Excellence in Education: Demonstrating what’s possible when a school aligns its mission, model, and operations

Brooke Charter Schools defy the odds and achieve extraordinary results for every child. The schools are the highest performing schools in the state while serving a high need student population. How do they do it? By focusing relentlessly on teacher quality.

Brooke Charter Schools is a Boston-based Charter Management Organization that operates three K-8 charter schools and serves almost 1,500 students in the greater Boston area. The schools focuses “unrelentingly” on their mission “to provide an academically rigorous public education to students from the cities of Boston and Chelsea that will ensure that they are prepared to enter into and succeed in college.”[i] To do so, “from day one, Brooke leaders have been dedicated to great teaching.”[ii] Today, Brooke’s schools are among the best in Massachusetts, and the country, and serve the highest need students, outperforming many of Boston’s wealthy suburban school districts. Brooke’s success comes from this targeted focus in their business model and the coherent, aligned, and effective way in which they implement it in their operating model.

Brooke’s Business Model: Creating the best outcomes for every child

Since opening in 2002, Brooke has consistently and outstandingly produced results for their customers, the students and families they serve. Their results have received national attention for proving that socioeconomic status and race do not determine educational outcomes, as Brooke’s students have had the highest performance in the entire state in multiple subjects for every year since 2006.[iii] In composite test scores, Brooke’s flagship campus, Roslindale, demonstrably outperforms every school in the state.

Picture1

Beyond just test scores, Brooke also focuses on character of students, summarized into five core values: focus, integrity, respect, self-determination, and teamwork. To be effective, Brooke identified quality teaching as the single most important lever in achieving their value proposition for students. As a result, Brooke’s business model goes one step beyond the value of the outcomes for students by recruiting, developing, and retaining the best teachers in the country.

Brooke’s Operational Model: Putting high-quality talent first

Brooke’s tangible and intangible investments reflect a clear set of priorities and an aligned strategy to ensure that the schools deliver on their promises to students and families. As Assistant Director of Talent and Recruitment, Rachel Kohn, describes “Everything we do comes back to developing our teachers from good to great to provide the best instruction for our students.”[iv]

A Differentiated Talent Model

Brooke’s entire organization places an intense focus and priority on high-quality teachers. To differentiate the schools from others, Brooke has developed a portfolio of human capital programs directly aligned to their ultimate outcomes:

  • Professional Development: Kohn explained Brooke’s robust PD system, “Our professional development is inherently teacher centric… focusing on classroom culture, instruction, and content.”[v] The regularity, consistency, and value of these institutionalized features enable continuous growth and development of teachers at every level.

Talent Flow

  • Master Teacher Program: Brooke developed a new role to reward and incentivize their top talent with a 10% increase in pay and additional leadership responsibilities. Brooke has named nine master teachers since launching the program.
  • Associate Teacher Program: Brooke builds their own pipeline of talent by hiring novice teachers (0-2 years of experience) as an “apprentice” teacher for a year, learning to teach in the school. Brooke then fills as many as 70% of their vacancies with this internally developed talent.[vi]

Brooke’s suite of professional development programs have multiple results. First, teachers at Brooke report high levels of satisfaction on surveys.[vii] Second, Brooke has high teacher retention (>85%) each year (many charter networks experiencing turnover rates as high as 30% annually).[viii] Finally, Brooke’s teachers and schools have been recognized for their achievements, including two consecutive years of the Pozen Prize for Charter Schools from The Boston Foundation.[ix]

A Culture of Continuous Improvement with Tools to Implement Change

Built in to Brooke’s professional culture (and PD) is a pursuit of excellence for their students. The adults in the schools are always looking for ways to improve, as an internal document described, ““Our highest performing teachers are just as positive about their constant improvement as our newer teachers are. We hope that our top teachers will never hit a ceiling here.”[x] The organization encourages and enables this change by institutionalizing time and structures for feedback, including their robust teacher rubric with 32 sub-categories (summarized below).

Rubric

As a result, even though Brooke is the best at the value they offer for students, they are consistently seeking ways to improve and evolve their model.

