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Under the Microscope

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One complication for researchers: No two charters are alike, and there are vastly different expectations for what they can accomplish.



Are Students Learning?

Experts say the next wave of research will look at how well students in charter schools are learning. State-mandated evaluations are under way in Arizona, Colorado, and Minnesota, and Central Michigan University is studying the 40 schools it has chartered in that state.

In fact, a few examples of whether charter schools are meeting their academic goals already exist. A handful of schools--five in Minnesota, one in California, and one in Colorado--have completed their first few years and have had their charters renewed--an indication that they have met the performance goals set for them.

For example, the New Visions School in Minneapolis, which focuses on improving the reading skills of children with learning disabilities, was able to show increases in both vocabulary and reading comprehension scores during its first two years of operation.

Like many issues related to charter schools, however, the achievement question is far from simple. Researchers say that charters pose serious challenges for anyone trying to measure and catalog them.

No two charters are alike, and there are vastly different expectations for what they can accomplish, said Pat Seppanen, an associate director of the research center at the University of Minnesota.

And if it's tough to study charters by themselves, experts say, it is even harder to compare them with traditional schools.

"We don't just have apples and oranges," Mr. Nathan, a vocal advocate of charter schools, said. "We've got lots of apples, oranges, tangerines, and bananas."

Some charter schools, such as the one that serves only deaf students in Minneapolis, are so different that they defy comparison with other schools. There are also charters for home-schooled students, on-line computer schools, and schools that serve only juveniles who have been convicted of crimes.

And if students in charter schools don't take the same tests as their counterparts in regular schools, as is the case in some states, how can you compare performance?

"It's a tricky thing," said Lori Mulholland, a senior research analyst at the Morrison Institute for Public Policy at Arizona State University in Tempe. "No matter what measure you use, it's going to be criticized."

Target of Criticism

Criticism is something that researchers who have studied charter schools have had to get used to.

"I don't hate charter schools. I don't love charter schools," said Amy Stuart Wells, an assistant professor of education policy at the University of California, Los Angeles. But, she added, "you get blasted if you just raise interesting questions."

Ms. Wells angered charter supporters last year with a paper she presented at an American Educational Research Association conference in San Francisco. She used census data to conclude that charter schools in three California districts predominantly existed in wealthy neighborhoods where parents had high educational levels.

Poorer communities, she suggested, were possibly being excluded from the movement because they lacked the resources to organize a charter school.

Critics jumped on Ms. Wells' work, arguing that her methods did not always pinpoint the precise location of the schools, and that location often had little to do with whether the schools served low-income or minority students.

Ronald Corwin, a researcher at WestEd in San Francisco, one of 10 federally funded regional education labs, has also felt the heat.

Observers have already raised concerns about the study because some researchers on the project are strong advocates of charter schools.

He drew criticism from charter supporters for a study he led in 1995. In it, he asked whether charter schools that require some level of parent participation, such as a certain number of volunteer hours per week, deny admission to children whose parents can't make the commitment.

The issue was "blown out of proportion," Mr. Corwin said in a recent interview, especially since his study concluded that, overall, charter schools were doing a good job of including parents.

Questions of Objectivity

Some observers have already raised concerns about the massive, federally supported study being undertaken by RPP International, because some researchers on the project--notably Mr. Nathan--are strong advocates of charter schools. The research team also includes Wayne Jennings, a charter school organizer in Minnesota, and Eric Premack, the director of the Charter Schools Project at the Institute for Education Reform in Sacramento, Calif., who spends some of his time providing technical assistance to new charter schools.

Joan Buckley, the associate director of the educational issues department at the American Federation of Teachers and a member of an advisory board appointed to oversee the federal study, is concerned that the charter advocates won't be able to view such schools objectively.

"If there is an attempt to not disclose all of the information in the study because they think it will put charter schools in an unfavorable light, I will leave the board," said Ms. Buckley, who is also involved in a charter school research project at the AFT.

She wonders whether the board, a balanced group of charter supporters, union representatives, and highly respected researchers, will have much influence on RPP's work.

Patricia M. Lines, the director of the project at the Education Department, said the subcontractors are not violating the department's ethical standards. And Paul Berman, the president of RPP International, said the company has worked hard to design a neutral study strong enough to withstand the biases of a few members of the team.

