Charter Operator Stunned at 2013 National Charter Schools Conference

As I am sitting here at the National Charter Schools Conference in DC, I am stunned at the lack of experience on many of the “expert” panels. As a charter school leader, I am starting my 15th year working with a charter that was started in 15 years ago. Having worked in top leadership at the charter as an Assistant Superintendent and Superintendent for almost a decade, I see that the experiences and knowledge that I have found to be invaluable.

I am in shock that a vast majority of the “expert” charter operators here at the 2013 National Charter Schools Conference have so little experience and expertise. If our children are our future, then who are we entrusting to lead charters into our future?

I believe that there is a state of urgency in charter school leadership training and accountability for governance needs. According to a study of national charter schools in 2012 by Center for Reinventing Public Education, if charters continue to grow, we will need 14,000 new leaders for running them. 61%  of charters have actually slowed their plans for expansion because of the need for new leadership is so dire in these positions.

However, from observing my peer charters in a large, urban area, there is an incredible turnover in leadership positions.This turnover may be fatal for the the long term sustainability and success of charters. What are is the charter movement doing to identify new leaders? Most charters are scrambling week to week, and semester to semester basis.  They are not looking for who can help to lead next year or in 5 years.

Bringing outsiders with limited experience in education into charter schools is risky business. New-bees have to understand the vision and the clientele of charter schools. They have to begin with the concept of being able to accept a school being OUR VISION and not as MY VISION.  A charter leader needs to have a shared understanding of the community and what the board’s understanding of what the lead sees their role to be.  A leader must also be able to have frank and productive conversations with the board and the charter schools leadership with stakeholders.  One of the biggest scandals in charters today is that this is not happening.

A charter leader must also have adaptation skills. The cultivated ability not just to look at the areas of need but looking at areas of strength where you can leverage.  Charter leaders must continually look reflectively at how they are doing and what they are doing to grow professionally.  New charter leaders must know that they don’t know and join networks and seek peer coaches, and even hire personal leadership coaches.

Charter schools as islands in educational reform must independently develop their own succession plans for leadership. In one of the panel discussions here, it was reported that only 25% of charter management organizations have a succession plan.  Boards typically don’t know where to look at for the next leader for the school.  You must also have a course of action especially if the lead is not not performing or meeting the mark. In our charter network, the succession plan for our key leadership was thought out over the past 4 years and the transition plan was put into place. Today there is a very clear succession plan that has been discussed with my board and chain of command.  I am finding that this plan for continuity of expertise and leadership is the exception and not the rule here at the National Charter Schools Conference.

In sum, I am stunned and ashamed at the lack leadership expertise and planning that charter schools have in place for high quality leadership.

Anonymous, Charter Superintendent of Schools

A frank message to be sure. My mind keeps going back to something that KIPP’s Mike Feinburg said about inexperienced TFA alums thrusting themselves into education policy and reform. I asked: What about TFAers who only teach two years, go off to grad school, and then want to be educational policy advocates? He responded:

We make fun of you when you leave the room.

I wonder what Mike Feinburg thinks about the plague of leadership inexperience in charters outed by the anonymous charter network superintendent? See also all of CI’s posts on Charter Schools.

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Twitter: @ProfessorJVH


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  • Bill Gates and Arne Duncan have been campaigning against teachers having advanced degrees for several years.


    • Monty J. Thornburg, PhD

      Thanks for the info, Philaken. Wow! Wm. Gates is willing to put up 5$billion to put a camera in every k-12 classroom in America, “Kafkateach” … but, is against encouraging teachers to engage in higher education to improve themselves! I’m no longer amazed!


  • Norman Dale Norris, Ed.D.

    The charter movement has made a lot of promises it cannot fulfill. My argument is … (a) when you have worked in the exact same physical facility; (b) when you have worked with the exact level of resources; (c) when you have worked with the exact level of funding and (d) when you have educated the EXACT SAME POPULATION and done a “better job” … then and only then can you talk to me about the inherent superiority of a charter.