A Strategic Scope

While Brook has added two new campuses in the past five years to now serve nearly 1,500 students, their growth has been measured and purposeful. Limited by legislation rules on charter school enrollment, Brooke has chosen not to expand to new geographies. Furthermore, they have not been distracted by innovations that obscure their core work, such as integrating unnecessary technology. Finally, they have applied to open a high school to further vertically integrate the educational experience of their students to serve them from K-12.[xi]

A Lean Centralized Organization

Finally, Brooke’s focus on teacher talent and student outcomes is evident in their lean central office organization, with only 12 FTE under the Co-Director (Operations). The Co-Director (Academics) team, which is the instructional and professional development of the organization, has 8 FTE at the network level who support principals and leaders at each school, 101 teachers, and 26 associate teachers. “Brooke Charter Schools directs all of its resources toward creating a culture that reveres great teaching, develops it, and supports it.”[xii]

Org Chart

Brooke Charter School: Demonstrating Effectiveness in Public Education

The alignment of Brooke’s vision, business model, and operating model enables the success they consistently deliver for the students they serve. Instead of identifying every program or practice they could use to teach children, Brooke invests in its teachers and designed the entire organization around supporting and developing those teachers. The results, proven again with the release of the new test data for 2015, show this singular focus and systematic operational model produce outstanding results for students.

Infographic

[i] Brooke Charter Schools. “About Us” Retrieved from http://www.ebrooke.org/about-us/

[ii] ibid

[iii] Brooke Charter Schools. Annual Report 2013-14. Retrieved from  http://www.ebrooke.org/wp-content/uploads/Brooke-Charter-Schools-Annual-Report-2013-2014-Spread1.pdf p. 5

[iv] Kohn, Rachel. “Human Capital at Brooke.” Personal interview. 7 Dec. 2015.

[v] ibid

[vi] ibid

[vii] ibid

[viii] Sawchuck, Stephen. “Teacher Retention Data for Charters Still Murky.” Education Week. 2 June 2015. Retrieved from http://www.edweek.org/media/2015/06/02/32turnoverside-c1.jpg

[ix] The Boston Foundation. “Brooke Charter School Wins Second Annual Pozen Prize for Charter Schools.” 12 May 2015. Retrieved from http://www.tbf.org/news-and-events/news/2015/may/brooke-charter-schools-wins-second-pozen-prize

[x] Teach Plus. “Retaining Public Charter Teachers for Student Success.” Why Are My Teachers Leaving? Summer 2012. 6 Dec. 2015. Retrieved from http://www.teachplus.org/sites/default/files/publication/pdf/whyaremyteachersleaving_0.pdf

[xi] Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. “10 Groups Seek to Open New Charter Schools, 19 Schools Apply to Serve More Students” 3 Aug 2015. http://www.doe.mass.edu/news/news.aspx?id=21098

[xii] City Year. “Career Partnership with Brooke Charter School” Retrieved from http://alumni.cityyear.org/?BrookeCharter

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14 thoughts on “Excellence in Education: Demonstrating what’s possible when a school aligns its mission, model, and operations

  1. Excellent example of strongly aligned business and operating models, and I LOVE that it is in the education sector! I deeply appreciate Brooke’s human capital management strategy with the clear focus on continuous improvement and professional development of teachers. Having that embedded into the culture and operations of an organization is a winning recipe for great outcomes in any operating model. While I think this is a great model, I do wonder if it is truly scalable and able to produce identical outcomes across students from all low income backgrounds. It seems like Brooke is pretty small – serving under 1,500 students – and I wonder how much of the population that they serve is truly representative of the highest need students. Could this model be replicated down south, where the opportunity gap is more prevalent due to the challenging history? I’d also be curious to learn more about their enrollment policy, discipline strategies, and parental engagement – to better understand the population they serve and context in which they have garnered such remarkable success. A criticism that I have of charter schools is there privilege to pick and choose who they teach – sending students back to their assigned schools if they have behavior challenges or their parents are not as engaged in the process; that approach tends to widen the opportunity gap rather than narrowing it. I wonder how Brooke’s operating model handles this aspect given their business model. All in all, this model is truly inspiring and I hope they are able to sustain success and growth. They are clearly creating great value for a subset of students in Boston – changing their lives by creating access to better opportunities. Lots of businesses could learn a ton from them. Great read – very well written!