Mr. Nathan, he said, is working as an "internal adviser" who understands the advocates' positions and contributes extensive knowledge of the subject. He won't be doing any of the actual research, Mr. Berman said. Mr. Premack and Mr. Jennings, he added, are doing some of the field work, but will not be going to the schools where they have been involved.

In addition to the annual telephone survey and the site visits, which will pick up new schools as they open, the researchers will collect several different measures of achievement, including a curriculum-based, multiple-choice test developed specifically for the study.

The study will compare the achievement of charter school students against national norms and with that of comparable students in traditional public schools. Researchers also expect to answer questions about how charter schools work, how they affect both public and private schools, and how local, state, and federal policies help or hinder their progress. A final report is due at the end of 1999.

Getting an Inside View

Researchers say they've often gotten the cold shoulder.

Researchers who have chosen to brave the roiling political waters surrounding charter schools have often found yet another obstacle impeding their work--the educators in those schools.

Researchers say they've often gotten the cold shoulder from administrators who, in many cases, have been pestered from day one with surveys, requests for interviews, and tour groups wandering through the hallways.

Mr. Rofes said he tries to avoid the more high-profile schools. Beryl Nelson, one of the researchers at RPP International, said that she and her colleagues "took some heat" before a few schools in their sample agreed to give the achievement test and open their doors to more visitors.

But in-depth case studies, often used by graduate and doctoral students, are considered vital to understanding charter schools. They often provide the best details and descriptions of what happens in a school: its culture, instructional styles, and the relationships between students, teachers, and parents.

Cindy Grutzik, a doctoral student at the University of California, Los Angeles, spends a couple of days a week in two charter schools, interviewing teachers, attending staff meetings, and observing classrooms. She wants to know whether teachers' experiences are meeting their expectations. Her early results show that most teachers say the change has been difficult but positive.

"It seems that people understand that hard work comes along with this kind of situation," Ms. Grutzik said.

Ms. Grutzik, a former elementary school teacher, said she settled on charter schools as a research topic because she wanted to see how education policy affects teachers. When interviewing teachers for her study, she asks them about their responsibilities at the school, their relationship with the union, and how their charter school experience compares with past teaching positions.

The evolving relationship between charter school teachers and unions is one topic being examined by the National Education Association, which has hired Ms. Wells to do some of that research.

"The basic question is, what is the changing role of the union, and how does the union need to change to accommodate the kind of autonomy that teachers want?" she said.

Ms. Buckley is one of three AFT staff members involved in a charter school project that will examine a range of issues, including teacher demographics, teacher turnover, student attendance, and mobility. A report is due in July.

Broader Change?

Of course, the crucial question about charter schools is whether they will truly transform public education as a whole. One of the tenets of the charter movement is that the success of the independent schools will force traditional schools to improve and provide more options to avoid losing their students.

The crucial question about charter schools is whether they will truly transform public education as a whole.

Experts say it may take years to answer that question.

And, as with many issues surrounding charters, the issue isn't a simple one.

Both the wording of state charter laws and decisions school boards and other institutions make when considering charter applications will influence the potential of charter schools for producing broader change, experts say.

Some laws, for example, give preference to proposals for charters aimed at disadvantaged or other at-risk students.

Given that, some observers wonder how charters can spur broader change if they primarily serve special populations of students that regular schools struggle to educate anyway.

And the fact that in some states, school boards are the only chartering authorities could limit their influence, Ms. Bierlein said. School board members are more likely to grant charters to schools that don't create competition, she argues.

But in states such as Arizona, Massachusetts, and Michigan, where other agencies such as universities and the state board of education are the sponsors, charter schools are beginning to resemble traditional schools, Ms. Bierlein added.

Instead of waiting for someone to test these theories, the Washington-based Center for Education Reform is gathering specific examples of the ways charter schools have made a difference. Jeanne Allen, the president of the organization and a school choice advocate, said the report also will include charter school failures.

It's a Values Thing

As more researchers turn to charter schools, the results of their work will likely influence future political decisions--such as whether to give charter schools money for start-up expenses or facilities.

But ultimately, Mr. Nathan argues, some issues can't be answered with a study.

"I think that research can help us understand what are the best ways to establish these schools and what are the mistakes to avoid," he said. "But I do believe the expansion of choice in public education at the bottom line is a values issue."

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