The secrets of high-performing charter schools

High-performing charter management organizations spend more per student at the school level, using some of that money to fund a more teachers per student, writes James Peyser of New Schools Venture Fund in Education Next. The high flyers also invest more in recruiting and developing talented teachers and “building instructional support systems that are grounded in the use of performance data.”

. . . the most successful organizations strive to create enthusiasm for learning and an expectation of college success for all, with a commitment to hard work and persistence in the face of initial failures or setbacks. They have adopted standards-based curricula, with an intensive focus on literacy and numeracy as the first foundation for academic achievement, which typically manifests itself in extra time for reading and math each day and a relatively heavy reliance on direct instruction and differentiated grouping, especially in the early grades. And they are increasingly focused on developing and deploying comprehensive student assessment and coaching systems to ensure more effective and consistent classroom practice, not just from year to year but during the course of each school year.

The five highest-performing CMOs in NewSchools’ portfolio operate 85 schools with more than 28,000 students. Their low-income students have proficiency rates that are more than 25 percentage points higher than those in their local districts.

On average, NewSchools’ CMOs score 9 points higher on reading and math proficiency than district schools, 12 points higher when low-income students are compared and 14 points higher comparing schools open five years or more.

Critics often suggest that superior performance in the charter sector is a result of high levels of attrition, caused by implicit or explicit efforts on the part of school staff to “counsel out” the students who are hardest to educate. Excluding students who move away, our data show average attrition rates of about 12 percent, compared to many schools in high-poverty urban neighborhoods that have annual attrition rates of close to one-third. Interestingly, the highest performers in our portfolio have below-average attrition rates of approximately 9 percent, while the lowest performers have above-average attrition rates of close to 20 percent.

NewSchools CMO students are more likely to graduate from high school than other low-income, minority students and much more likely to enroll in college, Peyser writes.

About Joanne


  1. CarolineSF says:

    It would take a massive study to learn, school by school what selectivity is going on in the enrollment process and what the attrition rate is.

    We know those are big issues at the high-performing charters that are in the spotlight.

    New Schools Venture Fund is committing an egregious sin of omission in not making that the first point of discussion.

  2. How cunningly efficient of you then to obviate the need for said massive study by announcing its inevitable findings.

    To return the favor I’ll provide you with an interesting bit of information of which, I’m certain, you are unaware.

    California’s K-12 budget for 2011-12 is $63.8 billion –

    And what’s an tidbit of information without context? Not much so here you are:

    California’s total state budget for 2011-12 is, with marvelous convenience, $100 billion –

    I think a massive study’s necessary to determine what percentage of California’s annual budget goes to K-12. Would you like to know the outcome of that study?

  3. Dennis Fermoyle says:

    In “Sweating the Small Stuff,” six excellent schools are described, and one thing they all had in common is that kids knew they could be removed if they didn’t work and didn’t behave. I assume the same is true for the high performing schools described here. And what are the results? Good performance and low attrition rates. Students in public schools know that they can make little effort and behave miserably, and it’s going to be very difficult for their schools to remove them. And what are the results in many places? Miserable performance and high attrition rates. Maybe there’s a lesson there for the politicians who make policy for public schools.

  4. CarolineSF says:

    What high-performing charter schools are you referring to, Dennis F., that have low attrition rates?

    I did note that the ICEF school in LA didn’t show the usual chartery pattern of a class shrinking dramatically as it moved through the years. But then it collapsed amid financial irregularities. Miracles are just harder and harder to sustain these days.

  5. CarolineSF says:

    Sorry, not ICEF school but schools; it was a small chain, widely hailed until it collapsed.

  6. Roger Sweeny says:

    For those who don’t know, Dennis Fermoyle is a long-time public school teacher. He wrote a book, “In Defense of Public Education,” and for several years maintained a great blog, “From the Trenches of Public Education.” One of Dennis’ themes was that public schools are better than a lot of people give them credit for. Another was that we have to be realistic when we think about what to do in schools; meaning well doesn’t guarantee good results.

