Five to eight years ago, research on charter schools focused mostly on whether the new brand of public schooling was a good idea.
But studies presented here last week at a conference hosted by the Consortium for Policy Research in Education suggest that scholarship in the field has begun to move on from those first-generation questions. A second generation of studies aims to look more closely at what happens inside the increasingly prominent schools.
“In some ways, we’re moving away from the black-box questions to questions about what kind of instruction goes on in charter schools,” said Paul T. Hill, a research professor in the University of Washington’s school of public affairs in Seattle. “Is it coherent? Does it increase opportunities for kids and, then, under what circumstances do these things happen?”
The maturation in the field reflects, in part, the growth in the charter school movement, which is a decade old. Now, some 2,400 such schools operate in 34 states, according to the Center for Education Reform, a Washington-based research and advocacy group on school choice.
Making sense of that growing movement is difficult, researchers said, because the schools themselves vary so greatly. Charter schools include everything from small schools launched by like-minded teachers, to community- operated schools emphasizing the cultures and traditions of racial or ethnic groups, to schools run by national, for-profit companies.
The range may defy categorization, said Deanna R. Duby, a senior professional associate for the National Education Association.
“I have the greatest amount of respect for you to try to do this,” she told the researchers, “but those of us who have had experiences in charter schools know they aren’t an entity.”
For all their diversity, charter schools may not foster as much classroom innovation as policymakers had once hoped, according to one study presented here.
Christopher Lubieski, an assistant professor of education at Iowa State University in Ames, said his review of the literature in the field suggests that an unanticipated effect of the movement may be that charter schools become more alike in their teaching practices, rather than different, in order to continue attracting students.
But other conference- goers said curricular innovation may be the wrong standard by which to judge charter schools.
“In some places, if there’s a school that’s successful, that is a remarkable innovation,” said Sarah Tantillo, who heads the New Jersey Charter School Association in Newark.
Charters also may not be meeting expectations for teachers who look to them as a way to gain some classroom autonomy, to broaden their professional opportunities, and to have a say in how their schools operate, preliminary findings from another study presented here suggest.
Researchers Christopher D. Nelson and Gary Miron of the Evaluation Center at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo drew their conclusions from surveys of charter school teachers in four states: Connecticut, Illinois, Michigan, and Pennsylvania.
Maintaining autonomy may be particularly tricky, several studies suggest, for the growing number of charter schools operated by educational management organizations, or EMOs.
Katrina E. Bulkley, an assistant professor of educational policy at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., interviewed officials of 15 such companies operating charter schools and found that the degree to which the companies exercise control over their schools varies greatly.
Most of the companies, for example, draft recommended budgets for their schools and play a role in hiring principals, but leave teacher-hiring decisions to school-based staffs.
“These EMOs bring capacity with them, but the tradeoff for gaining capacity may be giving up some autonomy,” said Ms. Bulkley, who organized the Nov. 12-13 gathering.
Tensions over autonomy also surface as charter schools grapple with how to serve the special education students who show up at their doors, according to Cheryl M. Lange, a private consultant who took part in a three-year study of special education in seven states with charter schools.
“We need to recognize those tensions are there and playing into the decisions that are being made,” Ms. Lange said.
Susan H. Fuhrman, the dean of the University of Pennsylvania’s graduate school of education, said the conference research, while plowing new ground, still had yet to really get inside schools to find out whether the charter movement is producing better schools or better learning.
“We must push ourselves to looking at measures of quality, and get away from talking innovation and using superficial measures of what’s going on in the classroom,” argued Ms. Fuhrman, who also chairs CPRE, a federally financed, five-university consortium based at her university.
Besides CPRE, last week’s conference was co-sponsored by the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington and the Center for Education Policy Analysis at Rutgers.
Priscilla Wohlstetter, an education professor at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles who also helped organize the conference, said the mix of practitioners, policymakers, and researchers of differing perspectives who attended the event also suggests the field is becoming less polarized.
“In the beginning, you had a camp of policy champions and a tiny group of young researchers,” she said, “so basically you had the policy champions deciding who was in the advocacy camp and who was in the detractor camp.”
Now, she said, the “fray is no longer a fray.”
A version of this article appeared in the November 21, 2001 edition of Education Week as Scholars Turn to Evaluating Charter Schools From the Inside