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Center on Reinventing Public Education – Buried Treasure: Inside Charter Schools

Apr 10, 2014 | Updates

Sarah Yatsko from the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) reflects on an earlier CRPE publication Inside Charter Schools: Unlocking Doors to Student Success in her newest blog post.

Buried Treasure: Inside Charter Schools
Sarah Yatsko

When I started working at CRPE in 2007, I didn’t know much about charter schools, but I was quickly immersed. From the end of 2007 through 2009, for a study funded by the U.S. Department of Education, my new colleagues and I made over 50 visits to charter schools in six cities, conducted over 250 in-person interviews of principals and teachers, and solicited over 750 written survey responses from people working in charter schools across the country.

The result was Betheny Gross’s Inside Charter Schools: Unlocking Doors to Student Success. Amid the many reports, studies, journal articles, and blogs on charter schools, this piece brought some thoughtful nuance and context to the heated and repetitive policy conversation. Reading it continues to be the next best thing to seeing these schools in action. Since the report came out in 2011, I’ve had conversation after conversation, professional and personal, that shows how people think—still—that all charter schools are the same. But what we observed and what Gross describes is an enormously varied sector, where some practitioners have maximized autonomy to successfully reimagine public education, while others have simply recreated the neighborhood district school and all its bureaucratic limitations.

The renegade band of Minnesotans who were the first to pass charter legislation two decades ago hoped that these independent schools would unleash innovation and shake up schoolhouse routines and practices. Inside Charter Schools highlighted how some schools lived up to parts of this promise. They eliminated hiring mired in delay and red tape. Teachers were drawn not just by the mission of teaching but also by the unique and focused mission of the charter school itself. Principals screened resumes for flexibility, commitment to the mission, and passion, and conducted intense and competitive job interviews. There was no rote professional development, either; teachers decided where they needed to improve and helped craft the professional development that got them there. Seniority provided no advantage and there were no forced placements. Teachers who do not fit either chose or were asked to leave.

Gross showed, too, how charter schools too often failed to take full advantage of their new freedoms. Most of the schools in this study felt very traditional. Textbook-based curriculum was overwhelmingly common, as was the very traditional principal/assistant principal school governance model. And despite the teacher compensation freedoms traditional district school principals likely would envy, fewer than half the surveyed charter school leaders offered performance bonuses or incentive pay to teach in shortage fields such as math and science.

Now, 4 percent of America’s public school children attend charter schools, and new schools—and new ideas—have emerged in some of the states we visited back in 2007. San Jose, California, for example, is home to several charter schools that blend technology and face-to-face instruction, and look and feel radically different from any traditional district school I’ve ever visited.

But this innovation is, sadly, an exception. Doing the things we have always done is a powerful tendency, even if the way we have always done things isn’t working. Charter school teachers and leaders, many of whom come from district schools, are not immune. What Gross describes in her report still holds true: autonomy alone does not guarantee transformation.