  • All of you should read Sarason’s articles/work on charters.


  • Monty J. Thornburg, Ph.D.

    Hello Chalk Face, PhD.
    I know that it’s hard to imagine, but, there’s a bias, against the PhD in some- shall we say- ideological circles! At least, I think so! In today’s climate where many who open charter schools, and have an agenda to “privatize” education, seem to think university schools of education are defunct. This realization was supported for me by an NPR radio journal presentation, recently. It was about a “right wing” so called think-tank out of Washington D.C. with so called “research” that claimed colleges of education (for the most part) don’t prepare teachers. In my rural, and fairly small district, there are only three “faculty” with a PhD or EdD myself being one of them. This story, again, is simply an antidote and may not speak to larger and real social issues. However, in that all three of us have been “demoted” and encouraged to retire; this may be similar to your problem. I don’t know? The “ideologies” that drive today’s charters and “privatization” movements are 180 degrees from the “ideologies” of decades past, I’m sure of that!


  • Great sentiments. However, after teaching elementary, earning a phd, and teaching in higher ed teacher prep for four years, I considered leaving the university for a leadership position. I applied to numerous leadership positions in charter schools, too many to count, and I was rejected for every single one. So, if it was me, that’s fine, but I cannot imagine if they want knowledgeable people why they would turn me down. All of them.


  • Monty J. Thornburg, Ph.D.

    A closer look:
    I have known several persons in leadership with charter schools. From my vantage point, having recently worked to help establish a charter school for poor isolated rural kids, and at the same time seen a former associate take a charter school leadership position and then leave mid-year, I’ve witness the concerns expressed on this Blog. Also, years back, I knew a leader who started a charter in Michigan that was a successful Afro-Centric charter school. After several successful years she burned out and quit and there wasn’t anyone to take up her struggle. This past summer I listened to teachers from a New Orleans charter who brought a law suit against a “visionary” but, intrusive board, and the teachers won their suit because of unfair labor practices; I just have to wonder. I know this is all an antidote but this Blog reinforces my concerns.
    It appears that with regard to “leadership” with charters, there tends with the start-up phase, to be a highly charged idealism. The idealism translates into the school’s vision and one that is intertwined with the initiating leadership of those charter schools. However, in some cases, the leaders are not persons who actually work in these charter schools! They are “visionaries” with promotional skills, but not necessarily education experience. When hiring staff their task to find committed teachers who really share their vision can prove difficult. In other cases I’ve witnessed where the leader and teachers have participated in the start-up and been able to advance their collective vision and the schools do well- for a while.
    Over time, however, leaders with intense goals and working outside mainstream public education seem to experience burn out. When that happens, from what I’ve witnessed, there’s no one to replace them when they leave! The Charter School Superintendent who raised all the questions shown in this Blog has good reason to be gravely concerned. I witnessed the same phenomena with the “Free Schools” in the 1970s. Does anyone remember Jonathan Kozol’s “ Free schools” experiment? New Orleans, in the 70s, was one of the places where that experiment took place. In the beginning I witnessed a thousand and more excited twenty year old college students and teachers, including myself, attend rallies on behalf of Free Schools. Now in New Orleans, “the” Free School has died out. It did, however, have a good run.


  • “Bringing outsiders with limited experience in education into charter schools is risky business.”

    It is MORE risky to have those outsiders with limited experience leading our nation’s Dept. of Education, state boards of education, and our largest school districts. Those people are, in a big way, why the charter school problems are what they are.


  • Thank you for posting this Prof. Heilig


  • Lourdes Perez Ramirez

    There are many issues in Mr./Mrs. Anonymous Superintendent’s statement that deserve a closer look (not to mention asking a ton of questions). But there is one I have to tackle right away. “Personal leadership ‘coaches'”? As in personal physical fitness coaches? Um, who is going to pay these “personal leadership coaches for charter school “management”? Public funding? Oh I am sure all public school teachers are going to “support” that in an instant.


    • Traditional schools pay for those often… How can they afford not to? I’ve heard it to be called ” networking ” too.


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