Voices in Education

Eight Tools for Charter School Entrepreneurs
The following article originally appeared in The Harvard Education Letter (volume 27, number 5). Copyright 2011 President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved.

Charter school quality varies substantially from state to state, school to school. Nevertheless, the charter approach continues to hold promise as a potent catalyst for innovation, including empowering parents and teachers and catalyzing district school reform.

At its core, strategic management for charter schools involves achieving alignment among three core elements: the mission, operations, and stakeholder support.

When these elements are aligned, charter schools can achieve greatness. Unfortunately, most organizations—charters are no exception—operate in a state of misalignment due to conflicts over mission, inadequate capacity, lack of support, or some combination of the three.

The goal of achieving alignment and fit between the three elements should be the singular managerial obsession of charter entrepreneurs. All significant decisions and actions should be judged by whether they advance or retard alignment in a school. Decisions about these actions should be made using three conditions: the action should be valuable, advance the school’s mission, and be feasible. The feasibility of the chosen course is dependent both on adequate operational capacity to execute the idea and that it be supported by key stakeholders.

Beyond achieving alignment, charters need to adopt better managing strategic tools. We offer eight such tools and frameworks that any charter can use. In helping children achieve their potential, charter entrepreneurs may believe they are too hurried and pressured to focus on strategic management. We believe it is precisely because they operate under pressure, and in a domain where the stakes are so high, that they must devote time and energy to strategy building.

1. Logic models

This tool clarifies assumptions regarding how a school can reach its intended impact by defining in simple and causal form the necessary inputs, essential activities, expected outputs, and planned outcomes. When significant decisions are framed provocatively by logic modeling, questions often arise like: how tight is the model?; how much of what happens between inputs and impact is a function of unknown, uncontrollable factors in the external environment?; and how much is attributable to an organization’s programs and work?

2. Performance scorecards

A performance measurement system provides information and guidance about the school’s direction. Tools like dashboards and scorecards reduce the number of metrics to a manageable group that can be the focus of the leader’s—and board’s—consistent attention. A well-executed scorecard shows how the organization is doing in the areas of educational achievement, financial management, human resource management, and quality management.

3. Leadership theory framework

Charter leaders may be tempted to use authority to resolve conflicts. But a less technical and more adaptive approach to leadership, emphasizing the common search for a solution, may be more effective. In many instances, charter leaders must attend to conflicting visions, interpretations, and agendas within their schools and weave them together into a coherent and compelling vision. This is the work of a charter school leader.

4. Program portfolio analysis

Charter schools are complex amalgamations of programs, projects, and initiatives. It’s useful to develop a matrix to classify these efforts according to their financial and social return. Doing so can bring forward initiatives within the school’s portfolio that are core and financially viable while also pinpointing those that aren’t mission relevant or revenue positive.

5. Scaling frameworks

Scale is achieved through different strategies, including financial strength, on-site program expansion, program comprehensiveness, and multi-site replication. This last approach often captures the imagination of charter entrepreneurs. A key replicating tension is between model fidelity and quality local leadership that may want to adapt the model. A compromise is possible, which allows for both core consistency across sites and local control to meet community needs. Scaling frameworks enable schools to attract high-quality local leaders who place their distinctive stamp on the school.

6. SWOT analysis

One longstanding tool for gathering good information about what is going on around and inside the school is SWOT analysis. It also looks beyond organizational horizon, identifying threats that disrupt organizational progress and opportunities to be seized. SWOT also has a retrospective quality, because it looks at strengths and weaknesses evidenced from what the organization has accomplished. Through SWOT, charter leaders can engage boards in the important exercise of risk assessment and management, also setting the stage for an informed planning process.

7. Stakeholder analysis

A key step in navigating stakeholder environment categorizes the school’s parties using a tool emphasizing relative power, legitimacy, and urgency. Effective stakeholder management distinguishes between dormant, discretionary, demanding, dominant, dangerous, dependent, and definitive stakeholders. While it’s tempting to assert the egalitarian position that all stakeholders have equal standing, such an approach is disaster when trying to keep a charter heading in the right direction.

8. Customer service surveys

To focus improvement efforts, charter entrepreneurs need reliable data on how well the school meets the needs of key customers. Unlike retail store customers who buy and use the good or service, the education buyer is almost always a public agency or private donor while the end user is a family. This makes tracking customer service far more challenging. It requires regular data collection from families about their school experience and a clear method for assessing how the school is doing in its patron’s eyes. Family satisfaction is a leading indicator for many things, including fundraising success, charter renewal, and teaching morale. Measuring and managing customer satisfaction on a regular basis is critical.

About the Author: Peter Frumkin, Bruno V. Manno, and Nell Edgington are coauthors of The Strategic Management of Charter Schools: Frameworks and Tools for Educational Entrepreneurs, published by Harvard Education Press in September 2011.