Learning from the North Carolina Charter School Evaluation Case Studies: A Cross-Site Analysis
Noblit, George W., Erwin, Archie W., High School Journal
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.
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. It is difficult to summarize such diversity. Yet it is clear that among the 10 schools there were four basic purposes schools used to construct a distinctive mission (RPP International, 1997). The first two were present in some form in all the schools. About half of the schools were able to add the third or fourth purpose to their distinctive missions:
1. To offer a better educational alternative with good instruction, a moral setting, and small class size.
2. To serve a population inadequately served in other public schools, including at-risk, African American, and gifted students.
3. To promote community development, redressing the closings of community supported schools as part of desegregation and district consolidation.
4. To promote economic development, using the schools to help revitalize neighborhoods or as a marketing device for recruiting new businesses.
All had struggled to live up to their distinctive missions, and most had made considerable progress on this. Like charter schools across the nation (Finn et al., 1998), there were a number of challenges to the distinctive missions. For some, the logistics of getting the school started interfered with developing the instructional program that was consistent with their mission. Most made changes after the first year to improve the correspondence between the purpose for the school and the instructional program. All the schools recognized that they have more to do to fully achieve their purpose. A number of the schools planned to expand the grades served over time, and thus these schools will be both addressing expansion of services as they try to better fulfill their instructional or moral missions in existing classrooms and grades.
All of these schools justified their missions in terms of what the local school district was not able to accomplish. This took various forms. A number of the case study schools served populations that are at-risk of failure in the other local schools. Some were expressions of the dissatisfaction of businesses with the school district. These charter schools were to provide educational programs that will help recruit new businesses to the area. At least two of the case study schools were intended to continue or reclaim a school/community tradition that the local school districts jeopardized by school closings. This justification, of course, meant that these schools get little support from the school district. Other challenges to the purposes of these schools came from the media. The media have, on occasion, focused on the implementation issues faced by the schools and in some cases have misrepresented the mission of the school, implying that the schools in question were intended to be racially segregated. Media misrepresentations have taught the schools that distinctive missions can be politicized, a lesson noted by Manno and Vanourek (1997).
Finally, the charter schools purposely have smaller classrooms (often 1 teacher to each 15 students), making it possible for teachers and students to develop the caring relationships seen as necessary for student discipline and learning. This was true regardless of the curricula and pedagogy sponsored by the schools. Even with low teacher salaries, the expense of small classrooms was high especially when the schools needed funds for facilities or transportation.
For all the case studies schools and seemingly for charter schools nationally (Finn et al., 1998), the time between the passage of the legislation and the fall school openings was insufficient for the schools to develop an application, and to procure facilities, materials, and personnel. Schools that were able to get financial or management backing from other organizations made better progress, but all thought that a funded planning year would have helped. With more planning, facilities, meals, transportation, curricula, instruction, and personnel selection and training could be in place when the school opened.
Procuring an adequate facility was clearly the dominant issue in implementation. Schools struggled to find an appropriate space at a price they could afford. The result was many students started the year in temporary and inadequate facilities. The case study schools found that old school buildings, church education buildings, and unused commercial space were the primary alternatives available and that these needed repairs and remodeling. Modular construction of a facility meant one school had a new space, but also required that a backer guarantee the debt. Facilities remained a large issue with these schools. The costs and efforts to repair and maintain older facilities were high. Growth in numbers of students and expansion of the number of grade levels meant either moving or expanding current facilities even when current facilities were adequate.
Transportation continued to be an issue for the schools. As budget items, transportation and facilities competed with the instructional budget to the extent that the schools have fewer instructional materials than public schools. Transportation was a more important issue for schools serving low income students or a large geographical area.
Implementation was affected by the lack of school district support and negative media attention. One school began with strong support of the school district but this has waned with time, and has led to the charter school having to significantly increase the funds allotted to transportation, adversely affecting the instructional budget. Many schools reported local districts were slow to transfer student records (and in some cases local funds) and were uninterested in cooperative programs.
