BRIGHT IDEAS: Andrew Sparks on Charter School Boards & Non-Profit Governance

Andrew Sparks is a recently minted PhD in education whose dissertation on the governance of Philadelphia Charter School boards I happened to come across.  He’s developed a precis of that thesis, Finding Their Own Way: The Work of Philadelphia Charter School Boards in a Complex Accountability Environment.   The short report (which you should read) is a particularly nice example of qualitative research into non-profit board behavior – a subject lamentably understudied by legal academics.   In part spurred by the NYT’s recent articles on Charter performance and governance,  I asked Andrew whether he’d be willing to talk with us about what he found.

1.  Why did you write about charter school governance?

When I decided to study charter school governance about 5 years ago my advisors at Penn were not thrilled.  It wasn’t, and still isn’t, the “sexiest” topic to research and isn’t where the research money has been headed.  Within the charter school research arena, the vast majority of time and energy has been devoted to trying to figure out whether charter schools “work” – whether they are better than their non-charter competitors.  For me, showing that school A scored a 745 (on a given test) and school B scored a 731 isn’t usually very interesting, especially when it’s only measuring math and/or reading.   Even if we could say school A is better than school B, do we know exactly makes school A so good and do we know how to replicate that with what will likely be a different group of students, teachers, administrators and parents?

At about this time I also had a few friends who were asked to join charter school boards.  While these friends were talented people, they had no education background, so I began to wonder, more broadly, “who’s on these boards and what are they doing?”  Having worked in the non-profit field, I was aware of the impact that a board can have on an organization – for better or worse.  Having worked with and researched charter schools enough to understand their general governance framework, it seemed that governance might be a critical piece in their potential success and expansion.

2.  What are the major findings of your study?

Broadly speaking, I found that charter school boards in Philadelphia were composed of well-intentioned people but that there was little to guide their work. Most boards adopted a generic non-profit approach to governance and every board struggled to delineate the role of the board as a whole and the roles of individuals. Ironically, I also found that a lot of board members were confident about what they were supposed to be doing, but that these opinions often differed. There was a lot of, “this is what you’re supposed to do,” based upon prior experiences with other boards or based upon some more ethereal understanding of board role that exists within our culture. I also found that the origins of a school continue to play a huge role in schools’ governance and management, even if the school has been open for 10 years. If a school started as a grassroots, parent-generated enterprise, it is likely to still act that way now, even if the organization might be better served by a different style or form of governance. If the school was started by a veteran education administrator, that person may still be running the school from a CEO or Board Chair position, and oftentimes is driving both the governance and management functions. Finally, as is the case in many research projects, I found that there really wasn’t sufficient research on the topic of charter school governance and that we need to keep learning as much as we can about them and apply those lessons to improve them.

3.  What is unique – if anything – about the behavior of the charter school board members you talked with?

For the most part, I don’t think there is anything unique about charter school board members, as compared to board members from other nonprofits or other organizations serving the public interest. These are people who are driven to help provide students with a quality school, or at a minimum people who have been asked to help and have agreed to do so. One thing I was surprised to find was that there was very little education expertise on most charter school boards. That concerns me a little and I highlight that in the report. I certainly don’t think that charter school boards need to be stocked with a majority of educators, but I do think it is surprising to see some charter school boards with no experienced educators or even just one. Schools are complex organizations and the jobs of charter school CEOs and principals – whose work is supervised and evaluated by these boards – are challenging. Therefore, it seems logical to me that there would be some level of expertise in these areas on most boards. Unfortunately, the job of a school administrator can be so time-consuming that many of the best educators who might serve on these boards do not have the time to do so.

4.  What is the relationship of the law and its regulatory apparatus – both explicit and social norms – to the board members you studied?

While I was conducting my research there were a number of high-profile scandals involving Philadelphia charter schools – which included both direct board involvement and the type of detrimental board “un-involvement” that we have recently seen in both the for-profit and non-profit sectors. Being a charter school board member is a fairly weighty responsibility, in my opinion. Charter school board members serve a public role, and their schools handle millions of dollars of public money while they are also required to conform to a wide array of legal and regulatory norms. Oftentimes it is the CEO of the school who is most familiar with these laws and regulations, and in some cases is working hard to inform his or her bosses (the board members) about these various rules. Yet, the board is, as I understand the law, ultimately responsible for ensuring that the school is doing the right things and performing its public duties. [Please note that I am not a lawyer and, therefore, my opinions should not be considered, in any way, informed legal advice.] This understandably drives boards to their lawyers for training. While such training is obviously necessary so that board members understand their legal responsibilities, I think there is an additional need for training around effective and appropriate governance. There is obviously overlap between these two concepts, but I think the differences are critical. Board training from lawyers is often focused on what not to do, what to avoid, and how to structure and document meetings (e.g. forming committees, taking minutes, avoiding conflicts of interest, etc.) But I think a lot of boards also need help around what topics they should be addressing, what voices need to be heard before decisions are made, and how they might work more effectively with each other and with management to ensure that these decisions are implemented in a manner that leads to a better educational experience for students.

