School & District Management

Project Aims to Cut Through Fog of Studies On Charters

August 23, 2007 6 min read

Billing itself as a neutral voice in a contentious national conversation, the National Charter School Research Project has spent the past three years trying to bring a clear-eyed approach to the highly polarized debate over the independent public schools.

The project aims to bring “rigor, evidence, and balance” to such questions as how charter schools’ academic merits compare with those of regular public schools, while at the same time bridging the gulf between scholars and other players in the education policy world.

“Our goal is to have something that an intelligent layman will understand, and that an academic will think is solid,” said Paul T. Hill, the chairman of the NCSRP and a prominent researcher on school choice at the University of Washington in Seattle. Mr. Hill has long shown sympathy for the concept of charter schooling—and has written extensively on it— even while he has pointed out charters’ shortcomings in practice.

Perhaps the project’s most noted role so far has been evaluating current research on charter schools’ academic outcomes and devising standards for future research. So far, the organization— based at the university’s Center on Reinventing Public Education, which Mr. Hill heads—has not conducted its own research on the performance of charter schools.

With target audiences that include the research and policy communities, charter organizations and funders, and the news media, the NCSRP has also issued reports on charter authorizing, charter school safety, and the growth of socalled charter management organizations, among other subjects.

The project continues to expand into new areas of inquiry, and it operates a comprehensive electronic database on charter research.

‘Kinder, Gentler Advocacy’

A review of NCSRP reports shows the organization is ready to point out the flaws of research, whether the findings are favorable or unfavorable to charters, and to highlight both the strengths and weaknesses of charter efforts.

Yet in a national policy climate that remains divided over charters, not all observers see the NCSRP as living up to its claims of bringing a balanced perspective informed by evidence.

“It’s basically a kinder, gentler advocacy organization,” said F. Howard Nelson, a senior associate at the American Federation of Teachers, which has been fairly critical of charters, most of which are nonunionized.

Robin J. Lake, the NCSRP’s executive director, suggests that the project looks at charter matters pragmatically, taking as a given that they are now a fact of life in many communities, and that demand for more charters continues. A major strand of the work is drawing lessons that will help policymakers and others ensure high-quality charters.

“Everybody benefits when existing charter schools do better,” Ms. Lake said. “Wherever you stand on the issue, they’re there.”

The National Charter School Research Project was launched in 2004, when a group of private funders approached the Center on Reinventing Public Education about the project.

Calling It Like They See It

Quantity Counts: The Growth of Charter School Management Organizations (August 2007)
“Too many [management organizations] have repeated avoidable mistakes. Naïve assumptions about growth goals, design fidelity, politics, and community relations have exacerbated already challenging scale efforts.”

Beyond the Battle Lines: Lessons from New York’s Charter Caps Fight (June 2007)
“While there is still … a fair amount of knee-jerk antiunionism on the part of charter proponents and anti-charter sentiment on the part of union activists, the union politics are more complex in New York than they appear on first glance.”

Making Sense of Charter School Studies: A Reporter’s Guide (March 2007)
“[R]esearchers have established that the quality of charter schools varies enormously, as does their impact on academic achievement. But it is important to understand the limitations of each study, too.”

01charter bookcover

Hopes, Fears, and Reality: A Balanced Look at American Charter Schools in 2006 (December 2006)
“The question today is no longer should communities open a charter school, but rather what will be the consequences of the continued growth of charter schools?”

Key Issues in Studying Charter Schools and Achievement: A Review and Suggestions for National Guidelines (May 2006)
“The right question is whether students in charter schools are learning more or less than they would have learned in conventional public schools. This is a reasonable question, but it is easier to ask than to answer.”

Holding Charter Authorizers Accountable: Why It Is Important and How It Might Be Done (February 2006)
“[I]f the charter school movement fails to prove itself as a viable source of higher-quality public schools, bad authorizing and oversight will probably be a major reason.”

SOURCE: National Charter School Research Project

“A lot of the discussion surrounding chartering was too often clouded by assumptions and values and ideologies that people brought to the issue,” said Bruno V. Manno, a senior associate at the Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation. “We were hoping to create some kind of entity that would be recognized as a place to go for timely and accurate information on chartering.”

