Learning from the North Carolina Charter School Evaluation Case Studies: A Cross-Site Analysis

Article excerpt

Introduction

As the preceding articles reveal, one component of the Charter School Evaluation Plan was case studies of ten of the first year charter schools. The case studies were designed to understand: 1. purposes of the schools; 2. implementation issues that emerged; 3. resources available to the schools; 4. best practices that the schools have to offer; 5. school outcomes, and 6. hopes the schools have for the future. The sample of charter schools was chosen to reflect the diversity in the first year schools. The case study schools vary in mission, geographical location, size, grades served, population served, conversion and new schools, instructional focus, results on the State accountability tests, management by an external organization, and percent of teachers that were certified teachers. All the selected schools agreed to participate. It is important to note that this article is based on all ten schools and not just those reported in this special issue of The High School Journal.

The case studies were conducted using standard case study methodology (Merriam, 1988; Stake, 1995). The teams consisted of four persons with varying perspectives. Each team consisted of representatives from universities (experienced researchers who served as team leaders) in the University of North Carolina system, the Department of Public Instruction, Charter schools, and public schools. This collaboration was important in insuring that the case studies gave a full and fair account of the schools studied. After a brief training process, the teams visited the schools. There they collected documents from each site, observed instruction and other school activities, and interviewed a wide range of people including Board members, the school director, teachers, students, and those who collaborated with or were partners with the school. Teams visited the selected schools for eight person/days each. The teams took notes and gave these, and their ideas and interpretations, to the team leader who drafted the case. The draft was reviewed by the schools and by other team members. Schools varied in the amount of feedback they gave to the written case. Some offered specific criticisms and alternative explanations; others offered little or no feedback. The draft cases were then analyzed for shared themes and differences among the schools. This report is the result of that cross-case analysis.

The cross-case analysis presents findings from across the ten schools, but an important caveat in this must be noted. These schools are in the process of making significant changes; thus, lessons offered by these schools are likely to change as the schools gain experience. The case study schools share a dominant context of implementing legislation with a short timeline and with few supports in place. This is consistent with lessons from other states (Kane, 1998; Finn, Manno, Bierlein, and Vanourek, 1998). In subsequent years, it will be possible to determine the lessons of charter schools independent of the conditions under which they were implemented.

The cross-case analysis is arranged in sections drawn from the larger Charter School Evaluation Plan that the case studies were designed to explore. Each section examines a set of topics that reveal the similarities and differences among the schools. These topics are interrelated, and when taken together they capture the first year's experience of these schools.

Purposes

As is to be expected with Charter Schools (Lieberman, 1994), the ten schools varied widely in their purposes. Some were offering an innovative curriculum, while others offered a traditional curriculum. Some had a moral and/or religious purpose, while others were to educate those unsuccessful in the public schools. Some had commercial instructional programs; while others developed their own. Some more serve minorities and the poor; while others more serve the white middle class. Moreover, different purposes were combined in different ways in different schools. …