Charter schools build on a decade of experimentation
Ten years later, what have we learned?
(Page 2 of 3)
Bronx Prep students are held to high standards both in academics and behavior. And they are constantly reminded of the goal of admission to one of the country's top colleges.Skip to next paragraph
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Many of the faculty at Bronx Prep attended prestigious colleges themselves. The classes are named after these schools (one seventh-grade class, for instance, is known as MIT), and students take field trips to view college campuses.
But the vast majority of charter schools more closely mirror traditional public schools.
The key difference in these cases is that they enjoy more flexibility to adopt certain innovations, such as merit pay for teachers and better use of technology. Typically they can do more professional development and can more easily hire and fire staff.
The academic results these schools achieve range from the electrifying to the abysmal. Regulations vary greatly from state to state, making it difficult to take stock of the charter movement as a whole.
The movement began with a burst of energetic growth, with the number of charter schools jumping from zero to almost 3,000 in just 10 years. But growth appears to be slowing now, and many say the number is still hardly noticeable among the 92,000 traditional public schools in the United States.
"There just aren't enough charter schools right now to make a difference," says Terry Moe, professor of political science and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University in California. Most districts that have them, he points out, have just one.
And yet, despite small numbers and wide swings in quality, other experts who follow charters say the contribution they are making to US education should not be overlooked.
For one thing, charter schools and their hiring practices are benefiting the teaching profession, says Caroline Hoxby, an economics professor at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.
"A slightly different kind of person is being drawn to and staying in charter schools," Professor Hoxby says. Her research shows that charter schools are more likely than traditional public schools to hire teachers from selective colleges, and also more apt to attract teaching candidates with better-than-average academic records.
In addition, charter-school teachers tend to work differently. A survey that Hoxby administered shows that charter-school instructors spend more hours on academics - tutoring, preparing lessons, grading homework - than their peers in regular public schools.
Charter schools also have more flexible pay scales. Traditional schools must adhere strictly to pay schedules that honor length of service. But a charter is free to simply offer more to the teachers it most wants to keep.
Kathy Christie, policy analyst for the Education Commission of the States in Denver, agrees that charters have had an effect on the relationship between teachers and schools. But perhaps even more dramatic, she says, has been their effect on the relationship between schools and the public they serve.
Public schools generally have not thought of themselves as required to provide much customer service to their clients. But charters must, and their willingness to do so is making a difference.
Even if the number of charters is still small, "at least they've planted that little seed of recognition that we do have to be cognizant of the customer," Ms. Christie says.
In a few districts where charter schools have clustered, there have been signs that the surrounding schools have suddenly begun listening more to parental requests.
One Minnesota district opened a public Montessori grade school. Officials had long said that would be impossible, but they made it happen after a group proposed opening a charter school using the Montessori method.
In a Michigan district, the public elementary school trimmed the size of its classes and began offering Spanish, art, and computer science - all innovations parents had clamored for - when local charters began draining enrollment.