  7. nailsagainsttheboard says:

    A charter or private school’s ability to self-select its student body is the decisive factor in higher achievement, test scores, etc Parents in most cases have to sign compacts agreeing to behavioral and academic standards, which can be enforced–especially if there is a waiting list. In public schools, whatever goes out to parents in September sounds tough, but usually has no enforcement teeth. Short of bringing weapons and abject violence, merely disrespectful or disruptive students and their parents (who have abdicated their responsibility as parents) have to be abided and tolerated until the end of the school year.

    I teach fifth grade in a large suburban Title I public school. Each year I receive at least one or two students later in the year (usually just after winter break) who were —-surprise!–“dismissed” by a charter or private school, usually for significant behavioral and academic problems. They now become our problem until June, because they cannot be as easily “dismissed” at our school. Two boys who came to my room in February and April, respectively, from the same charter school, were dismissed for multiple fights. Needless to say, they were an almost daily disruption, both in class and on the playgroundds, as well as vandalizing a bathroom and the computer lab. There has to be alternative “schools” or “boot camps” for incorrigible students who waste others’ valuable instructional time. Public schools should not be the dumping grounds of last resort. Removing this category of student would be an excellent start in edifying public schools.

  8. Mark Roulo says:


    Can you provide page numbers for those $ values.

    Looking at only the “total state budget for 2011-12” link on page 14 (last page), I find K-12 spending at $37.675B, higher education spending at $10.537B and a total budget of $127.371B

  9. For the first link, top of the second page. Page 136.
    For the second link, second page, “Total expenditures”.

    Hey nails, just out of curiosity, what’s your explanation for why “this category” of students isn’t removed as a matter of course?

  10. I sort of have to chuckle at those who write about legal issues, e.g., “A charter school dismissed the student and we had to take them, and now the student is our problem.” I can’t speak for all states (obviously), but typically if a student is expelled (full legal meaning and process followed) from a school, then no other school can be compelled to admit the student. If your administration is accepting such students, then they are simply chasing dollars at your expense and at the expense of the other students. Speak up. Tell the admin they are wrong. Rally the parents. Where is the union? Before you comment on this post, try actually reading your state law. DO NOT say that so-and-so said blah, blah, blah. Actually read and then offer a quotation FROM YOUR STATE’S STATUTES if you disagree. I don’t care about school policy, accepted practices, or tears for the misbehaving student. My point is simple–No school (public, public charter, or private) is compelled by law to accept a student who has been “expelled” (or whatever term your state uses).

  11. Roger Sweeny says:


    Because there is no other place for “this category” of students to go to.

    The obvious question is, “why not?” I think the answer is partly practical and partly ideological.

    The ideological reason is that to most administrators and policy makers, “inclusion” is a morally good thing. Breaking up an age cohort into different pieces who go to different places and do different things is seen as morally bad.

    Practically, “this category” would have to have a rather special educational environment. You’d need teachers who can work constructively with these kids, and the student-teacher ratio would probably have to be fairly small. You might even consider the heretical thought that they should be doing things that are a lot less “academic” and a lot more practical and kinetic.

  12. CarolineSF says:

    Darryl, the school district itself is still required to deal with that student somehow. The district does NOT wash its hands of the expelled student forever — it can’t. That’s just a fact.

  13. Roger Sweeny says:

    What Caroline said. As far as I know, all states have compulsory attendance laws: everyone under 16 or so must go to school. Many have laws or constitutional provisions that say something like “every child is entitled to a free and equal education.”

    Alas, this usually means some “one size fits all” that really doesn’t.

    Darryl, as far as I know, most students who are bounced from charter schools are not officially “expelled,” a fairly complicated legal process. They are less formally counseled out.

  14. Roger, Caroline’s answer is more accurate although, as usual, she can’t help but try to spin it to portray the school district as an institution of such nobility that the legal compulsion to accept all students is redundant almost to the point of insult.

    The truth, as Caroline well knows, is quite different.

    The word “truancy” is now widely regarded as a quaint anachronism on par with spittoons and bustles. For sufficiently troublesome kids it’s not an issue at all since by the simple expedient of not enforcing the compulsory attendance laws the problem evaporates.