  2. Chelsea,
    I read this with my fiancee, who is a kindergarten and special education teacher at Brooke East Boston. We both loved reading it and are honored that you wrote about Brooke. My fiancee echoes so many of the sentiments that you discussed and believes that the professional development and support she receives on a daily basis is monumental to teacher performance and student outcomes. The environment is relentlessly positive and is one in which both teachers and students are constantly growing and learning.
    In response to the post above, charter schools do not pick and choose their students. When demand for spots in the schools exceed supply (which is the case at Brooke), students are placed and admitted through a lottery system. The Massachusetts law regarding the lottery system can be found at https://malegislature.gov/Laws/GeneralLaws/PartI/TitleXII/Chapter71/Section89.

    1. Charlie – thanks to your fiancee for the super important work she does at Brooke!

      Just wanted to quickly weigh in with thoughts on the “charter school skimming” debate (one of the more controversial debates in education reform these days!) It is true that most charter organizations use a lottery system to select students and most Boston charters serve very high proportions (if not 100%) of “free and reduced lunch” students. That said, I believe LaToya is also correct in that many charters are not equipped with the appropriate infrastructure to teach students with severe disabilities. As a result, some charters are forced to turn away a small segment of special education students. I’m not certain of Brooke’s special education capabilities (you and your fiancee definitely know better than I) but I know this is the case in other charter schools.

    2. Charlie –

      I second Kyla’s comment – many thanks to your fiancee, who must be an incredible educator! I’m honored that you both read the post and it rang true.

      My response to the charter school enrollment question is mostly that a few bad incidents gave the entire field a bad name. I personally taught at a charter school in New Orleans that served 35% special needs students exactly because students and families had choices and opted into our school that served them so well. It actually put a huge strain on our operating model, but we innovated our entire school in order to ensure that we continued to provide high quality education for every child. However, we were not yet at the level of Brooke. Overwhelmingly, charters serve students with the exact same profiles as their traditional school counterparts. As Kyla mentions, yes there are times when a very specialized need (for example, students with visual impairments) might be best served in a school designed to meet their needs, but this has always been true as students with special needs have operated outside of traditional enrollment patterns in order to ensure that their needs can be met. I think it is unfair to hold charters to a different standard. At the same time, in cities where charters represent the majority of schools, it is all that much more important to build out centralized enrollment systems (examples exist in New Orleans, where I taught, and Denver) that eliminate this debate.

      Thanks for the work and thought-provoking responses LaToya, Charlie, and Kyla!

  3. Chelsea,
    This is a wonderful success story. Thank you for sharing it. I was especially impressed by the fact that they were focused on the assessment and continuous development of teachers and wanted to learn more about it. My main question was how can you effectively assess the performance of a teacher? At first, I thought that a teacher should be assessed based on the outcomes (ie grades) that he/she generates for students. However, this is not a very easy to measure given that all students at Brooke must arrive with very different knowledge and ability levels. Thus, to what extent can the teacher be accountable for the grades of their students if one of the most important variables that affect the final grade at the end of the year, the student’s knowledge at the beginning of the year, is a variable that they do not control. How does Brooke assess the performance of its teachers?