Many of the schools had significant turnover in leadership and teachers. Many initial Directors or Principals lacked either knowledge of school management or interpersonal skills. Both were necessary to start and maintain a charter school. The turmoil of implementation, low salaries, initial leadership problems, and the lack of experienced teachers in the local area combined to both produce turnover and toinhibit hiring of experienced teachers. While the legislated minimums for certified teachers were difficult to achieve for some schools, all schools learned the value of experienced teachers. Most experienced teachers could work relatively self-sufficiently in the classroom and understood school operations. They also found the relative freedom of charter school teachers to make decisions and to determine classroom practice enabled them to act more professionally. Less experienced teachers often created teacher-centered classrooms, used more traditional teaching and struggled with classroom discipline in the first year of implementation. The turnover in teachers between year one and year two potentially represented both a problem with continuity and an opportunity to employ staff better able to deliver the distinctive mission of the school. The effects of the turnover will need to be assessed over time.
Finally, the schools reported that complying with state regulations involved considerable paperwork and travel time. The schools thought they needed their leaders to focus on other issues.
These implementation issues distracted schools from their instructional programs. However, schools that had commercial instructional programs were less affected by the turmoil of the implementation year. Such programs helped new teachers organize their instruction and develop common instructional approach across all teachers. On the other hand, experienced teachers had less need for commercial programs. The more innovative curricula in the case study schools took longer to develop but are impressive accomplishments. The charter schools that focused on at-risk students have found that these students take more attention and materials than was planned. They have learned what school districts have always argued: it costs more to educate at-risk students.
These schools found many resources helpful in the first year of charter schools in North Carolina. While only one school began the process with the support of the local school district and continued to have lunches transported from a nearby district school, all the schools have found that community support was the most vital resource. Without this, little would have been possible. Community support enabled fund raising, collaboration with other agencies, and partnerships with a wide range of organizations. Community support was the basis of charter schools. Since parents made a choice to send their children to charter schools, the schools needed a constituency to survive and grow. A constituency enabled charter schools to survive challenges to their mission. Early leadership by board members was essential to the school being started, in developing and maintaining a constituency for the school, and for ongoing fiscal development. parents helped repair facilities prior to the opening of the school and continued to serve in a range of instructional and other ways. They served lunch, drove vehicles, photocopied, taught and tutored. Their involvement was a key resource for the school.
The presence of caring teachers was repeatedly cited as one of the key resources for the schools. Parents were interested in their students' academic performance, but all saw this as the result of caring and attentive teachers. The parents, students, and teachers argued that charter school teachers were able to develop relationships with children that helped the children perform academically and behaviorally. Small class sizes helped to make this possible.
There are other outside supports for charter schools. Training by the Department of Public Instruction was repeatedly acknowledged for enabling the schools to meet regulatory requirements and to anticipate issues to be addressed. Schools with outside management groups or sponsoring organizations had considerable support with the application, implementation, curricula, and management functions. Other schools struggled to create these for themselves and only began to achieve these in the second year of implementation.
Even with the above resources, all schools struggled to arrange adequate financial support for their schools. Some had constituencies or sponsoring organizations that enabled considerable supplementary funding, hut all schools were struggling to organize sufficient funding. Used buses were a way to hold down first year transportation costs, but this had tradeoffs in safety and future maintenance and repair costs. Developing adequate facilities and sufficient teacher pay while maintaining small class sizes were ongoing fiscal challenges. These were issues apparently in charter schools across the nation (Kane, 1998).
Mesibov (1997) argued that one of the purposes of the North Carolina Charter Schools initiative was to develop educational innovations. Defining "best" practices is problematic; what is "best" from one view may not be "best" from another. Ultimately, best practices may be defined when they can be shown to lead to various types of desirable outcomes. Until that information is available, charter schools can be examined for promising practices and the positive aspects of the charter school and the implementation process during this start-up phase.
Given the variety of the case study schools and the changes they have undergone, there was not one consistent set of best practices concerning curricula and instruction: Each school had its own instructional program and thus their best practices were related to their instructional program, rather than to charter schools as a whole. Nonetheless, most schools had rather traditional instructional programs. Not unlike many other public schools, this instruction was teacher-centered, direct instruction in which recitation and practice were common activities for students. Some traditional instruction was the result of logistics and issues of implementation meant schools were not able to focus on instruction as much as necessary during their first year. The beginning of the second year showed all case study schools focused on developing their instructional programs. For many of the charter schools, however, traditional instruction was a part of their attractiveness to parents. These parents wanted a more "structured" approach to instruction as well as strong discipline. Some schools believed direct instruction was required for at-risk students, while others believed it was appropriate for everyone. Some schools offered more discovery-oriented instruction to attract parents and students. These classrooms were more student-centered and project based. These schools also worked to integrate the curricula so that learning is more like the "real world."
