Osborne, at least one school board member sitting in the audience, Stephanie Love, audibly made her displeasure known.

Robinson tried to appease Love and others in attendance who expressed skepticism about Osborne’s vision, while still backing a key requirement of it. “No matter how you do school or who is governing it, none of it works to get our kids up the ladder unless there is a high level of accountability to close a bad school,” he said.

Many aspects of schooling in Memphis puts it on the right track, according to Obsorne’s assessment. The state’s turnaround initiative, the Achievement School District, offers choice for parents, third-party operators running schools, and, at least in theory, consequences for schools that don’t deliver results. (Osborne lauded the district’s test scores, at times exaggerating their performance.) The school district has also supported an initiative to give some schools more autonomy in exchange for accountability. And a robust charter sector offers more choices for families, and deepens pressure for schools either to attract families or have to close.

But the school board and Hopson, its chosen leader, have been reluctant participants in some of those initiatives. While Hopson says he supports a portfolio district in theory, his administration has at times worked to undermine such a transition.

A searing example came in recent robocalls to parents, encouraging them not to allow charter schools to have access to their contact information.

In his presentation, Osborne said resistance from superintendents and school boards is the biggest obstacle to revamping school districts in the way he believes will make a difference for students. He suggested that school boards actually work against letting public will influence districts’ direction.

“If we are on a school board and we’re elected, and we have thousands of employees and they all vote in school board elections at which turnout is often 10 or 15 percent, we better not get them too angry at us or we’re going to lose our jobs,” Osborne said. “Same with the superintendent.”

Robinson echoed that sentiment, saying that the cities Osborne extols had “a lot of courage” to make systemic changes and close low-performing schools. He also said that in those cities, “the agents of change [are] the school board, not the principal.”

Since arriving in Memphis, Robinson has worked to import ideas from Indianapolis. He brought several of his deputies from that city, and next week, the Memphis Education Fund is paying for school board members to travel there.

Whether board members will be receptive to what they learn is unclear. After Obsorne’s book talk, Love defended the board as already having made unpopular decisions, such as to close nearly two dozen schools over the past five years.

If Osborne’s plan were the golden ticket, she said, schools across Memphis would be further along. But she said schools that the board does not supervise, including those run by the Achievement School District, are not held to the same standards.

“There is no real accountability across the board for all of our educational options,” Love said. “It sounded good, but it’s unrealistic.”

civil rights commission

Detroit education leaders open to collaboration on accountability, student records

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Dan Quisenberry, second from left, testifies before the Michigan Civil Rights Commission on Monday as Wayne State University finance professor Michael Addonizio and Superintendent Nikolai Vitti look on.

When students change schools — as they do all too often in Detroit  — their data should travel with them.

That idea has found support from more than one education leader in recent days, raising the prospect of additional cooperation between Detroit’s charter schools and its main district.

Speaking in Detroit before the Michigan Civil Rights Commission on Monday, Dan Quisenberry, president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, said information sharing could help alleviate the effects of the large number of students who switch schools in Detroit.

“It would be important to look at citywide records and data systems so that a child has information about themselves when they show up at a school, what they’ve experienced,” he said.

His remarks followed on the heels of similar recommendations made last week by a different charter school official at a forum about school switching in Detroit.

And they came as district leaders have shown an increased willingness to collaborate with charter schools. Earlier this year, Superintendent Nikolai Vitti joined the Community Education Commission, a mayor-led group that has begun operating a bus line in northwest Detroit that carries students to charter and traditional schools.

Vitti has been vocal in his approval for the group’s latest project, a citywide, A-F school grading system that emphasizes student growth over academic proficiency, a system he dubbed “fair and consistent.”

“It’s hard to think about collaboration when you’re in a competitive environment, but we have collaborated on an accountability system,” Vitti said on Monday.

When he took control of Michigan’s largest district last year, Vitti promised to go toe-to-toe with charter schools to recruit students and teachers.