    1. Charles – great questions that point to a critical issue in education today. I’ve attempted to summarize a few thoughts below but am also happy to continue this conversation!
      1. Value-Add: The point you make about students starting in all different places is absolutely an issue in education; however, we actually have a fairly rigorous solution. The 2001 No Child Left Behind Act (the first federal legislation that required accountability systems in every state) knowingly got this wrong, opting for simplicity over the best measure in order to get the legislation passed. Since that time, almost all states have gotten waivers to use a “value-add” measure. This means that each student’s performance is measured absolutely, but the evaluating measure is actually to compare that child’s performance to the performance of every other child who performed in the same way in the previous year. The resulting percentile measure reflects where the child fell in the spectrum of all of the children who began the year in the same place. As a result, we attribute this to the “value-added” to that child in that year. It also means that if a student begins really far below grade level and gains more than a year of learning in one year, teachers can be rewarded for this additional value added to the child even if the child doesn’t pass the absolute bar at the end of the year. Sorry, that wasn’t such a short explanation after all.
      2. Formative vs. Summative: At the same time that we have developed a relatively rigorous measurement system, there are still two main flaws. First, outcome based measures are often unavailable in a timely matter, with scores coming out up to six months after tests are taken. Therefore, it is very hard to continuously improve as a school on that large of a time lag. We call these the summative measures in education. However, what I didn’t mention and you very astutely identify is the seeming lack of quantitative measures beyond the rubrics that in fact do exist in schools. We generally call these formative measures – those that help inform the teaching practice to ensure all students are making necessary gains. The emphasis of these formative assessments is usually on student learning, but they can also be used as more frequent feedback mechanisms for teachers. Formative assessments are usually developed at the school level, although there are some organizations that have grown to fill this need.
      3. Finally, the use of student test data is still hotly contested in the education space. This is often hard for the business community to understand, as sectors need measurement. However, I would point to this as a major failure of leaders as change agents. Instituting quantitative measures of performance into a previously independent (lacking oversight) and pride-driven teaching force has just gone fairly terribly. Part of that is the role of tenure and job protection, as effort and efficacy had never previously been linked and this scared a lot o people. Part of that is the idea that teachers themselves don’t take the tests, students do. So some feel it is unfair to be judged in this indirect way. Lastly, part of that is just the resistance to change and fear of the unknown, that was not handled well. I absolutely support use of quantitative measures for teachers, but we are unfortunately seeing major obstacles in implementation, with many states even rolling back their commitments. It is a fascinating case study for change leadership (and its failures).

      Thanks again for the thoughtful response and sorry for the length of the answer!

  4. Thanks for writing about Brooke, Chelsea! I loved reading about the education sector as viewed through an operational lens (I think the U.S. education delivery model is ripe for improvement).

    I agree that 1) a high quality teacher is the most important lever you can pull in improving student achievement and 2) that Brooke is at the forefront of addressing the retention issues that have plagued so many other high-performing charter networks.

    That said, I have the same concern LaToya has: scale. How does Brooke (or the education sector more broadly) extend this model to more public school students? Such a labor intensive operating model only works if there is consistent access to high quality teachers. If Brooke wants to expand the model, it seems they should think systemically about how they help increase the number of talented individuals entering the teaching force and how they improve teacher preparatory programs.

    Thanks again – really enjoyed this post!

  5. Thanks, Chelsea!

    I really appreciate you writing about Brooke, especially given its focus on human capital and developing its teachers. I’ll echo some of the questions brought up previous posters as far as scalability. In my experience, it can be difficult to get talented individuals to join the teaching profession in general, let alone in the numbers required to scale the Brooke model. How might incentives need to change to bring the right individuals into education?

    Great post!

  6. Chelsea,

    Great post about Brooke Charter Schools. The education industry, especially at the youth level, is one that I find very interesting. I’m glad to see some schools are still getting in right with innovative approaches to teacher development. The story of Brooke Charter School reminds me of a school I’ve had the privilege of working with in the past – All Hallows High School. All Hallows is located in the poorest congressional district in the country (South Bronx, NY), yet despite this they send almost all of their students (99%) to four-year universities. The school’s success has everything to do with the professionalism and hardwork of the teachers, priests and nuns that oversee the program. So I very much agree that teacher’s are the most important aspect of the at-school learning experience. But I still wonder if this is enough? Sometimes I worry that technology has given us superior methods to teach, but regulation and trade organizations sometimes dismiss them too readily. I think offerings such as Khan Academy and it’s desire to flip the classroom are very intriguing, but I worry that states around the country won’t allow it to disrupt the industry due to union protection and the general unknown…

  7. A very interesting post, thanks Chelsea! It is very exciting to know that Brooke Charter School is demonstrating the potential to improve public education quality by incorporating some business world managerial concepts including clear career path and scorecard customized for teachers. It would be great to know more about the differences between Brooke and other public schools, as well as the comparison between this Charter school and the others, to understand the merits of its business strategy and operation models. Thanks.