There were a number of best practices that may have applicability almost regardless of instructional approach. For example, there were examples of helping students being responsible for their own learning. Learning logs asked students to specify their goals and to track their progress. Parents were asked to review and sign the logs at regular intervals. The teacher reviewed and commented as well. A student planner was given to each student at one schools. Students created their schedule and were held responsible for attendance at events and timely completion of work. Some schools found starting the day with a whole school assembly reinforced community, promoted values and set the tone for the day. It was also clear that students knew and could articulate the school's distinctive mission. In some schools, students had organized service learning programs where students would either work for charitable causes or work in local businesses. This "giving back" promoted both learning and self-esteem. Schools with uniforms or dress codes saw them contributing to moral values and reducing status differences and competitiveness between students.
The case study charter schools had relatively similar organizational structures of Board, School Director, often one or more professionals focusing on instruction, business management or other specific assignments, teachers and students. But since there was some concern about clarity of roles (since people had overlapping roles), especially those of teacher, parent and Board member. Board members from the professions such as law, accounting, and education had relevant knowledge and sometimes could provide pro bono services. What is interesting in the organization of these schools is the role of parents. Parents were involved in a wide range of ways from providing instruction, to serving meals, driving vehicles, fund raising, and have considerable impact on the school. Parents and community members at one school provided a half-day of instruction per week to provide teachers with instructional planning and professional development time. Moreover, parents were represented on the Boards and had direct access to teachers and principals. In as much as the school's survival depended on keeping parents (who are not easily satisfied) satisfied with the school, parents had more power than in other public schools. Teachers also reported that they were satisfied with their roles. Teacher autonomy in the classroom and significant control over the instructional programs were both cited as reasons for high morale.
There were a number of best practices in school policy. A number of schools had diagnostic testing and instruction programs that tracked student learning and directed instructional planning. One school had created a common schedule across all grades so students could be grouped by performance instead of grade level. Schoolwide discipline policies helped clarify expectations and create consistency between classrooms. In the area of personnel, a hiring interview process was seen as central to promoting and maintaining a distinctive mission for the school and hiring promising teachers. Similarly, bonuses tied to annual evaluations helped with mission and encouraged quality teaching. One school had parent involvement contracts that required parents to work four hours per week at the school, while at another, teachers pursued parents to discuss their children's schoolwork or behavior. The case study schools also had a number of collaborative arrangements, including speech and hearing screenings by nursing students, instruction provided by a range of community agencies, and even meals purchased from the school system.
The case study schools had strong moral emphases, although the nature of these varied. Parents found the moral emphases a strong reason to attend the school, contributing to the safe and orderly environments they valued in these schools. One school found it valuable to have two staff members assigned as behavior mentors. These mentors moved about the school helping students with appropriate behavior. Schools that had uniforms and dress codes found (as noted above) they reduced status differences among students, reducing related student misbehavior. One teacher posted a "No Hunting" sign that students reported reduced students picking on each other. The schools found that respect for teachers was essential for learning and discipline. Relative small size, caring teachers, and parent and community support also helped create safe and orderly environments.
Reduced classroom size was one best practice that was shared by all the schools. Small classrooms enable teachers to provide individual attention and to develop caring relationships with students. Small size also made student behavior management easier. The small size of many of the schools also meant that is was easier to develop a team or family-like atmosphere among staff and parents as well as with students.
Given the strong role of teachers in the instructional program, the charter schools tried to provide them with time for teacher planning and professional development. This was especially important since there was little time for professional development before the schools opened. Some schools were more successful than others at this. One school used parents and community members as instructors for a half-day of instruction per week to provide time for this. Another school found that having an extensive summer planning session between the first and second years allowed for the development of a complex and innovative curriculum. A preschool staff meeting at one school was used to link long term planning to daily practice. Some of the commercial instructional programs also include professional development and ongoing feedback mechanisms that were seen as quite helpful by teachers.
