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Charting The Charters

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As charter schools sweep the country, the big question for researchers is: Do they work?

Cindy Grutzik spends a couple days each week in two Southern California charter schools interviewing teachers, attending staff meetings, and observing classrooms. A doctoral student at the University of California at Los Angeles, Grutzik wants to know whether charter school teachers are satisfied with their experiences.

Her early results suggest that for most the change to charter schools has been difficult but positive. "It seems that people understand that hard work comes along with this kind of situation," the former elementary school teacher says.

Grutzik is just one of a growing number of researchers who are exploring the hottest trend in education today: the charter school movement. Currently, some 500 charter schools are open for business nationwide. Six states passed charter legislation last year, bringing the total to 25. And still others are considering the publicly funded, specially tailored schools, which operate free of many state and local regulations.

Now, more than five years after the first charters opened in Minnesota, education researchers—led by graduate students hungry for unexplored dissertation topics—are trying to determine whether the reform strategy actually works. Their findings could have far-reaching implications for the future of the charter movement.

"What we really need to do is take a careful look," says Richard Shavelson, dean of the education school at Stanford University. "I think charter schools are an idea that is appealing to the public, but the real issue is whether what goes on in the classroom has substantially changed."

When researchers say they want to find out whether charter schools "work," they mean several things. Do they educate students better than traditional schools? Do they lure the best students from those schools, as some critics claim, or do they welcome all comers, even those with learning disabilities or a limited command of English? And perhaps paramount, can charter schools reinvigorate public education by injecting a strong dose of competition into the entire system?

Until recently, many independent researchers in academia shied away from the politically charged charter school concept, which has been linked to vouchers. The topic was left primarily for the supporters and critics of the movement. "Tenured, stable academics have by and large kept at a distance," says Eric Rofes, a doctoral student at the University of California at Berkeley who is doing his dissertation on charters.

Experts say several factors have contributed to the recent interest. For one, there are now enough charter schools with track records to make accurate research possible. In addition, a handful of early studies have established a foundation of data upon which researchers can build. Perhaps most important, however, is the fact that money is available. Many states are setting aside portions of the federal money they are getting for charter schools—a total of $51 million last year—to pay for studies.

The U.S. Department of Education itself has awarded a $2.6 million contract for a large-scale study billed as the most definitive look at charter schools to date. A first-year report, to be released this month, will include information from a national telephone survey of charter school directors and site visits to 42 schools. RPP International, a for-profit research company, is conducting the project, along with the Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis and the Institute for Responsive Education in Boston.

Before researchers could begin exploring the larger issues surrounding charter schools, some basic questions needed answers: How big are the schools? What do they look like? How many are there? What are their common characteristics?

Notable among the early studies was pioneering work by Louann Bierlein, now Louisiana Governor Mike Foster's education adviser. Bierlein developed a widely used scale for comparing charter school laws based on how much autono-my they give the schools. Researchers for the Minnesota House of Representatives also released an influential early report that discussed the issues involving charter schools in that state.

Of the first reports, however, a large number were entangled in the political debate, published by acknowledged advocates or opponents of charter schools and vouchers. Though much of this work lacked objectivity, experts say some common themes about charter schools emerged:

  • They tend to be small. The average enrollment in 1995 was 287 students, according to a survey of seven states by Alex Medlar of the Denver-based Education Commission of the States and Joe Nathan of the Center for School Change at the University of Minnesota.
  • Most are elementary schools, although grade configurations vary widely.
  • They do not seem to be skimming the best and brightest from neighboring traditional schools. Nor are they serving only middle-class white students from the suburbs—in part because some state laws give preference to charter schools designed for at-risk students.
  • Those that lack start-up money in addition to their state per-pupil funding are crippled from the outset.

Given those findings, many charter supporters conclude that the schools are producing amazing results with comparatively few resources. Charter schools "may be the most vibrant force in American education today," gushes a recent report from the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank in Indianapolis. The report blames the education establishment—teachers' unions, school boards, and state bureaucrats—for creating obstacles that could prevent charters from living up to their potential.

But other researchers point to a trouble spot within the schools themselves: Many of the educators running them aren't equipped to do the job. Charter school operators may be visionaries with commendable ideas for educating children, says Marc Dean Millot, a social scientist with the RAND Corporation, but that doesn't mean they have the fiscal, managerial, and legal expertise necessary to operate what amounts to a small business.

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

A few examples of whether charter schools are meeting their academic goals already exist. A handful of early schools—five in Minnesota, one in California, and one in Colorado—have had their charters renewed, an indication that they have met the performance goals set for them. And the New Visions School in Minneapolis, which focuses on improving the reading skills of children with learning disabilities, boosted students' vocabulary and reading-comprehension test scores during its first two years of operation.

Still, charter schools are hard to measure and catalog because no two are alike. It's even tougher to compare them with traditional schools. "We don't just have apples and oranges," says Nathan, a vocal advocate of charter schools. "We've got lots of apples, oranges, tangerines, and bananas."

Some charter schools, such as the one in Minneapolis that serves deaf students, are so different that they defy comparison. And if charter students don't take the same tests as their counterparts in regular schools, comparisons are nearly impossible. "It's a tricky thing," says 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."

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