    For kids somewhat less troublesome, but still sufficiently disruptive to upset every classroom they’re in, the solution is, let the teachers deal with it.

    From the point of view of the administration and the board it’s the proper solution. Segregating disruptive kids would be costly and a pain to deal with administratively. By simply making the board’s and the administration’s problem into the teacher’s problem those difficulties evaporate. If that makes the teacher’s life a living hell, well, who cares? After all if any particular teacher can’t stand the situation and quits there are bags of replacements breathing heavily in the wings. Of even less concern is the impact of those disruptive kids on the kids who, perhaps, want to learn. The teachers have a union, what have the kids got?

    So the answer to my question of why “this category” of students isn’t removed as a matter of course is that there’s no particularly urgent reason to do so and some very good, if not particularly admirable, reasons to not do so.

  15. Roger Sweeny says:

    For kids somewhat less troublesome, but still sufficiently disruptive to upset every classroom they’re in, the solution is, let the teachers deal with it. Segregating disruptive kids would be costly and a pain to deal with administratively. By simply making the board’s and the administration’s problem into the teacher’s problem those difficulties evaporate. If that makes the teacher’s life a living hell, well, who cares?

    My union should. But it doesn’t.

  16. CarolineSF says:

    Allen, I actually didn’t try to spin it at all. I just stated the facts to correct the false information being put out by the ed reformers.

    The situation does indeed suck, and I’m as big an advocate as anyone for an effective way to remove disruptive kids and Intentional Non-Learners from classrooms (into a therapeutic setting of some kind).

    Creating a category of schools that don’t enroll those kids and proclaiming them superior based on a load of hype and falsehoods is not the solution, though.

  17. Stuart Buck says:

    :” I’m as big an advocate as anyone for an effective way to remove disruptive kids and Intentional Non-Learners from classrooms (into a therapeutic setting of some kind).”

    If you genuinely care about the education of children, and not just about point-scoring against your ideological enemies, and if you do truly agree that removing a few disruptive kids would do great things for the other kids, why not spend, say, 1/10 as much time and energy arguing for public schools to have this power as the time that you spend running down KIPP on every education website?

  18. Caroline SF–You just spouted the party line. I specifically asked you to quote laws not your opinion. Too busy (aka lazy) to read your state statutes or is the law too hard to comprehend? CITE the LAW. In my state, the law specifically says,

    “Expulsion” means the permanent withdrawal of the privilege of attending a school”
    Do I need to explain the word “permanent” to you? How about “privilege”?

    “A school district may annually or upon the request of any pupil or the parent or guardian review the reasons for expulsion and consider readmission.”
    Do I need to explain the word “may” to you. It is a money grab if the district allows the student back in–NOT A REQUIREMENT OF THE LAW!

    The typical next series of arguments are some combination of,
    1. “But what the development of the expelled child” (aka bleeding heart). What about the development of the students who would have to deal with the menace?
    2. “Not all states do this so there” (aka intellectual cop out). I’m not going to look up all 50 states and quote them for you–How about you doing the work to verify your strongly held beliefs. Cite some state statutes that require a school to accept an expelled student.
    3. “Yes, but the real world…” (aka straw-man establishment). The only argument I made is that no school is REQUIRED to take an expelled student. I sort of claim that it is a money grab when they do. I make no claims about the intelligence of the real-world administrators who would accept an expelled student into their school.

    CITE THE LAW to support your claim–you are zero for two.

  19. CarolineSF says:

    Right, Darryl, but the DISTRICT must still deal with the student. That’s why school districts run continuation schools and such. I didn’t say a particular school had to accept an expelled student.

    A school district simply can’t wash its hands of a challenging student. A charter school can. You’re getting awfully enraged about this, but your issue isn’t with me — I’m the messenger.

  20. Roger Sweeny says:

    Let’s be honest here. Charters often get rid of students who make it difficult for other students to learn. This helps the remaining students and their test scores.

    Traditional public schools can’t legally get rid of these students without going through a relatively expensive and time-consuming process that ends with an official expulsion.

    However, traditional public schools do not have to put these people in the same room as all other students. They choose to do so and screw the other students. I think this is shameful.

