Identity Crisis: Can Charter Schools Survive Accountability?

Education Next, Summer 2005 | Go to article overview

Identity Crisis: Can Charter Schools Survive Accountability?


Charter schooling and test-based accountability both have their roots in concerns that public schools are not sufficiently accountable. But

as both innovations take hold, a tension is emerging. Some charter schools believe they should answer only to parents and their mission and should be exempt from many of the accountability requirements that are imposed on traditional public schools.

In this forum, Michael Petrilli argues that charter schools, if they are effective, should not fear accountability, while Theodore Sizer worries that bringing charter schools under the NCLB framework will stifle their ability to innovate and develop radically different, and more promising, school models.

Charters as Role Models

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The charter school movement turns 14 this year, and its behavior, some might say, is "developmentally appropriate." Unruly and temperamental, impassioned and energetic, growing in fits and starts and fiercely independent, even friends and supporters aren't quite sure what to do with it. And now comes the apex of adolescence: the identity crisis.

Like most Americans who have ancestors from multiple countries or even continents, charters were born of disparate theories, education initiatives, and social philosophies. That diversity has been one of the greatest strengths of the big family that is the charter movement. But now public policies--certainly No Child Left Behind (NCLB), but also the state standards movement that preceded it--are forcing conversations long delayed. The most fundamental question is, What's the point of charter schools anyway?

In the early 1990s, at the inception of charters, the bargain was set. These schools would be given greater autonomy and flexibility than traditional public schools, and in return they would be held accountable for getting better results in student learning. And, just as critically, they would be schools of choice for everyone involved--students, parents, and teachers. Two sides of the charter triangle--autonomy and choice--have remained quite clear and without controversy, at least within the charter movement itself. Parents should have plenty of choices; and the more autonomy and flexibility, the better. And it is clear that the charter model has succeeded in attracting applicants (see Figure 1).

But regarding the third side--accountability for results--the conversation was purposefully ambiguous. What results? Measured how? Compared with what? Rather than forcing a standard answer to these questions, policy makers and charter sponsors allowed schools to develop contracts that were customized to their specific contours.

Schools had the freedom to make the case to their state or local overseers for their contracts and accountability plans to reflect their unique pedagogical approaches. If the school was of the progressive stripe, for example, attracting parents and teachers who abhorred standardized testing, then portfolios of student work might serve as the indicator of success. If the school served an at-risk population, such as high-school dropouts, expectations might be adjusted accordingly. In effect, it was accountability sans standards.

As the 1990s progressed, however, and the state standards movement gained strength, the ambiguity around accountability--for charters but also for other public schools--started to recede. Elected representatives decided that it was appropriate to expect all public school students to know and be able to do certain things. Furthermore, they determined that statewide assessments were reasonable tools to measure whether this learning had in fact happened. And, by the end of the decade, some states were ready to hold schools to account for education success or failure.

Finally, by 2002, through the No Child Left Behind act, the public's elected representatives took decisive action to close the achievement gaps plaguing our nation--and to hold all public schools, including charter schools, accountable for making progress toward that end.

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