Evaluating charter school performance continues to be an inexact science, but one that can be mastered when overseers have more resources to conduct thorough reviews, a national study released here last week concludes.
Even charter school authorizers with ragged evaluation systems manage to stumble into taking the “correct” action when it comes to weighing a charter school’s fate, the report says. And authorizers aren’t hesitant to close schools that require that drastic step.
“The decisions ultimately come out correctly, but not on the basis of the kind of process we would like to see,” said Bryan C. Hassel, a co-author of “High-Stakes: Findings From a National Study of Life-or-Death Decisions by Charter School Authorizers.”
Mr. Hassel, the president of Public Impact, a Chapel Hill, N.C.-based education policy consulting firm, said he wanted to examine whether charter authorizers were shutting down schools that were not performing and how those decisions were being made. The Smith Richardson Foundation, of Westport, Conn., paid for the study, which is co-written by Meagan Batdorff, a consultant with Public Impact.
The study compiled 506 “high-stakes” decisions—renewing, not renewing, or revoking charter school contracts—made by charter authorizers nationwide in 2001. Using that list, 50 randomly selected cases were reviewed through interviews and analysis of documents and media accounts.
Among the study’s main findings was that roughly one out of six high-stakes decisions led to school closures. About 84 percent of the decisions were renewals, while 16 percent resulted in schools’ loss of their contracts.
Mr. Hassel, who presented his study at the Brookings Institution in Washington Feb. 18, believes the figures represent a “fairly high rate” of closure because most of the high-stakes decisions made were sound. In the 50 case studies, the researchers found that only one school was not closed despite signs of “underperformance,” while supporting evidence was not clear in the closures of four other schools.
The report adds that many charter authorizers based their decisions on inadequate information or had failed to develop clear expectations with the schools. In more than half the cases, authorizers did not make “merit based” comparisons of evidence and agreed-upon goals. Political pressure was more commonly apparent, it says, in charter school decisions made by local school boards.
The researchers recommend that states provide more money to strengthen charter authorizers’ evaluation capabilities. Attracting authorizers other than local school boards would be beneficial, they argue, because universities and state education agencies—which issue charters in some states—tend to develop better evaluation programs.
“If you’ve got a lot of schools to oversee, you can’t just do it on the back of an envelope,” Mr. Hassel said. “You have to develop a system and be more deliberate about it.”
Robin Lake, the associate director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington in Seattle, says that authorizers should not expect more state funding until the evaluation process is improved.
Ms. Lake suggested during the Brookings Institution discussion that states set minimum standards for oversight. Authorizers should be randomly audited to ensure that they are conducting adequate reviews, she added.
Mark Cannon, the executive director of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, balked at the notion of drafting state policies that provide evaluation guidelines for authorizers. The Alexandria, Va.-based group represents 50 authorizing bodies.
While the association encourages charter authorizers to use a rigorous review process, he said, more state compliance rules “could stifle the innovation that charter schools tend to promote.”
No one wants to create another publicly financed bureaucracy, said Tom Mooney, the president of the Ohio Federation of Teachers, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers. But Mr. Mooney, a chief critic of his state’s charter school system, said in a telephone interview that adopting state standards for charter authorizers could provide a better accountability process.
“Most people want safeguards of quality and safeguards of how money is being spent,” he said.