Chartering A Course: Reflections on the Charter School Movement

Micki O’Neil recently left New Schools for Chicago (formerly the Renaissance Schools Fund) to focus fulltime on charter school planning. At New Schools for Chicago, Micki led charter authorization and evaluation efforts and offered strategic support to several Chicago charter schools. Before joining New Schools, Micki worked in investment banking and management consulting. She is an alumnus of the New York City Teaching Fellows and former managing director Alumni Programs on the Teach for America alumni leadership team. She has a joint MBA-MPP from the University of Chicago, where she earned top scholarships from both schools.

The Chicago Policy Review’s Zachary Trout spoke with Ms. O’Neil to discuss the charter movement, particularly as it relates to public education in Chicago.

What do you see as an area of growth for the broader charter movement?

In general, I think our industry is approaching its next phase of development. In the first generation of charter schools, we learned a lot about what differentiates good schools. We also learned that being released from bureaucratic and union constraints was far from sufficient to ensure better schools. Yet, while there are some “proven” operators, we don’t have nearly enough of them to reach even a fraction of the students in need.

For this reason, in the next generation of charter school, we must do a better job ensuring that all new schools are of high-quality, while also keeping the gates open. Now that we have developed a foundational understanding of strong urban schools, we are poised to innovate on top of that foundation. We need new entrants to innovate – but we also just need more quality schools. Ultimately, I don’t think we can emphasize enough that this is really, really hard work and I don’t believe there are shortcuts or any magic bullets. We simply need to invest in building overall capacity, particularly at the school level.

You’re helping to launch a new charter school in the fall. What makes your approach to charter education unique?

Foundations College Prep has a comprehensive and innovative approach to defining teaching roles. A lot of rhetoric in the charter sector focuses on the centrality of “talent,” yet this often doesn’t extend much beyond being more rigorous on selection and possibly on evaluation. I do not want to diminish the importance of these approaches, but we believe we need to more broadly transform the teaching profession and focus on all aspects of talent management, including development and retention.

Right now, across district and charter schools, the first year of teaching is the same as the tenth year of teaching. This pathway doesn’t depend at all on a teacher’s professional competencies or goals– unless they want to advance out of the classroom. Our school will counteract this trend by offering multiple career advancement opportunities and having multiple types of teaching roles.

Do you find the successful practices used in charter schools are unique or are there best practices that can be implemented in traditional public schools as well?

I think there is a little of both. Some aspects of the most successful charter schools are inherently un-replicable within the [traditional public school] system. For example, many charter schools don’t “backfill,” meaning they do not accept transfer students in higher grades. This enables schools to maintain strong cultures. Obviously, we could not have a system of schools where students couldn’t move to new schools.

In the long term, I hope to work closely with traditional schools so they can implement (with fidelity) our successful practices. Much of what we’re planning to do, however, could not be done within the current constraints of most districts, specifically under union contracts that do not allow for meaningful evaluation of, and differentiation among, teachers.

Also, our model will never be a simple solution – it will require strong management, a collaborative culture among staff, a willingness and ability to make thoughtful adjustments, and an allowance for managerial discretion. Unfortunately, we have done a very poor job preparing a pipeline of strong managers to run our schools and I worry that our current crop of school leaders may simply not be up to the task. This is a primary reason that teachers demand all sorts of “work rules” to protect themselves – they, often rightly, don’t trust their management.  Unfortunately, these rules, combined with bureaucratic and legal regulations, have created a system so rigid that it grinds to a halt. Until that is addressed – and I think it will be eventually – many successful charter practices will be difficult to apply in district settings.

If you could change something about the State or City’s approach to education, what would it be?   

We need to approach driving meaningful district improvement as a, say, 10-year project. I obviously understand our impatience for change, but this impatience only impedes our ultimate progress. Again, this is very, very hard work, and effective implementation and a focus on building capacity is the key. Unfortunately, we often rush into big changes that have potential but are poorly implemented and end up creating a backlash. For example, I was a first-year teacher in New York when the district negotiated “extended days” two days a week. Unfortunately, this extra time was very loosely defined and I often felt my students would have been better off if I had spent that time planning.

You might hear about “reform fatigue” in readings, and it’s a very real thing. School systems cycle through lots of “fads” and teachers are often cynical of the latest shiny change.  The problem is a lot of the “fads” have promise, if they are implemented well. Unfortunately, implementation is incredibly difficult and almost impossible to get right at a huge system level right away. But instead of learning from mistakes and making adjustments, we throw it out and move onto the next thing.

An approach Chicago Public Schools is developing is a portfolio strategy, following a national reform trend. This approach involves “managing a diverse portfolio” of schools and school operators. Yet, again, I think the only way this will be successful is by developing a very long-term view that invests in building a supply of quality school operators. For example, the district hopes to open 60 new charters, but the current charter pipeline simply does not support that target. I am not sure what plans the district has to build that pipeline.

Feature photo: cc/Wonderlane'
Zachary Trout
Zach Trout is a staff writer for The Review and is an MPP student at the Harris School of Public Policy. He is interested in education policy and urban development.

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