The project has received funding from nearly a dozen philanthropies, including the Casey Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Walton Family Fund, and the Heinz Endowments, as well as the U.S. Department of Education. Its annual budget is about $1 million.

In 2005, the NCSRP formed a “consensus panel” of researchers with diverse methodological approaches and views on charter schools. Led by Mr. Hill, the panel examined the quality of research on charters’ academic performance and developed standards for rigorous future research.

A May 2006 white paper by the panel raised concerns about the quality of much of that research. It found that 61 percent of studies from 2001 to 2005 used what it deemed “fair or poor” designs.

The paper suggested ways to get the most meaningful data. For instance, it promoted an experimental model that compares the performance of charter students who gained enrollment through a lottery with the performance of students who also applied but were not admitted. (“Guidelines Offered for Meaningful Studies of Achievement in Charters,” June 7, 2006.)

Yet the panel cautioned against relying on one approach or study.

“There is no single method, and single study, that can convincingly tell policymakers all they need to know about the impact of charter schools on student learning,” the paper said. A book expanding on the paper is expected out later this year.

Despite what some friends and foes of charters may contend, the NCSRP says the verdict is out on whether charters, en masse, outperform or underperform regular public schools.

“[T]he debate over academic achievement among charter students is far from settled, and is likely to remain so for some time,” Ms. Lake and Mr. Hill wrote in the introduction to one NCSRP report.

The NCSRP, which taps outside experts to write reports, has gradually expanded its areas of inquiry. One initiative, Ms. Lake said, is to study the growth and replication of successful charter models.

Interest in Scaling Up

A study the project issued this month looks at the challenges for management organizations that aim to run large numbers of highquality charters, such as the forprofit Edison Schools Inc., based in New York City, and the nonprofit Aspire Public Schools, based in Oakland, Calif.

The efforts of such outfits to expand are proving “much more difficult and expensive than anticipated,” the report says, and many of the organizations “have repeated avoidable mistakes.”

The NCSRP has also been interested in the often-rocky relationship between charter schools and teachers’ unions. It co-hosted a symposium on the future of that relationship in 2006, followed by a paper on the day’s discussion.

An analysis of the battle over New York state’s cap on charter schools offered criticism of teachers’ unions and pro-charter organizations engaged in the fight.

Several researchers and policy analysts said they believe the NCSRP is generally evenhanded.

“I think they’re fairly balanced people,” said Ron Zimmer, a senior policy researcher at the RAND Corp., a think tank based in Santa Monica, Calif. “I value their products and often refer to them.”

Todd M. Ziebarth, a senior analyst at the Washington-based National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, says he finds the work fair and helpful. “They have done a very good job of identifying some of the thorny issues,” he said.

Mr. Ziebarth said he takes issue with some of the NCSRP’s recommendations, such as the call in a recent study to retain statewide caps on charters in certain cases.

“It was pretty fair,” he said of the June 2007 report. “I don’t agree with everything that’s in it, but that’s probably a good sign.”

Still, Kevin G.Welner, the director of the Education and the Public Interest Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder, suggested that the project may not reflect the full range of views on charters.

“The project provides a wonderful source of information, and many quality researchers are involved,” he said via e-mail. “One concern is that, while the project states that it aims for balance, it has thus far balanced true believers with only mild skeptics. This effectively excludes or minimizes many important scholars who are raising the most challenging concerns about the policy.”

Looking ahead, the NCSRP will examine charter high schools and how charter schools deal with special education policy. It has also launched a project, “Inside Charter Schools,” to study the people and work of charters, including the instructional strategies charters offer.

“It’s gotten to be a much more complex research effort,” Ms. Lake said, “with lots and lots of different projects.”

Mr. Hill said the NCSRP may eventually commission its own study on charter achievement.

Mr. Ziebarth from the charter alliance said he hopes it does.

“The next logical step is to actually jump in and test some of those methodologies,” he said.“We would like to see them sort of set the example.”

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Coverage of education research is supported in part by a grant from the Spencer Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the August 29, 2007 edition of Education Week

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