Charter Schools: Paying Attention to Ancillary Findings

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As educators rush to align themselves with proponents or opponents of the charter school movement, they may overlook their potential lessons.

I recently conducted a study of New Jersey's first year of charter schools with a team of talented graduate students, all of whom are teachers taking time off to earn advanced degrees. Over the course of four months, we visited each of the 13 pioneering charter schools in the state, logged over 65 hours of observation, and interviewed close to 200 people. Students, parents, school directors, teachers, board members, and founders who are directly involved in charter schools shared their impressions and experiences with us, as did superintendents, school board presidents, parent-teacher-organization presidents, and union leaders--all constituents in the communities in which the charter schools are located.

We focused our inquiry on determining how these schools were different from other public schools in New Jersey, what problems they were facing in their first year of existence, and the attitudes and opinions toward these schools. While our findings were instructive and illuminating, I was also struck by the unintended epiphanies that such research affords--ancillary findings that did not receive a lot of attention in the final report, yet have resonance and implications for the advancement of educational reform.

Funding and facilities topped the list of first-year problems and were repetitively cited by most of those interviewed. Superintendents claim that charter school funds, which flow through the districts' operating budgets, place undue financial strain on district finances. For their part, charter schools receive only 90 percent or less of the local district's per-pupil allocation, and complain that they are underfunded. These schools also face an added burden of capital costs. Unlike district schools--which have buildings provided through separate capital funds and can rely on municipal bonds to raise additional funds--charter schools must turn to their already limited operating budgets to cover capital costs.

Results from our attitudinal surveys confirm research findings of charter school studies in other states, which report that students and their parents are largely satisfied with charter schools. The students we interviewed--in grade 5 or above--believe that teachers give them more attention and put more effort into helping them than teachers in their previous schools. Ninety percent of the 51 parents we interviewed say the school is working for their child, as evidenced by the child's interest in and enthusiasm for school, as well as observed social and academic growth.

Despite long hours and the lack of support staff, teachers and administrators appear content with their jobs. As teacher-researchers, we were particularly interested in the reason they remained enthusiastic in the face of difficult working conditions, particularly during this initial year. For example, teachers reported working approximately 10 hours a day, and many directors spoke of 70- to 80-hour workweeks. Yet even in April, after months of a demanding work schedule, teachers and administrators were positive about their jobs. In stepping back from the data, we speculate that satisfaction is an outgrowth of two characteristics unique to charter schools: the opportunity for self-governance, and the act of formulating a mission-based charter, which requires reflection and deliberation on essential components of schooling.

Charter schools are operated by an independent board of trustees that works with the school director to set policy and decide how to allocate money. This form of governance is mandated in the state's charter legislation, and is predicated on the notion that board members who know the school and care about it personally are apt to make sound and appropriate decisions. All of the schools we studied have boards that include parents of students in the school, which gives them a daily "reading" on the operation of the school and a vested interest in seeing it succeed. True, familiarity and self-interest can result in making decisions with one's own child at the center. Nonetheless, anecdotal experience in New Jersey, and with other nonprofit boards, suggests that is usually not the case. Parent-trustees are likely to look beyond their own interests to accept a sense of corporate responsibility for the school.

Charter school board administrators appear to appreciate that teachers have professional expertise, a factor often overlookeed in district schools.

One way boards have exercised their prerogative is to expend funds to create small schools and small classes. In all of the schools we studied, funding for instructional staff purposely received priority over funding for administrative or support services. In New Jersey, this year's average charter school enrollment is 103 students, and though schools have plans to expand, they are committed to remaining relatively small; class size ranges from eight to 20 students, and schools report an average teacher-student ratio of 1-to-9.

Small size and individual attention are among the reasons parents said they chose charter schools, and smallness appears to help develop a strong sense of community. All of the parents we interviewed said they attend PTA meetings, and over half of all parents reported that they volunteer their time to work in the school or to serve on school committees. In each of the charter schools we visited, we found substantial evidence of parental involvement. Most charter school teachers said that they feel supported by parents, and that they welcome their presence in the school. During our visits we were struck by the fact that all members of the school--students, parents, teachers, and school directors--knew each other by name, an outcome of small size that contributes to building a sense of community.

While most schools are congenial places to work, they often fail to be collegial in the sense that contributes to school improvement. Research indicates that many teachers feel isolated, but that this sense of isolation is outweighed by a desire to have their classrooms remain private sanctuaries. Teachers are often uncomfortable with other adults in their classrooms--perhaps as an outgrowth of having few visitors, other than supervisors who drop in periodically to evaluate them.

