Efforts to foster collaboration between district and charter schools—traditional rivals for scarce educational resources—are showing some promise, but challenges remain in forging effective partnerships, according to a new study released today by Mathematica Policy Research.

The study report and issue brief document an analysis of collaboration activities during the early stages of a project launched in 2012 by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to bring traditional public school districts together with charter schools and charter management organizations­—and, in some cases, Catholic schools—to expand access to high quality education.

The Gates Foundation provided grants for district-charter collaboration activities in seven cities and commissioned Mathematica to conduct an evaluation of their effectiveness. Findings from Mathematica’s initial report on grant implementation using qualitative analyses include:

  • Establishing purposeful school partnerships, particularly among two or more schools located in the same building, spurred collaboration when leaders were invested in all students in the building, not just those from their own schools.
  • Stronger working relationships emerged among central office administrators at the highest levels, but rifts and skepticism about systemic change remained among other staff.
  • Intensive training and residency programs for school leaders helped facilitate sharing of best practices in areas such as teaching English-language skills, working with students with disabilities, small-group instruction, teacher coaching, and strategic data use. But some schools involved in the study often had not progressed to implementing these shared practices.

The report also highlights areas for consideration in enhancing district-charter collaborations in the future, including:

  • Sending clearer messages about the goals and opportunities for collaboration
  • Encouraging students from both types of schools to collaborate in activities
  • Developing summer institutes or think tanks for teachers to work together across schools
  • Enhancing use of technology to share materials across sites

Mathematica is engaged in a three-year study of the Gates-funded program. This report’s findings were obtained through interviews with school leaders, teachers and administrators, as well as observation of school activities, from December 2012 through spring 2013.

“We have observed some activities that appear to be promising in encouraging collaboration across sectors and in sharing effective practices on a small scale, but there is still a long way to go,” said Moira McCullough, a Mathematica researcher and leader of the evaluation. “We will be conducting our final round of data collection this fall, which will give us an idea of whether there has been any additional progress.”

Two additional reports on the Gates-funded district-charter collaborations—one focusing on school co-location and another on administrators who moved from charter schools to public schoolswere released today by the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington.