Voices in Education

Q&A with Christopher Lubienski and Peter Weitzel
The following article originally appeared in The Harvard Education Letter (volume 26, number 6). Copyright 2010 President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved.

Christopher Lubienski and Peter Weitzel, coeditors of
The Charter School Experiment: Expectations, Evidence, and Implications discuss the evolution of the charter school movement, how its goals have changed, and what to expect in the future.

How did the argument for charter schools first emerge in the United States?

It’s been two decades since the ideas that led to charter schools first appeared on the education landscape, although you can see precursors in the writings of radical scholars and activists during the 1960s and 1970s. The idea was to bypass traditional bureaucratic structures and put power more directly in the hands of teachers – a vision that looks very different than much of the charter school landscape today. Now, we see larger non-profit and for-profit organizations pursuing other goals beyond professionalized teacher communities, such as empowering marginalized groups and, of course, the profit motive.

Why is now a good time for a book about the rise and evolution of charter schools?

The conversation about charter schools has become much more nuanced, compared to earlier theoretical discussions on the organizational behavior of schools. Today, four out of every five states have charter school legislation, and some 5,000 schools are up and running. Many of these schools have educated over a generation of children now, so more longitudinal data is available as to how charter schools do (or do not) succeed in providing better educational opportunities for families.

Policymakers in both the Bush and Obama administrations have actively promoted charter schools through “No Child Left Behind” and “Race to the Top,” which provides the opportunity for a balanced discussion about the successes and failures of a truly exciting area of educational reform. The movement has become more “celebrity-driven,” as public figures — from famous musicians to television talk-show hosts to dot-com millionaires — have jumped on the bandwagon.

Have charter schools lived up to the goals originally laid out for them?

It’s important to examine the evolution of both the stated goals and the outcomes for charter schools. We identify three groups of goals laid out for charter schools in our book: greater equity of access, improved achievement/competitive effects, and greater innovation. The evidence on the latter two, achievement/competition and innovation, is likely disappointing for many advocates. Charter schools, on the whole, are no better — and often worse — than public schools at improving student achievement, and competition for students does not appear to be driving widespread improvement in charters or their neighboring public schools. Charter schools seem to be pretty innovative in management and marketing, but we have not seen the extensive innovation in the classroom that many expected.

The equity of access issue is probably the most complicated to examine and summarize. On one hand, millions of kids now have a greater range of publicly-funded schooling options available to them. Greater choice can be seen as an end in itself. On the other hand, there are some indications that charter schools are not practically accessible to the most disadvantaged families and students. Issues of location, transportation, awareness, and cultural capital may be contributing to this problem. There are also concerns that charter schools and school choice may be exacerbating segregation, as both white and minority students often opt out of more diverse schools to attend more segregated ones.

How have charter schools evolved in expected ways when compared to their original purposes?

Some of the earlier visions of charter schools were locally-responsive institutions that could cater to the unique needs of the local population. Many of these “mom and pop” schools have struggled or been crowded out by larger, sometimes for-profit charter school management organizations, many of which use the same packaged curriculum across the country. The vision of the small, locally responsive charter school has collided with the reality that schools are big operations with substantial administrative burdens.

Also, in some big city districts, contract regimes or the portfolio approach to district management have taken hold. For example, the new book Between Public and Private deals with this issue. In these cases, charter schools and contract schools can become tools for the pursuit of centrally defined goals. Some commentators might see this as a stark contrast to the vision of “letting a thousand flowers bloom” and letting consumer choice drive educational change.

How do you expect charter schools to change in the near future?

There are a few possible ways charter schools may evolve, more so than other schools. They might be absorbed by the wider public education system, becoming more and more like other schools with added administrative layers and services, until they are only nominally distinct. Another possibility is that they might start to out-score district-run public schools, because of attracting more families that take the initiative in making educational choices for their children – a trait associated with greater academic success.

On the other hand, the “blind push” toward the expansion of charters that we’re witnessing in Washington may lead to a dilution of the movement. If too many new charters are approved without regard to issues of quality, the movement could be increasingly swamped by mediocrity.

What do you hope to accomplish with your new book, The Charter School Experiment?

We wanted to document the data on charters at this critical milestone in their evolution, and to explore their future trajectory. The current administration is pursuing a wide range of relatively aggressive educational reforms, but they have generally not cast a critical eye on charter schools thus far. Our research suggests that charters appeal to policymakers on largely ideological grounds, rather than based on evidence of effectiveness. Our main take-away is policymakers and parents need to temper their enthusiasm and weigh the evidence carefully, even if it challenges popular and often misguided assumptions. We hope that our book will help researchers and policymakers at the state and federal levels recognize areas to improve overall charter school quality and access for the most disadvantaged families.

Christopher A. Lubienski is associate professor of education policy and a fellow at the Forum on the Future of Public Education at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Peter C. Weitzel is an advanced doctoral student in educational organization and leadership at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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