By design, the case study schools varied on test results on North Carolina's ABCs Accountability system. The case study schools, however, all believed that they were reaching the students they served. The most important outcome of the case study schools was the student experience that the schools create. Different missions, of course, have students reporting different experiences. Yet, as noted earlier, students could articulate the distinctive missions and what these missions meant for them. For schools with strong moral emphases, students would articulate the virtues that characterized the school. For schools emphasizing innovative curricula, students discussed their involvement in designing their educational experiences and their own responsibility for their learning. For schools emphasizing a better education for at-risk and minority students, students recounted the high expectations for their learning and the absence of racial prejudices. Students in case study schools largely reported a safe and orderly environment, better self-esteem, caring relationships with teachers, and teachers who were interesting, attentive, and dogged in their determination that students learn and behave appropriately.
Students also had complaints such as "mean" teachers, lack of sports, and lack of or uninteresting meals. Even with these complaints, students generally saw themselves as doing better academically and behaviorally in the charter schools.
As noted previously, there were a number of accomplishments of these schools. To reiterate, these included a moral and safe environment, caring relationships among teachers and students, community support and parent involvement, team or family-like atmosphere, small size, relative teacher autonomy, and a distinctive mission and constituent group. For many of the schools, waiting lists of students and enrollment growth in the second year were key indicators of the schools being effective. One school created an environment reportedly free of racial prejudice. Another school was consciously designed to disseminate innovative educational practice and will begin doing so this year. Other schools were intended to have outcomes of community and economic development.
These charter schools have had little impact on the LEAs. In the competition for students, some LEAs were hostile to the charter schools while others were uncooperative. The one school that had some measure of LEA support had begun with cooperative agreements between county level agencies. The school was developed after these were in place. Other impacts on LEAs included the LEAs beginning to emphasize similar instructional programs to those of the charter schools
At this point in their development, it must be remembered that these schools are an outcome in and of themselves. They are the outcome of the communities that started them. In the future, it will be possible to better discern what outcomes the schools themselves are creating.
Charter School Hopes for the Future
Interviewees were asked what their hopes were for their charter school. The hopes reflected both the commitments and concerns of the case study schools. Their commitment to their students are reflected in such hopes as the following:
1. To be allowed to continue the mission to assist at risk students.
2. For students to understand virtues --responsibility, manners, character, social development.
3. To teach students to be resourceful, independent learners and critical thinkers.
4. To continue to be successful.
Their concerns lead to such hopes as:
1. A new site.
2. Added grades levels, but costs make it a distant hope.
3. To build a positive relationship with the school district.
4. The school district will realize these students can be helped--and that it can be done!
5. The media will notice the positive things about this school.
The first set of hopes revealed that the case study schools have committed to fulfilling their distinctive missions. The second set revealed that the case study schools are still in the process of implementing their mission and have political, pragmatic, and fiscal issues to overcome if they are to fully implement the distinctive missions.
Finn, C. E. Jr., Manno, B. V., Bierlein, L. A., & Vanourek, G. Charter schools: Accomplishments and dilemmas. Teachers College Record, Spring, 1998.
Kane, P. (1998, October). Charter schools: Paying attention to ancillary findings. Education Week. (18).
Lieberman, A. (1994). From the series editor. In M. Fine (Ed.), Chartering urban school reform: Reflections on public high schools in change (p. vii). New York: Columbia University Teachers.
Manno, V. & Vanourek, G. "Norman Cantu strikes again," The Weekly Standard, October 27, 1997.
Merriam, S. (1988). Case study research in education: a qualitative approach. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage. College.
Mesibov, L. (1997, Winter). Charter schools: An experiment in privatizing education. Popular Government, Vol. 62, No. 2.
RPP International. (1997). A study of charter schools: First year report. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education
Stake, R. (1995). The art of case study research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
George W. Noblit and Archie W. Ervin University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Learning from the North Carolina Charter School Evaluation Case Studies: A Cross-Site Analysis. Contributors: Noblit, George W. - Author, Erwin, Archie W. - Author. Journal title: High School Journal. Volume: 83. Issue: 4 Publication date: April 2000. Page number: 46. © 1999 University of North Carolina Press. COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group.