    Charters then come along and essentially say, “We won’t screw your kid like his/her present school does.” Traditional schools have put themselves in this position. The way out for traditional schools is fairly clear. Don’t mix everyone together. If they persist in doing so because of ideology or “because we’ve always done it that way” or because it’s easier, they deserve to lose their most promising students.

  21. A school district most assuredly can “wash its hands of a challenging student”.

    Other then parents or guardians who’s going to make the school district pursue truants? The school district that isn’t particularly motivated to deal with the kid’s “challenges” to begin with? Yeah, right.

    Good luck with your campaign to try to defend the school district as the one, true educational religion. That ship has sailed although it’s only just now starting to become evident that the concept of the school district is coming under the sort of scrutiny it’s so long deserved and is coming up wanting.

  22. Roger Sweeny says:


    Not pursuing truants is a passive strategy for dealing with students who bring the rest of the school down. If the student decides to never come in, madre de Dios!, the student is gone, and the district has solved the problem of “what do we do with this kid who screws up other students’ learning.”

    But if he decides to show up tomorrow but not today, or if he feels like taking this week off and then coming in next week, the school has to take him on the days he does decide to come in. The strategy only works on the truly hard core who never walk through the school doors. Those who sometimes show up are still there, lost and bored because they missed so much.

  23. CarolineSF says:

    OK, just to clarify.

    I believe that schools should be able to remove disruptive kids and “intentional non-learners” from classrooms. (I think I already said that.)

    A tangle of laws and expectations imposed by non-educators have made that exceptionally difficult.

    For example: Here in San Francisco, a Civil Grand Jury report blasted our school district for not more effectively chasing down truants, so that’s one example. Despite the fact that Grand Jurors are volunteers with no particular expertise, the report gets press coverage, sparks editorials and outrage, the whole bit.

    We could argue how much educators are to blame for the fact that it’s really difficult to remove those kids from their classrooms and schools.

    Still, I note that this thread now accepts it as a given that a key (perhaps the key) to successful charter schools is the fact that they don’t take those difficult, challenging, intentional non-learners. That’s something that the dishonest charter community has heatedly denied for years and years. Now they seem to be dropping the false denial and switching tacks to blaming public schools for their inability to kick out the charter schools’ rejects and dumpees.

  24. CarolineSF says:

    Oh, and the study that Joanne cites in this original post? The charter school folks are now on the extreme defensive about their attrition, so they’re making false and misleading claims about it. They neglect to point out that when they get rid of challenging students, those students are largely not replaced, while at public schools, when students leave, other students move in to fill the seat. The students who move in and out like that tend (statistically, overall, on average) to be the more academically challenged students. That’s because poverty correlates with low achievement (overall on average), and unstable lives with lots of moving around go hand-in-hand with poverty.

    I know that one defense is that all those departed students didn’t actually leave — they were all retained to repeat a grade. Of course, the other defense is that charters got rid of those troublesome and challenging students, good for them, and public schools are just stupid for not doing that too — not to mention for accepting the troublesome and challenging students dumped by the charters.

    The charter advocates are telling two conflicting stories here. Maybe you should sort it out among yourselves and get back to us.

  25. Roger Sweeny says:

    Caroline, that was a big switch in the last paragraph from “this thread” to “the dishonest charter community.” I hope that you are not implying that I belong to the latter. I teach in a traditional public school, sent both my kids to 13 years of public school, and have no connection to any charter or charter advocacy group.

    From what I understand, many charters expect students to perform and provide extra time and extra work for students who don’t. Not surprisingly, students who don’t want to put in that much effort decide the charter really isn’t for them. So even if, like many (most?) charters, they can’t refuse to take kids who they think won’t do well, they will eventually lose their worst students.

    This is not a deliberate, “we don’t take your kind.” It is, “this is what we offer. If you work with us, we’ll work with you and you’ll do better than you would elsewhere. But if you don’t work with us, you really shouldn’t be here.”

    I wish traditional public schools would do the same thing, and then provide less academic alternatives for the kids who are less academically inclined.

