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Strong standards, political air cover, and talent: Exporting the success of Boston’s charter school sector

Here follows the third entry in Fordham’s “Charter School Policy Wonk-a-Thon,” in which Mike Petrilli challenged a number of prominent scholars, practitioners, and policy analysts to take a stab at explaining why some charter sectors outpace their local district schools while others are falling behind.

Mike Goldstein’s explanation for Boston’s charter school success is thoughtful, provocative, and (mostly) right…as always. I especially like his focus on our fair city’s natural talent advantage and the important role played by various individuals (besides Linda Brown who Mike rightly praises, I would add a few others like Linda’s BES colleague Sue Walsh, prescient charter school apostles Steven Wilson and Bill Edgerly, former state education commissioner Dave Driscoll, early charter authorizers Scott Hamilton and Ed Kirby, Boston Foundation CEO Paul Grogan, and the late, great philanthropist and free-marketeer Pete Peters.). The bottom line is that people matter, and Boston has been blessed with a lot of great ones, full stop.

Having said that, I would add two other factors that Mike doesn’t mention. For most of the first decade or so of the charter movement in Massachusetts, we benefited from bipartisan, full-throated support for charters from the key political leaders in the Commonwealth—i.e., the governor (Bill Weld, Paul Cellucci, Jane Swift, and Mitt Romney), the Senate president (Bill Bulger, Tom Birmingham), and the House Speaker (Tom Finneran). As a result, the early charter schools were afforded a degree of political air cover that allowed them to concentrate on building great schools rather than fighting for their lives on Beacon Hill. At the local level, there was certainly no love lost between the city administration and the charter sector, but the relationship was mostly one of benign neglect.

Another key factor in the Boston success story is the relatively high bar that was set for all schools as a result of our state standards and assessments (MCAS). In many (most) other places, the definition of success has been pretty lame, resulting in even high-performing operators becoming accustomed to aiming at the wrong target. Equally important, Massachusetts established an accountability system for schools and a graduation requirement for students, both based on its high standards, thereby creating strong incentives for high levels of performance and continuous improvement. The combination of rigorous academic expectations and talented school leaders (and teachers!) is far more powerful than either one by itself. Back to Mike’s point about the importance of individuals, people like former chair of the state board of education John Silber and his sometime allies on the board Roberta Schaefer and Abby Thernstrom, standards guru Sandra Stotsky, and assessment maven Jeff Nellhaus made all the difference.

One final thought. Mike suggests that environmental factors, like the statewide political environment and academic standards, are probably not key variables because they do not explain the difference in performance between Boston charter schools and those charters that are scattered throughout the rest of the state. Although I don’t have a killer data analysis to support the following claim, I suspect part of the apparent weakness of the non-Boston charters is the fact that many of their students come from suburban (or, at least, not inner-city) communities, where there are fewer low-income students (who seem to benefit most from charters) and where the local district schools perform at higher levels than Boston’s. For example, proficiency rates in Boston charters are about thirty percentage points higher than the district’s, while the gap in favor of charters in Holyoke is well over forty percentage points. Charter proficiency rates in Brockton, Chelsea, Lynn, and New Bedford are twenty points or more above local district rates, and Springfield charters are not far behind. Instead of comparing Boston to the rest of the state, a better comparison would be between Boston charters and other urban charters.

So what does all this mean for the rest of the country, west of the Charles River (or the Berkshires)? A favorable legal and regulatory environment, effective authorizing, strong state standards, and political air cover are all necessary and replicable (at least in theory). No Excuses school designs are well established and widely understood—the challenge isn’t the model, it’s the execution. Talent, however, may be harder to manufacture without the natural advantages that Boston enjoys. Boston is certainly not alone in having access to great teachers, school leaders, and entrepreneurs, but there may be only a handful of other places where a critical mass of such people are readily available. Elsewhere, there needs to be a strategy for intentionally creating an environment where educational and entrepreneurial talent is cultivated, supported, and rewarded (not with compensation but with recognition and opportunity). New Orleans may offer a good example for how this can be done—even without a hurricane and flood.

Jim Peyser is a managing director in NewSchools Venture Fund’s Boston office, where he leads NewSchools’ city-focused investments. From 1999 to 2006, Jim served as chairman of the Massachusetts Board of Education.