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Published in Print: June 10, 1998, as Charter Schools Struggle With Accountability

Charter Schools Struggle With Accountability

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Pauline McBeth says she has no problem being held accountable for how well her students perform.

It's just part of the deal: Charter schools receive flexibility and freedom from cumbersome regulations in exchange for accepting greater responsibility for student results. But for Ms. McBeth, the coordinator of the 4-year-old Community Involved Charter School in Lakewood, Colo., figuring out just how that formula works is proving far from easy.

The 260-student school is decidedly unconventional. Children learn in multiage classrooms. They do not receive letter grades or credits. Portfolios chart student learning.

In Colorado and many other states with charter laws, such innovations and individualized curricula--which some see as the very essence of the charter movement--are having to contend with accountability systems based on standards and performance goals set at the state or district level.

"More accountability in exchange for flexibility: It's a nice clich‚, but people have to prove it," said Peter Huidekoper, a former educator who led an outside team that evaluated charter schools in Jefferson County, Colo., including Ms. McBeth's. Many schools and their sponsors, he said, need help striking that balance.

The reality, he added, is that in their first years of existence, many charter schools are hard-pressed to focus on accountability when they face more immediate concerns, such as how to pay the electric bill.

The intersection of the charter school movement with the push for accountability has raised a host of difficult questions:

  • How good is good enough? How many of the goals set in its charter must a school meet? Or how close to those goals must it come?
  • Should a charter school be judged on its own merits or in comparison with other public schools?
  • If charter schools exist in part to be innovative and free from traditional approaches, should they be held to traditional ways of measuring achievement?
  • How much should "market" accountability, as gauged by parent satisfaction, count in the equation?

'Hard To Measure'

At Ms. McBeth's suburban Denver school, the issue of how well the students stack up became an issue last year when the charter came up for renewal before the Jefferson County school board. Board members had a hard time interpreting the student portfolios used to measure progress toward the school's sometimes fuzzy goals.

And students did not perform well on the standardized test that all the other schools in the district use. While Ms. McBeth and her colleagues did not put much faith in the test, the district did. Citing a number of concerns, the board wound up renewing the school for just one year.

"It was tough," said Ms. McBeth, who spent 25 years as a teacher, counselor, and administrator in the Denver public schools before joining the K-12 school. "We tried to take the ambiguity out, but our school is hard to measure."

This year, with a freshly articulated plan, the school won a vote of confidence with a more standard five-year contract.

In charter schools, accountability means different things, especially given the wide disparities in the states with charter laws.

Charter schools are accountable to the sponsors that grant them charters--such as districts, state education agencies, or universities. They are accountable both for student achievement and for their finances and operation.

And they must also answer to their "customers." Students and parents can express their dissatisfaction by sending their children elsewhere. Many advocates consider charter schools the ultimate in accountability: Those that fail to meet their goals will go out of business.

Yet, with nearly 800 charter public schools up and running in 23 states and the District of Columbia, the way accountability plays out varies from place to place.

Some states, such as Arizona, have taken a more hands-off approach toward their charter schools, counting on market forces to reinforce the good and weed out the bad. Critics there have raised concerns that there is too little oversight, and that the quality of education in some of the state's 241 charter schools is spotty.

Other states, such as Massachusetts, have in place strict oversight provisions--seen by many as important safeguards, though some charter supporters warn that too much regulation can stifle innovation.

Stages of Accountability

Accountability efforts can intersect with charter schools at several stages of their development: in proposals for new charters, while the schools are up and running, and when their charters are renewed.

A recent report by the University of Minnesota's Center for School Change highlights the need for sponsors and charter operators to agree--before a charter is granted--on several critical issues: What are the school's measurable goals? What assessments will be used? What will be acceptable levels of student performance?

The degree to which that articulation is happening nationally is mixed, said Joe Nathan, one of the report's authors and a nationally known charter school proponent.

By and large, charter schools are required to meet the same academic standards and use the same tests as other public schools in their states, according to Jeanne Allen, the president of the Center for Education Reform, a Washington research group that supports school choice.

In California and other states where districts are the main chartering agencies, many of the details around standards and testing are negotiated on a school-by-school basis.

