Restarted schools: A necessary victory for kids

This is part of a blog series about one way we can help our nation’s lowest performing schools. In this series, we will introduce the concept of restart and will highlight: Who’s doing it, how it works and, ultimately, does it work.  You can find the entire series here.

While every child deserves the chance to attend a quality school, far too many kids remain in failing schools.  This begs the question:  Who will take on the challenge of restarting these schools?  Will a set of high performing education and charter management organizations prove what is possible?  We hope so.  Because we need these entrepreneurial leaders to help break down long-standing barriers and push for necessary change in schools across the country.

Demand for restart operators is on the rise

By any measure, there remain a troubling number of schools that struggle to provide their students with a good education.  In response, states are increasingly developing dramatic intervention mechanisms, such as Recovery or Achievement School Districts (ASD), that allow states to take control of the lowest performing schools and turn over management of those schools to C/EMOs.  So far, we’ve seen:

  • ASDs exist in Louisiana, Tennessee, and Michigan, have been recently enacted in Georgia and Nevada, and are being debated in Pennsylvania.
  • Other states, such as New Jersey and Massachusetts, have taken over control of struggling districts so as turnaround schools
  • And still more states, like Indiana, have passed laws that allow external operators to apply for and take over management of struggling district schools.
  • Finally, we see more and more charter school authorizers in cities with large charter market shares (like Washington, DC, Indianapolis, Philadelphia, New Orleans) are starting to encourage high performing charter school operators to take over and restart low performing charter campuses. A little known fact is that since 2009 the majority of “new” schools in New Orleans have not been new start charters, but rather charter management organizations (CMO) taking over management and restarting struggling charter schools.

Supply of restart operators is small but steadily growing

In 2006, there were fewer than ten non-profit school operators – including Chicago’s AUSL and Philadelphia’s Mastery Public Schools – taking over struggling schools and attempting to restart them for better results.  By 2014, we counted more than 50 operators who have experimented in this work, including new entrants in the field such as the UP Education Network and LEAD Public Schools.  The vast majority of these restart operators are small C/EMOs managing fewer than 5 schools.  But we have also seen a growing number of mature new start operators, such as Aspire Public Schools in Tennessee, dabbling in this arena.  Put simply, there is a growing interest in the sector in taking on the challenge of school restart.

Although the emerging restart sector lacks longitudinal data, our early analysis suggests that the best restart operators, with the requisite control over people, time, money and the academic program in schools, can achieve dramatic results.

Restart operators improve student learning levels

Although the emerging restart sector lacks longitudinal data, our early analysis suggests that the best restart operators, with the requisite control over people, time, money and the academic program in schools, can achieve dramatic results.  A sample of schools managed from several of the more mature restart operators shows that over five years, the average restart schools increased the percentage of students doing math and reading proficiently by 188% and 105%, respectively.  A deeper look shows that those restart schools with charter or charter-like freedoms, particularly at the elementary and middle schools level, achieved even more dramatic improvements.

msdf-qso-fig9_v2 edit

Note: Includes schools from Unlocking Potential, Mastery, AUSL, and Green Dot
Source: Operator Data, State DOE websites

Finally, rigorous evidence from recent NBER research finds that leading restart operators have significant effect sizes on student learnings – adding hundreds more days of learning to students in their schools relative to similar students in other schools.

While the restart field is still nascent, it shows great promise – there are a number of C/EMOs who demonstrate “the possible.”

The time is now

The need and demand for restart operators has grown and will continue to grow in the coming years.  Restart is here and is not going away.  If government is not thoughtful and philanthropy is not strategic, then we may see a proliferation of low performing restart operators – requiring a sector clean up later down the line.  In order to avoid that fate, we see critical gaps in the restart market that must be addressed.  These include:

  • Effective quality control and sophisticated authorizing and regulatory practices specific to the needs of restart operators;
  • Aggregated philanthropic capital to seed new restart operators and spur the growth of the highest quality operators;
  • Technical assistance for mature C/EMOs to who want to take on the challenge of restart;
  • Communities of practice amongst restart operators;
  • Identification of common barriers to growth or success (such as leadership teams specifically trained to restart schools).

 The kids in these schools can’t wait.  So let’s get moving.