Do Charter Schools Do It Differently?

By Finn Jr., Chester E.; Kanstoroom, Marci | Phi Delta Kappan, September 2002 | Go to article overview

Do Charter Schools Do It Differently?


Finn Jr., Chester E., Kanstoroom, Marci, Phi Delta Kappan


The authors discuss two studies that show that charter school leaders assemble and deploy their professional staffs in ways that aren't possible in traditional schools. And, since the heart and soul of any school is its teaching staff, few things that we are apt to learn about the operations of charter schools are more consequential than the realized opportunity they present for innovation-minded principals to do things differently on the personnel front.

ARE CHARTER schools really different? Everyone knows that their governance is freer, their budgets leaner, and their longevity less certain than regular public schools, but how different is what actually goes on inside them? Is it anything that students, parents, and teachers would notice? Anything that might make them produce better results? Anything that the rest of American education might learn from? If not, the whole charter school enterprise may amount to little - a comet flashing across the sky, perhaps, but not the new education solar system that its boosters and backers claim.

With the charter phenomenon barely a decade old, and with the average charter school only in its second or third year, the majority of America's 2,400 charters are still struggling with myriad start-up problems. It's too soon for definitive judgments on the innovativeness of charter schools - nor is that, in the long run, the most important thing to know about them. Frustrated education reformers are chiefly interested in whether charters boost pupil achievement. Parents mainly want to know whether their children will be safe in these schools and will learn to read, write, and cipher. Still, for the many educators and policy makers who view charter schools as beta sites for a broader effort to renew and reinvigorate U.S. education, keen interest attaches to the question of whether they're really different from standard-issue public (and perhaps private) schools.

Evidence is trickling in, some of it anecdotal, some of it systematic. Two new studies conducted for the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation - one of them limited and anecdotal, the other wide-ranging and scientifically significant - contribute to that stream. Both address the question of whether people leading charter schools are taking substantive advantage of their freedom and are, in fact, innovating.

The informal study - Autonomy and Innovation: How Do Massachusetts Charter School Principals Use Their Freedom? - was conducted by Bill Triant, a former teacher in the Boston Public Schools who is now studying education and business at Stanford University.1 He interviewed eight Bay State charter principals on five dimensions of school operations. The systematic study, by veteran economists Michael Podgursky and Dale Ballou, is a data-filled report on how 132 charter schools in seven charter-friendly states handle personnel matters.2

The two reports come to similar conclusions - conclusions that education reformers should find generally encouraging. Both studies suggest that charter schools are serving as exciting seedbeds for new approaches to finding, employing, and keeping better teachers. Triant says that "charter principals are using the freedom granted to them to create schools that would not be possible if the charter law did not exist." Podgursky and Ballou found that, "when given the opportunity, charter schools pursue innovative personnel policies that differ in key respects from those of traditional public schools and more closely resemble the practices of private schools."

Though Triant also queried charter principals about finance, curriculum, school structure, and accountability, we focus here on what he discovered about teacher hiring, also the subject of the Podgursky/Ballou study. From his inquiries, we learn that, while seven of the eight principals "believed that the system of teacher hiring in their charter school is better than the system in comparable district schools," their reasons ranged all over the map. …

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