    1. Hi Yao –

      Thanks for the comment. I’d be happy to talk more with you about more comparisons, but the reason I chose Brooke is because they are the most focused and transparent about their strategy of focusing on great teaching. There are many reports (TNTP’s Greenhouse Schools report is an interesting one focusing more broadly on instruction: http://tntp.org/publications/view/greenhouse-schools-how-schools-can-build-cultures-where-teachers-thrive) that compare other schools, and Brooke performs very well across the measures; however, in many schools you see such broader efforts to achieve similar missions that in many cases they cannot reach the efficacy of Brooke. Unfortunately, in too many cases, schools also just adopt a status quo operational model and don’t think about a “strategy” at all, they just use what has been done. This is part of what makes some of the work in charters and innovation schools special, as they think about the alignment between strategy and operations differently than the traditional, accepted system. And, in the US, our generally accepted system is generally accepted to not be working, so we absolutely need these innovations. I’d love to continue the conversation about more comparisons and potentially bring to light some of the even more different schools that rethink how children go through grades / subjects, the role of technology (brought up above by Brian, too – totally important)! and more. Thanks all!

  8. Chelsea, this comment was indeed very interesting for me, especially as I do not know that much about different types of schools in the United States! I did read several articles about how public schools here often underperform, especially in lower income neighborhoods. The articles I read (mostly in The Economist) often linked this to the way schools are (I believe partially) financed here – through local property taxes, which are higher in wealthier neighborhoods. I was therefore wondering how does it work for such charter schools (to my knowledge, they are also publicly financed)? How can they ensure to invest in such high quality teachers and offer them financial incentives with presumably the same amount of money as their regular public counterparts? Or do they get some additional funding? I would love to get enlightened on this topic!

    1. Marie – great questions and this is, as you identified, one of those confusing questions.

      A couple quick items:

      In most states with widespread charter schools, they use a “per-pupil funding” model. This means that a combination of the state (states usually set something like a foundation) and local districts create a formula for how much money each child gets. Then, whichever school educates the child gets the dollars. There are enrollment counts, usually in October and March, and funding is dispersed. You can imagine how this would be hard, as is usually between $10-$15K per student, so if you are short 10 students you might have to fire 1-2 teachers. But, in most (but definitely not all) places, funding is increasingly following the student. Also, if a student has special needs, is an English Language Learner, or comes from a low socio-economic background, there are additional dollars (both state and federal) that go with that child to their school.

      As far as equitable funding goes, that is a really tough question here and is answered state by state. A supreme court case in the 1970s eliminated a federal ruling on school funding as education is not actually a guaranteed right in our country. That case means that all the funding fights happen on an individual state level, which results in California having an “equitable” $7K per student and New Jersey with an “equitable” ~$17K per student because of the way rulings have happened. Oh, and performance varies incredibly within those two states. Finally, there are many cases where suburbs are supplemented with local property taxes as you said, although a lot of that happens in different ways than the fundamental school funding formulas. For example, it is a lot easier for a suburban town to pass a bond to build a new high school than it is for an urban school to even get a school properly hardwired – so you see it a lot more in infrastructure than in the instructional dollars.

      Great question and welcome to the US – our history of localized educations makes everything very confusing. At the same time, results increasingly show that the funding level itself is not determinant of the outcomes. The issues in question here – business and operational strategy – wind up being much much more important characteristics. It is all about what you do with the dollars!

      In the case of Brooke, the school has the same amount of funding as every other Boston public school plus a few philanthropic dollars. In 2013-14, Brooke had $24.4M in Operating Revenue plus an additional $2.1M in General Revenue, of which $800K was philanthropy – http://www.ebrooke.org/wp-content/uploads/Brooke-Charter-Schools-Annual-Report-2013-2014-Spread1.pdf. Generally speaking, the charter movement in Boston seeks to operate on those “operating revenues” – which are public taxpayer dollars – and uses the philanthropic dollars for supplemental programs. For example, Brooke gives some of their Associate Teachers (teachers in training) scholarships to help pay off college loans. Pretty cool.

      Thanks for the questions and happy to follow-up!!

      1. P.S. The first chart is small, but the x-axis is socio-economic status and shows two things: (1) generally speaking, there is a tight correlation between socio-economic status and student outcomes. That’s the reality. (2) Brooke defies those odds. At my last job where we did school turnaround (we worked with lowest right blue dots on the graph), we talked about schools in the “upper right” – high need students who highly outperform the state. Brooke is the exemplar of this – they are the highest performing school in teh state and serve high need students. It just demonstrates how amazing their work is.

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