In charter schools, one ancillary outcome of involving teachers in curriculum development and planning may be the comfort teachers develop having other adults in the classroom. In the 13 schools we visited, isolation did not seem to be a problem. We observed teachers, parents, and directors moving comfortably in and out of each other's spaces. This sense of collaboration and collegiality was further reinforced by the duality of most directors' roles, as they often serve as both teacher and administrator.

Charter school boards and administrators appear to appreciate that teachers have professional expertise, a factor often overlooked in district schools. We interviewed three teachers in each school and asked them to speak to the major advantage of working in a charter school. Most did not hesitate to cite the value of being involved in decisions about the teaching and learning process, and the opportunity for professional growth. Over three-fourths of all teachers participate in curriculum development and setting policies for the school, and many teachers are involved in hiring decisions.

Whether it is an intentional feature of the school, or a necessity created by the absence of curriculum specialists, the effect of involving teachers in curriculum decisions is instructive. One teacher, commenting on the professional advantages of working at the school, summed up the general teacher response to curriculum involvement: "There is more room [here] for growth overall. For curriculum design, the teachers get together and do the planning themselves. There are great opportunities for leadership among the faculty and for fellowship among colleagues." In contrast, in the small number of schools in which teachers were given a set curriculum, the dissatisfaction was palpable. "I don't feel like I am treated like a professional here," lamented one of those teachers.

But whether or not charter schools remain a fixture in the educational landscape, they currently offer fertile ground for exploring ancillary aspects of school autonomy.

In recent years, while corporations have been turning their organization charts upside down to push decisions to those closest to the customers, many school districts remain reluctant to trust teachers and persist with outmoded practices of handing teachers curriculum developed elsewhere. As one union representative commented: "The charter schools can be as creative as they want. Our teachers are held down by the bureaucracy. It's true, everything comes from the central office here. They don't have one iota [of an idea] of what the problems are here."

In New Jersey charter schools, we found teachers who were far removed from the reluctant and passive images of teachers portrayed in the media. These were educators who appeared to revel in the opportunity to have a decisive role in their practice; the majority of the teachers we met were growth seekers, willing to put forth increased effort for a satisfying professional life. We further speculate that given the opportunity to learn and grow, most teachers would react similarly.

The process of applying for a charter has beneficial effects that go beyond receiving approval to open a school. Applying for a charter in New Jersey requires extensive planning, and the charter application necessitates specifying all aspects of school life, including the school's purpose and goals, curriculum, assessment methods, school calendar and daily schedule, qualifications for the board of trustees, staff responsibilities, qualifications of the teaching staff, and the procedures to ensure significant parental involvement. Founders often collaborate with the director they have hired, and devote months to preparing the charter application. During this process, they engage in a kind of "zero-based planning," in which each budget item is scrutinized for its worth relative to the charter. This type of strategic-planning process involves careful deliberation, exploring alternatives, and arriving at a consensus--the kind of reflective practice that is useful in all schools, but seldom practiced.

For example, while all public schools have mission statements, most consist of universal goals that are seldom operational or useful in guiding decisions. When pressed, most district principals are aware of having a mission statement, and can locate the document in a file drawer--but few see the mission as a guiding force. By contrast, each charter school director we interviewed was able to cite his or her school's mission, which was often narrowly defined to serve the specific needs of the community the school served. Out of the 38 teachers we interviewed, only one could not articulate the school's mission, and all but five could state, with reasonable clarity, how the mission shaped their practice. Of equal importance is the fact that having a mission appears to be useful for hiring faculty members who are in concert with the goals and purposes of the school. It is little wonder that charter school directors believed that an advantage of their schools is the ability to work with teachers who share a common educational philosophy. When teachers' perspectives are aligned with one another and working toward the same goals, they are bound to find their work more satisfying.

In subsequent evaluations of charter schools in New Jersey and elsewhere, the focus will be on obtaining hard data on achievement results. Citizens, legislators, and policymakers deserve to know if the charter school movement holds promise for improving the quality of education in this country, and whether the element of school choice makes a difference in educational outcomes. But whether or not charter schools remain a fixture in the educational landscape, they currently offer fertile ground for exploring ancillary aspects of school autonomy. These schools allow us to study the effects of self-governance and reflective practice in creating an ethos that may be conducive to raising professional standards in all schools. As educators rush to align themselves with proponents or opponents of the charter school movement, they may overlook the potential lessons that charter schools have to offer.

Pearl Rock Kane is a professor in the department of organization and leadership at Teachers College, Columbia University, in New York City and the director of the Klingenstein Center for Independent Education. Her research has included a comparison of public and private school teachers in New Jersey and a book, The First Year of Teaching: Real Life Stories from America's Classrooms.

Vol. 18, Issue 7, Pages 42, 45

Published in Print: September 23, 1998, as Charter Schools: Paying Attention to Ancillary Findings
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