The Marva Collins Quest: Replicating Successful High Poverty Schools

Posted by & filed under CGR Staff, Rochester Business Journal.

Kent GardnerIn 1975, Marva Collins founded Westside Preparatory School in Chicago’s Garfield Park neighborhood, a place of persistent and concentrated poverty. Renamed Marva Collins Prep, the school targeted disadvantaged students, many of whom had been classified by the public school as learning disabled. She was able to spur them to achieve at levels comparable to students in high income neighborhoods. Collins’ success was profiled by CBS’s 60 Minutes in 1979 and became the subject of a movie in 1981 starring Cicely Tyson and Morgan Freeman.

This example (and others like it) proved that concentrated poverty, while predictive of low academic achievement, does not assure it. The Holy Grail of education reform has been the “pursuit of Marva Collins.” For many years, it appeared that you couldn’t replicate Marva Collins’ success without Marva Collins—i.e. someone who combined unusual gifts of charisma, dedication and energy with exceptional teaching and leadership ability.

The charter school movement has been part of the quest. By freeing school leaders from the confines of some state regulations and district control, the charter school movement has encouraged experimentation with curricula, teaching methods, school structure and governance. In some states, the charter experience has resembled throwing spaghetti at a wall. Other states—including New York—have had a more deliberative authorizing process.

Like traditional public schools, some charter schools are effective and some are not. Responsible state authorizers close schools that don’t measure up. As with Collins’ school, the successful schools are studied for lessons to be shared. Successful operators are encouraged to replicate their success in other locations, which has led to the creation of charter management organizations (CMOs) and education management organizations (EMOs). CMOs both operate and manage schools. EMOs manage schools under contracts with operators.

How are they doing? Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) just released a study of CMOs and EMOs. CREDO has been involved in a number of charter school evaluations over the years. Through a contract with 23 state educational agencies, CREDO employs a quasi-experimental research design that pairs charter school students with students in traditional public schools who have comparable demographic characteristics and test scores. The verdict for CMOs and EMOs is similar to that of charter schools overall: In the aggregate, the CMOs’ performance is roughly equivalent to that of traditional public schools, although the CMOs do a better job serving historically disadvantaged students than do traditional public schools.

Some CMOs consistently outperform both independent charter schools and traditional public schools across all subgroups. CREDO singles out two CMOs for particular praise: KIPP Academies and Uncommon Schools. Due largely to a vigorous recruitment effort by local business leader Joe Klein and others, Rochester became one of Upstate’s first Uncommon Schools outpost. CREDO reports that:

  • Attending Uncommon Schools or KIPP charters essentially eliminates the poverty/non-poverty learning gap.
  • KIPP and Uncommon Schools post some of the largest test score gains with minority and poverty students reported in education research.
  • The results for English Language Learners (ELL) and Special Education (SPED) students attending Uncommon Schools were large and statistically significant. The effects in math and for reading for ELL students were the largest found in the study.

CREDO’s summary?  “KIPP and Uncommon Schools prove that it IS possible to take innovation to scale and maintain a focus on quality.” The CREDO analysis is worth careful study and makes a strong contribution to our understanding of charter school performance. Its findings will help charter school authorizers make better decisions about new and reauthorized charters. See

One finding of the study has implications that go beyond charter schools: Nearly all successful schools were successful from the beginning. Ninety-four percent of schools that were in the top quintile in their first year were in the top quintile in their fifth year. And 80% of schools beginning in the bottom quintile continued to fail their students through year five. The lessons:

  • Scrupulous planning and thorough training of teachers and administrators—well before the first day of school—is part of the formula for success. Whether the new school is a charter or part of a traditional district, success or failure is determined early on. Only rarely do new schools recover from an early stumble.
  • When a new school doesn’t measure up, district leadership or the charter authorizer must act decisively. A five-year window for a new school may be too long.

Here in Rochester, we can hope that the lessons learned and implemented by Uncommon Schools can be embraced by both traditional public schools and other charter schools. They certainly don’t have the only effective model for urban public education, but CREDO’s data indicates that they have an effective model. And that they’ve learned how to replicate their success.