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Leadership Development & Systems Thinking in the Charter School Sector

June 5, 2023

This blog was co-authored by Allison Dymnicki, Abt Global; Laura Nack, Safal Partners; Carter Clawson, METIS Partners in Education; Sherri Lauver, and Erin Lomax, Abt Global

When we think about leadership in education, we often focus on leaders in the schools. But when we pull back and look at the larger public education system, we see that leadership ranges from the teachers to district superintendents, state leaders, and federal policymakers. Given this diversity, leadership development aimed at truly improving student outcomes needs to be differentiated and cohort-based, focusing on the unique challenges and capacity-building needs of leaders at all levels.

The situation is the same in the realm of charter schools even if the organizational structure isn’t quite as clear on first glance. Public charter schools are built upon the concept of autonomy from many local district requirements in exchange for direct accountability to charter authorizers. Despite the fact that they are independent of the traditional school system, charter schools are part of a system —they report to authorizers, who report to state agencies, who report to the federal government. Those schools that are part of a charter management organization add another layer into the system structure, and in some states, authorizers report to more than one state agency.

Regardless of the specific systemic structure, charter schools don’t operate in a vacuum. Leaders – at all levels, from teachers to state leaders – can benefit from engaging in a systems-thinking approach. American University’s School of Education describes systems thinking as “a mindset that helps educators understand the complex education system in a more holistic way” with the goal of consider[ing] several possible scenarios to find solutions to interconnected challenges.”

So how can we promote a systems approach to leadership development across the charter school space? There is one structure that captures leaders at all of these levels: the federal Charter Schools Program (CSP). CSP-funded grantees range from individual charter schools to charter management organizations (CMOs), authorizers, state education agencies (SEAs), affiliate alliances, and support organizations.

The National Charter School Resource Center (NCSRC), which provides technical assistance (TA) to CSP-funded grantees, has an opportunity to rethink what leadership TA to these grantees can and should look like by using a systems-thinking approach. For example, CSP-funded Developer grantees are awarded funds to create new charter schools or replicate/expand high-quality charter schools. Developer grantee project directors may be instructional leaders or even community leaders who are playing a key role in school startup. Developers’ unique needs require NCSRC to use a cohort-based leadership development approach that is specific to their challenges and is complemented by leadership development at the state level for state entity grantees, thus creating a differentiated systems approach to TA designed to address challenges in the sector from multiple entry points.

At the end of the day, this type of differentiated leadership development serves one purpose: to provide excellent educational opportunities to students by targeting TA to all leaders in the charter school ecosystem. The CSP grantees–collectively—can pull on every lever in the charter school system to achieve this purpose. Or, in the words of Anna Hinton, Director of the federal CSP program, “We are all working toward the same goal of ensuring students from all ages, backgrounds, and communities have access to high-quality education, including through high-quality public schools.”

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