Union's Charter School Project Emphasizes Research and Evaluation

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When the National Education Association launched its charter school project, the union said that one its chief objectives was to document, study, and share the experiences of the five pilot schools.

The NEA has hired Amy Stuart Wells, a researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles, to tackle the items on that list. And the union is working with a nonprofit research group to focus on strengthening communications and other links between charter schools and the larger school community.

Amy Stuart Wells

The flurry of research activity around the five NEA-sponsored schools at times has been intense, said Linda Page, the lead teacher for the union's Colorado Springs, Colo., charter school.

"Being overanalyzed and over-researched, it can start to overtake what's going on at the school level," the 49-year-old teacher said, echoing a common concern among the nation's nearly 800 charter schools, many of which have been subject to intense scrutiny.

Through site visits and interviews, Ms. Wells and a team of eight graduate and postdoctoral students are evaluating the union's initiative around eight broad areas, with updates planned for each year of the five-year project. Those areas are student learning and pedagogy, community collaboration, accountability and governance, links with other school improvement efforts, affiliate partnerships, funding, creation of a new school, and collective bargaining.

The NEA plans to release highlights from Ms. Wells' case studies to the public, possibly later this month. Andrea DiLorenzo, a co-director of the initiative, said the union will not "whitewash" the findings.

But some charter proponents have criticized the NEA for choosing Ms. Wells in the first place. Some of her past work has come under fire from charter supporters.

"They have a person doing evaluation of their program who has made it clear that she is skeptical about charter schools, not a neutral person," argued Joe Nathan, a prominent charter school advocate based in Minneapolis.

Ms. Wells, an associate professor of education policy at UCLA, rejected that assertion. "I'm not a proponent or an opponent of charter schools. I'm just fascinated by it as a reform," she said. "Anything you write about charter schools, people on both sides of the issue will have problems with it."

Making Connections

"I've never been a rah-rah NEA person or a bash-the-NEA person," the 36-year-old researcher added. "I hear the criticisms of the union, and I think it's important that they're addressing some of that with the charter initiative."

Ms. Wells describes her team's role as that of a "critical friend," giving the union feedback about what the team is learning.

Nancy E. Adelman, a senior research associate at SRI International, knew that one of the issues the NEA wanted to promote and examine was the connections between charter and other public schools. The U.S. Department of Education was interested, too, and awarded Menlo Park, Calif.-based SRI a contract for a model charter school project last fall. The joint SRI-NEA project is slated to receive just under $200,000 a year for two years.

The project will work with the NEA's five schools, plus five other charter schools in Arizona, California, and Michigan. Rather than simply sit back and record what's going on, project researchers will play the role of facilitator between the charter schools and their local communities, said Ms. Adelman, who is based in Arlington, Va. "If the theory is that charters should change the face of public education, they have to at least come out of their shells to make it happen," she added. "It's not going to happen by osmosis."

The researchers plan to report on their initial findings by early fall.

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