5.  What did you think of the recent NYT stories about charter schools?

There have been a lot of different articles about charters schools in the New York Times and elsewhere, which tells me that the concept has reached a new level of public interest. The recent articles in the New York Times were focused on the growing philanthropic and venture capital interest in expanding charter school models, as well as the mixed bag of research about the efficacy of charter schools across the country. Right now a lot of private and public money is going into the expansion of models like KIPP Schools and Aspire Public Schools. While I am not totally convinced by the internal research conducted by these groups on the efficacy of these organizations, I do think they are probably doing a better job of educating their students than the traditional public school down the street. But these schools receive flexible funds from a variety of sources, recruit Ivy League graduates directly or through programs like Teach for America, often ask their teachers and staff to work 60-70 hours per week, and insist that students and their parents agree to “contracts” that require a certain level of commitment to the school. This attracts motivated parents and students to these schools and ultimately leads to better performance, a good thing. I have serious doubts, however, around the scalability and sustainability of these programs. How many highly-educated 23 and 24 year old teachers are there out there, willing to work like crazy for 2-3 years for relatively little pay? What happens when the “cool” factor of programs like Teach for America wane or when an improved economy offers new choices to college graduates?

As for student achievement at charter schools, I have seen a lot of really successful ones and a lot of schools struggling to educate students. The ones that are good are often very good and the ones that are bad are often really bad. Therefore, research showing that charter schools “do better” does not surprise me, nor does research showing that they aren’t doing better. A lot depends on who is doing the study, as there are so many ways to allow bias into the research process. It is slightly ironic to me, however, that organizations claiming to want to give money to programs that are shown through objective research to “work” tend to gravitate to research that shows certain things are working and not to research that shows that these same things aren’t working.

6.  What policy/legal changes do you recommend?

At the end of my report I primarily advocate for more clarity in the Philadelphia charter reauthorization process, something that the School District of Philadelphia is currently attempting to do. Since the advent of charter schools in Philadelphia more than 10 years ago, authorization and reauthorization have been amorphous processes, with new applications, requirements and forms being issued every year. An understaffed office with revolving leadership within the District has contributed to this environment. The charter schools, for their part, have been too focused on day-to-day concerns and advocating for their own survival to effectively coordinate a message, develop effective training programs or establish internal codes of conduct (something they are currently attempting to do). While some members of the charter school community are currently feeling attacked by increased scrutiny by the School District, I believe that responsible, fair, and well-organized oversight is overdue and is a key ingredient to the successful expansion of charter schools in Philadelphia and beyond.

There are also efforts underway to change the PA charter law, to eliminate loopholes that allow for corruption or conflicts of interest and, I have heard, to encourage greater parent participation on boards. These all sound like good ideas, but it’s hard to know until the law is drafted whether such changes will be beneficial.

7.  What are you working on now?

Right now I am growing my own education consulting firm – focusing primarily on issues of education governance and strategic management – while also collaborating with a fellow Penn grad, Dr. Alex Schuh, who started working with charter schools and school districts almost ten years ago through his company Frontier 21 Education Solutions (www.frontier21.net). I am trying to toe the line between research and practice by working directly with schools and districts while also pushing the thinking and research around governance. On the research front, I am trying to develop a research proposal to study how CMOs (Charter Management Organizations) – organizations that manage multiple schools, often across state lines – are managing the governance functions of schools as they expand their scope. I see this, in many ways, as the next frontier in my research.

It is exciting, right now, to be doing work independently with so much going on in the public education sector, from the Obama administration’s Race to the Top and Investment in Innovation (i3) programs to the grassroots proliferation of charter schools. I invite any readers who are interested in discussing any of these issues further or who know of any organization needing assistance to contact me directly at AndrewSparks73[-at-]gmail.com.

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3 Responses

  1. Neal Millard says:

    I am an attorney and on the board of Alliance for College-Ready Public Schools. The board consists of a judge, a former SEC chair, a former mayor of Los Angeles and state secretary of education, a former ambassador and several well known business leaders. If Mr. Sparks would like to see how a CMO dedicated to students and students only works, please go to our website. All our students are inner city. Today, at our board meeting, one of our students spoke. She, along with 100% of her graduating class, got accepted to college, in her case Yale. I would be happy to make the introductions for Mr. Sparks and take him to visit some of our 16 schools, all of which are highly performing.

  2. Andrew Sparks says:

    I appreciate your comments. Right now there is no shortage of examples of organizations and individual charter schools doing excellent work, and it sounds like Alliance for College-Ready Public Schools is doing a great job of motivating students and successfully directing resources towards improved achievement. As someone interested in policy issues – particularly for low-income, urban populations – the next step in my mind is to take these successes and broaden their scope and impact. I think this can be done, but attention must be paid to issues of sustainability (around financial and human resources as well as governance.)

    I also have some concerns, as organizations grow, that they will begin to “lose touch” with the needs of individual schools, school leaders, and communities (much, as some would argue, as occurs in large urban school districts.) Carefully toe-ing the line between replicating success and recreating the bureaucracy of many large school districts is important.

  3. myles glasgow says:

    Is Dr. Andrew Sparks taking any action to preserve the Hope Charter School in Philadelphia from proposed closure, and if so, is there a way to preserve an idea and effort such as the Hope Charter School without sinking with its corporeal existence of the board of directors, administrators and funding sources who are ready to let the Hope Charter School effort die on their watch?

    The idea and its history from birth in physical reality, initial funding, developers, teachers over the years has probably suffered greatly to now end up as a proposed closure, through incompetence of various efforts. How does one preserve and build on the idea with a history that was proud in its living youth, when its own supporters are too weak and disheartened or without support to protect it now from dismantling attacks by critics, opposing funding options, politicians, etc. especially when the stakeholders of the students are not organized, vocal, articulate, etc.?

    thank you, mylesgeorgeglasgow@yahoo.com