Thirteen years after NCLB was passed, and with 44 states now committed to using Common Core State Standards, how public school performance is measured continues to vary widely not only between states and cities, but also within cities. Across the country both traditional district and charter schools have developed their own ways of tracking how successful (or unsuccessful) their schools are at educating children. There is usually some alignment, such as using the same state test, but what else is tracked (attendance, school climate, gaps between subpopulations) and what weight these measures carry can look dramatically different—even between two public schools sitting in the same building. This can make life very confusing for the parent weighing school options for their child or for a mayor who wants to ensure that a high-quality education is within reach for all children. For the cities that have committed to refocusing the conversation away from “district vs. charter” and toward quality, an inability to define what is good across all public schools becomes a problem very much in need of a solution.
Unfortunately, as straightforward as it may sound, tracking school performance reliably and consistently across district and charter sectors is something that few cities have even attempted, let alone mastered. Complications abound. Charter schools may have mission-specific measures that are key to determining success, data systems housed in district offices may be antiquated and unable to “talk” to other systems, independent organizations may feel that sharing their data is simply too risky.
However, despite these challenges, there are a growing number of district and charter school leaders looking to move toward common performance measures. These leaders are motivated by parents’ demands for information to make better school choice decisions, by the city’s responsibility to determine which neighborhoods are most in need of new quality options, and by a desire to scale up schools that work and support or close those that don’t. It’s hard for a mayor to say that charter schools are part of a citywide school system when district and charter schools operate under different performance expectations. And charter leaders see benefit in apples-to-apples comparisons of school quality, want clarity on renewal processes and opportunities for growth, and value accountability that respects their school autonomy.
Many cities already have accountability frameworks that apply to either district or charter schools. Several districts, like those in Boston, Hartford, and New York, have mature performance frameworks for district schools that provide rich information for parental choice as well as for decisions around district school intervention and closure. Other cities—like New Orleans and Baltimore—have clear standards outlined for charter schools, making renewal decisions much more straightforward and reliable. But some cities, like Nashville, Los Angeles, and Chicago, see value on both sides and have recently adopted performance frameworks that apply across sectors. Thanks in large part to its District-Charter Collaboration Compact, Denver has a well-established common and comprehensive school performance framework. These districts see benefits in focusing sometimes contentious collaborations on school quality, providing a public statement of educational priorities for all schools, consistently informing families about all the choices available, and having clarity on how well all publicly funded schools serve students.
On the horizon are many more cities, including Cleveland and Tulsa, which have made a public commitment to achieve this brass ring goal. Over the next twelve months Memphis and Sacramento will develop and begin implementation of a site-specific common school performance framework. They will work across sector leadership, engage community partners and weigh school-level input. CRPE will support these two cities and document what we learn from watching them closely, As well, we will glean lessons from others around the country engaged in similar work to develop a “tool kit” that will outline what smart school performance framework development looks like.
Step one for Memphis and Sacramento (and for any other city reaching for the brass ring) is a common understanding of a school performance framework. Based on the experience of other cities, a common school performance framework should:
- Assess school performance using multiple measures of quality
- Conduct school performance assessments on a regular basis and consistently across all schools, both charter and district (recognizing minor variations may be necessary)
- Provide schools across a city with a clear and common definition of school quality
- Establish predictable and transparent consequences for schools that don’t meet performance expectations
The true end goal is a framework both sectors agree provides an adequate indicator that a school is meeting performance expectations. This will allow the district or charter authorizer to make smart decisions about which schools to expand, assist, or close.
CRPE will provide consulting support to Memphis and Sacramento to facilitate community engagement and help identify local concerns. We will also draft a tool to customize data and rate schools based on the metrics and weights the city has decided to include in their performance framework. This tool will help cities “pressure test” and finalize the development of the framework.
CRPE recognizes that the development and adoption of a common school performance framework is a challenging goal. Memphis and Sacramento, just like any city, face unique challenges. Memphis has seen tumultuous times in public education over the last few years. First, the Memphis City School District merged with Shelby County Schools. More recently, several small suburban districts have separated from the merged district. Under new leadership, Shelby County Schools wants to increase its quality school options and sees charter schools as a key tool to do so. The district is currently developing a Compact with its 39 charter schools, and a school performance framework is a top priority of this effort. The district hopes to apply best practices from around the nation to drive stronger school performance.
Sacramento City Unified School District has a head start on their common school performance framework. The district is currently developing a “Guide to Success” that defines school quality across three areas of interest: Career and College Readiness, Engagement, and Transformation. The district conducted an extensive community engagement campaign, gathering feedback from over 2,000 people. This information was used to define priorities, refine metrics, and determine how to use the Guide to Success. All the charter schools in Sacramento signed on to participate in the Guide to Success and associated School Choice Calculator, which allows families to select what they value in a school and see school options ranked by school quality and best fit. The charter schools are participating in the process, in large part, to collaborate with the district on the development of a fast-track renewal process for charter schools determined to be high performing. However, the district is working under an interim superintendent and understands that when a permanent leader is chosen, priorities may shift. But the hope is the Guide to Success will drive the district strategy with a focus on school quality even amid leadership turnover.
For questions or comments about Common School Performance Frameworks, contact Sarah Yatsko, firstname.lastname@example.org.