"Charter schools are right to question whether they should be viewed in the same light as other schools," Ms. Allen said. "Using a failed accountability system to measure progress in charter schools is not right. And that's what's happening to a certainextent."

To Jim Norris, charter schools are clearly a different animal from regular public schools like the ones he taught in before joining Constellation Community Charter Middle School in Long Beach, Calif. In his eyes, they are also more accountable.

"People in public education are demanding of us the real accountability, compared to what they have on paper in those three-ring binders on the shelf," he said.

Going Out of Business

National experts estimate that since the charter movement picked up steam a few years ago, roughly two dozen charter schools have gone out of business. Many fizzled from financial or management troubles, not academic shortcomings, Ms. Allen said.

The Dakota Open Charter School in Morton, Minn., was an exception. State school board members eventually stripped the charter of the K-12 school on the Lower Sioux reservation, closing the high school in 1997 and the lower grades earlier this year.

''There was clearly not much of any kind of education program going on at the school," Marsha R. Gronseth, the state board's executive director, said. But the revocation came only after exhaustive audits, site visits, and technical help from the state.

She added: "There's always the struggle of how quickly do you act and how much benefit of the doubt do you give in working these problems out. You don't want to bring the hammer down too quickly."

Controlling Quality

Some sponsors also face political pressures, either to clamp down on charter schools or give them more breathing room.

Add in the fact that closing a school can leave families in a lurch, and it quickly becomes clear that shutting down a charter school is no small matter, said James Goenner, who oversees charter schools for Central Michigan University. The university has sponsored 46 of Michigan's 108 charters.

"There's the standards debate about accountability, but there are a lot of legal and technical realities that go beyond the philosophy," Mr. Goenner added.

While many sponsors require schools to file yearly progress reports, charter renewal is the formal juncture when sponsors take stock of whether schools are living up to their promises.

To what degree should market forces determine success?

With a few exceptions, most state charter laws do not give much guidance on renewal. Most charters are granted for five-year terms. But Arizona and the District of Columbia offer 15-year charters, which some observers say could allow poor-performing schools to slide by for years.

Many experts point to Massachusetts as a national model in articulating how to hold charter schools accountable. The task is somewhat easier there, they note, because the state is the primary sponsor of charter schools. The reverse is true in places like California and Colorado.

In the latter states, charter school operators are crafting accountability and renewal guidelines with a dual purpose: as protection from potentially arbitrary decisions by a less-than-friendly sponsor; and as a self-regulating quality-control effort.

"We want to avoid the renewal process becoming a rubber stamp, as I would suggest it already has become in some places in Colorado," said James Griffin, who runs the Colorado League of Charter Schools.

"It defeats our whole purpose," he added. "We have a huge stake in quality control."

In California, many in the charter school movement say the renewal process often focuses on everything but student results. Mr. Norris, the head of the Constellation school in Long Beach, recently led a panel on charter renewal at a statewide charter school meeting.

"The issues seemed to boil down to the question of 'Who's in charge here?'" he said. "Charters are looking to get more control. And districts and unions want to take back some of that power."

'No Magic Target'

At a recent daylong meeting of educators from Chicago's six operating and eight newly approved charter schools, school and district officials spent much of the morning hashing out accountability issues.

But the remainder of the day, geared toward the newer schools, was dedicated to somewhat more mundane issues, such as food service, pension funds, and immunization of students.

The reality, said Greg A. Richmond, the charter school director for the Chicago public schools, is that most charters are so busy with day-to-day operations that they have little time to ponder how they will demonstrate success before the school board.

The district has sought philanthropic support to help the charter schools devise ways of assessing hard-to-measure goals, such as good citizenship or parent involvement. And the district is drafting a yearly accountability plan that each charter school will file as a means of tracking progress.

Throughout the meeting, the tensions over accountability were clear. Some educators said they believe standardized test scores are meaningless; others want them as their primary measure of success. Some welcome the district's guidance, while others see it as an intrusion.

"Some schools have asked, 'What's the magic target?' 'What do we have to achieve?'" Mr. Richmond said. "We don't know. There's no one thing."

Vol. 17, Issue 39, Pages 1,14-15

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