  26. Roger Sweeny says:

    Public schools are not “stupid” because they take “troublesome and challenging students.” They are, however, cruel to put those students in the same room as everyone else. Cruel because that sets up the rest of the class to fail. School, then, does not lift people out of poverty. It keeps them in. I think it is awful. If we were honest with ourselves and really gave a **** about these kids, we wouldn’t do it.

  27. Stuart Buck says:

    Still, I note that this thread now accepts it as a given that a key (perhaps the key) to successful charter schools is the fact that they don’t take those difficult, challenging, intentional non-learners.

    No one accepts that. Maybe it’s the “key” for some charter schools, but it’s certainly not for KIPP, which shows huge advantages for students who win the lottery to get in compared to students who don’t win the lottery. Neither set of students contains any greater or lesser number of the “difficult, challenging” students to which you refer. All of the students are the ones that you’d describe as “highly motivated” to get into KIPP. But the ones who actually do get into KIPP do HUGELY better than the ones who have to stay in the regular public schools.

    There’s no way that this HUGELY greater success is entirely due to KIPP kicking out the bad students. Wishful thinking on your part, but there’s zero evidence of it.

    The only hypocrisy here is yours. If you think, as you’ve said on a hundred websites, that kicking out a few troublemakers is THE magical key that allows deprived urban students to succeed (even the same kids that would otherwise drop out and fail), then you should be spending much more time and energy arguing for the public schools ALL to exercise that power, rather than constantly whining about KIPP.

    It speaks volumes of your priorities that instead of being happy that someone — someone at all — has a somewhat better chance of success in life, all you can do is try to tear them down.

  28. Then why do KIPP schools have such a high percentage of “lost” students between the 5th and 8th grade years?

  29. High-performing charter management organizations spend more per student at the school level, using some of that money to fund a more teachers per student

    So wait… they’re just “throwing more money at the problem”?

    So it turns out that more per-student spending and smaller class sizes helps mitigate the effects of income inequality on public education. What a revelation… if only someone had been saying that years ago.

  30. Stuart Buck says:

    KIPP’s rate of attrition isn’t any different from comparable public schools (though it varies widely from one KIPP school to another). And the huge results for KIPP were shown in a study that counted students who had left KIPP as still part of the “KIPP group.” So even if you think the worst students all leave KIPP for some reason, KIPP still shows huge improvements even when all of those worst students are still counted against KIPP.

  31. Stuart Buck says:

    Sorry, I misspoke — the Mathematica study of KIPP isn’t a randomized study, but instead involves matched comparison groups (matched on prior test scores, including controls for other background variables).

    But the overall point remains: between the KIPP students and non-KIPP students, there shouldn’t be any of the discrepancies that Caroline endlessly complains about. They’re two groups of students that were carefully matched. Yet the KIPP group did better, even counting the kids that left KIPP.

  32. Yes, Stuart, the other posters on this thread — and many other advocates for charters and the currently faddish education reform — are absolutely acknowledging that the absence of difficult, challenging intentional non-learners is a key to successful charter schools (for that small number — and it is very small — that are notably successful).

    I actually haven’t said that KIPP KICKS OUT the “bad students.” I’ve refrained from giving an opinion on why so many students head for the exits of KIPP schools and are not replaced.

    As I’ve said repeatedly, I do think that public schools should be able to remove disruptive students from classes. I’m not sure what the process should be, though.
    Those kids can’t be just dumped in the street to fend for themselves, and that’s the way it would be in an all-charter system.

  33. Stuart Buck says:

    I don’t think anyone has said it’s the “key.”

    Look at KIPP, your bete noire. Look at all the things that are different between KIPP and a regular public school in an inner-city: better teachers, longer hours, much richer curriculum that includes the arts and field trips and all the things that the Ravitch-followers supposedly like, a stricter environment that doesn’t tolerate as much misbehavior and distractions, a different school culture in its enthusiasm about learning, and some extra private funding to help accomplish all of the above.

    Do you really think none of that makes any difference? It’s all just attrition? That would be kind of depressing, really — you must think that inner-city or Delta kids are just so hopeless that nothing anybody does can make a difference.