It remains to be seen whether either side would agree to a proposal that, at its most ambitious, could be the most significant district-charter collaboration since an effort to create a common enrollment system succumbed last year to practical hurdles and poisonous politics.

After a failed effort to put the common enrollment system under mayoral control, Quisenberry said there was a “question of trust” between the district and charter schools on the issue.

But he said on Monday that there’s no reason the two can’t work together.

“Everybody thinks, many times falsely, because we were against… putting the mayor in charge, that we’re not interested in cooperating,” he said. “We just don’t think that was necessary.”

After the common enrollment initiative collapsed, some of its supporters regrouped and published a report arguing that a joint data system could help improve teacher hiring and reduce absenteeism.

Now that idea appears to be picking up steam.

Last week, during the forum on students frequently changing schools, education leaders pointed out that when students move — as roughly one in three Detroit elementary schoolers do every year — academic data helps teachers orient them to a new classroom, while enrollment information helps their former school know where they’ve gone and that they’re safe.

Maria Montoya, who is with the charter school office at Grand Valley State University, advocated for a common data system, saying “a child should not disappear with nobody accountable for them, whether it is a traditional school or a charter.”

Charter Churn

New York City charters burn through principals faster than district schools, report finds

PHOTO: Getty Images / Spencer Platt
A charter school rally in New York City

As the principal at Renaissance Charter School, Stacey Gauthier’s job extends well beyond supervising teachers. She manages fundraising, lobbies elected officials to support charter schools, and even responds to issues raised by the teachers union.

“We are basically our own district,” she said, noting that the work of running an independent charter school can be a challenge without the infrastructure that comes with a school system or even a large charter network.

Despite that heavy workload, Gauthier has stayed in her role for 11 years, making her an outlier among charter principals. According to a first-of-its-kind report released earlier this month by the Manhattan Institute, a conservative-leaning think tank, the city’s charter schools generally churn through principals at a much higher rate than traditional district schools.

Last school year, 25 percent of the city’s charter school principals were new, more than double the turnover rate at district schools. That level of turnover represents something of a paradox: Studies show principal turnover can hurt student achievement, but research has also shown the city’s charter schools generally have higher state test scores than district schools do.

“If the research is right” about the consequences of principal turnover, said Marcus Winters, a Manhattan Institute fellow and the report’s author, “by addressing it, [charter schools] could improve even more.”

But it’s not clear why turnover is so much higher at charter schools, which also often churn through teachers at a higher rate.

One reason could be differences in student demographics. Since charter schools enroll a greater share of low-income students and students of color than district schools on average, that could make for a more challenging environment that contributes to churn. But controlling for differences in student demographics — including proportions of English learners, students with disabilities, those coming from poor families, and race — the report found no meaningful effect on turnover.

Another possible reason: Charter principals are easier to fire than district principals who typically have more union protections. A charter principal who runs a school that is seen as low performing is easier to replace, the theory goes, explaining higher levels of turnover. But the data don’t back up that theory. Even after taking into account differences in school performance as measured by school quality reports, higher turnover “was not driven by overall school performance,” Winters found.

It’s also possible charter schools are just more difficult work environments in ways that are difficult to measure, including some schools’ adoption of a “no excuses” ethos that tells educators that a student’s life circumstances should never excuse performance issues at school. (The report does not include breakdowns of individual charter schools or networks.)

James Merriman, CEO of the New York City Charter School Center, said there could be some truth to the idea that charter schools are tougher work environments, but added that some of the turnover could be related to fierce competition for leadership talent.

“There’s such a huge supply-demand imbalance for high-quality principals,” he said.

The report includes another puzzling trend — turnover in district and charter schools fluctuates significantly over time. Over the past 10 years, turnover at district schools ranged from 8.7 to 14 percent each year. At charters, turnover ranged from 7 to nearly 34 percent. Those swings meant that in two of the last 10 years, district turnover was slightly higher than it was at charters.

Winters, the report’s author, didn’t come to a firm conclusion about why the turnover rates seemed to shift significantly from year to year.

“I left this paper with more questions than answers,” he said.