School Choice & Charters

Mich. Charter Schools Aren’t Innovative, Report Says

By Darcia Harris Bowman — February 23, 2000 2 min read

Charter schools in Michigan are failing to use their freedom from state and local regulations to forge new directions in public education, according to a report released last week by Michigan State University.

The study, “Leveraging Local Innovation: The Case of Michigan’s Charter Schools,” found that the schools have mostly seized on innovative practices already in use for years in regular public schools, rather than coming up with new ideas of their own.

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“Leveraging Local Innovation: The Case of Michigan’s Charter Schools,” is available for free online. (Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)

“There’s not a whole lot of innovation going on in any schools right now, and many of the practices being called innovative have actually been around for years, like all-day kindergarten and the extended school day,” said Michael Mintrom, the study’s author and an associate professor of political science at Michigan State.

Some proponents of charter schools, which are publicly funded but largely independent, have contended that the movement would encourage educators to try new approaches. A federal report released this month found that of 946 charter schools that responded to a survey question on the primary reason for their founding, 58 percent said they wanted to “realize an alternative vision” of education. (“Buildings in Hand, Church Leaders Float Charter Ideas,” Feb. 16, 1999.)

But others who embrace the movement say its main purpose is to raise student achievement.

“This isn’t the first time we’ve heard charter schools aren’t innovative,” said James Goenner, the director of the charter schools office at Central Michigan University. “As a public university that licenses these schools, we’re looking for schools that are effective and can raise student achievement. The way some people define innovative, you would walk into a classroom and see the teacher standing on his head.”

‘Mutual Suspicion’

Rather than try to impose his own understanding of what qualifies as “innovative,” Mr. Mintrom said he left the definition up to those who should be the best judges of the schools’ practices—the principals.

The study released by Michigan State University, which does not grant charters, involved two surveys of school principals. In the first, 272 principals from both Michigan charter schools and regular public schools were asked what they considered to be distinctive about their schools. In the second poll, the same administrators were asked to judge the innovativeness of the various practices, without being told the schools’ status or names.

The results show that the similarities between charter schools and regular public schools are more striking than the differences, according to the report.

And overall, Mr. Mintrom says, Michigan’s charter schools are no more remarkable than other public schools when it comes to administration, curriculum, and many other elements of education.

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A version of this article appeared in the February 23, 2000 edition of Education Week as Mich. Charter Schools Aren’t Innovative, Report Says

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