Harvard Educational Review
  1. Charter Schools

    Lessons in School Reform

    Edited by Liane Brouillette

    Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2002. 280 pp. $59.95.

    Full Text:

    In Charter Schools: Lessons in School Reform, Liane Brouillette collaborates with several other researchers to give readers an inside look at the initial years of seven newly created charter schools. Brouillette and contributors Susan Korach, Catharine T. Perry, and Barbara Korth embarked on this research project in order “(a) to better understand the challenges facing those who create new educational settings, and (b) to better understand the perceptions and concerns that motivate charter school initiators, teachers, and parents” (p. 20). The authors draw on Seymour Sarason’s work on the creation of settings, which outlines the predictable internal and external challenges faced by creators of new organizations, providing useful insight into the early development of each of these seven schools.
    In the first two chapters, Brouillette explains briefly what charter schools are and reviews the history of and debate over charter schools. She also gives an overview of Sarason’s framework, outlining the stages he identifies in the development of a new setting, and emphasizing the two key internal challenges that new settings face: 1) forging a constitution that delineates “how lines of authority and communication will be established” and 2) dealing with problems of growth and differentiation that arise when “new people entering the setting [have an impact] on the original vision/idea” (p. 12). In most of the book, the narrative and analysis are organized around these stages and/or the challenges of building a constitution and dealing with growth and differentiation.

    The stories of charter school creation begin in chapter three, with Korach’s comparison of three Colorado charter schools founded between 1993 and 1995: Core Academy, Passages Charter School, and Opportunity Prep Charter School. Korach details each school’s struggle to forge a constitution and their problems with growth and differentiation. She notes how each of these schools, though varied in mission, made the mistake of relying heavily on their initial vision to guide the school, without recognizing the need for internal dissension about school values or a plan for how the vision would be carried out. She points out that these stories highlight the need for new schools to clearly outline and prioritize goals, and to make a constitution that clarifies division of authority, staff and administrative roles, and procedures for carrying out the mission.

    In chapter four, Perry describes similar problems in a markedly different type of school, the only noncharter school in the book. The K–8 Model School was a public alternative school designed as a collaboration between a major university and a large urban school district. As it moved through Sarason’s stages in the growth of a new school, conflicts arose from an overburdened mission that tried to satisfy all the members of the original planning committee. This chapter’s conclusion is similar to that of the previous one: that the school ran into problems because of “the early failure to identify an overarching vision, to prioritize a set of concrete and realistic goals, to clearly transmit purpose and goals to potential participants, and to routinely refer to these goals when decisions were made” (p. 95).
    In chapter five, Brouillette takes a slightly different approach. Rather than applying Sarason’s framework to the initial years of a school start-up, she describes the story and controversies surrounding Wesley Elementary School, an urban public school in Houston that had had twenty years of exceptional academic achievement before choosing to become a charter school in 1995. Brouillette describes the school’s commitment to a direct instruction curriculum and discusses the whole language versus phonics debate — including the reasons for the district’s philosophical conflicts with Principal Lott. Because this case study focuses heavily on ideological debates within the field of education and little on how the school developed once it became a charter, this chapter seems out of step with the themes carried throughout the rest of the book.

    Chapter six again looks at the initial years of new charter schools. Kroth examines the conceptualization of “success” at the University of Houston Charter School of Technology, and finds that the school’s success was defined in various ways in different contexts and by different constituencies. This created difficulties with effective growth and change. In chapter seven, Brouillette tells the story of Marblehead Community Charter Public School, Massachusetts’s first charter school. She examines how proponents and opponents of this school differed over “four competing public values” in American education — efficiency, equity, excellence, and choice — and how these conflicts hindered the school’s ability to forge a constitution and deal with growth and differentiation.

    The final chapters of the book explore the lessons of the previous chapters. Chapter eight identifies patterns in the seven charter schools, revealing that the challenges faced were shaped by the form of their founding entity. For example, the schools with institutional sponsors struggled with bureaucratic administrators who were removed from the realities of schooling. The parent-initiated schools ran into problems because board members were passionate about their visions but inexperienced with the demands of running a school. And in the educator-initiated charter schools, teachers often burned out due to the heavy demands to create and maintain school curriculum and culture. Finally, in chapter nine, Brouillette places charter schooling within the context of broader themes in the history of U.S. educational reform. She emphasizes the importance of voluntary associations in a democracy and concludes with the hope that as voluntary associations, charter schools can serve a mediating role in education by using government support to get citizens and communities involved in education reform.
    The contributors to this book not only provide valuable documentation of the process of starting a charter school, but also offer an insightful and coherent analysis of the challenges that founders of charter schools face. Heavier on cautionary tales than on models of success, the stories presented here make clear what a complex task it is to create a successful school. This book should be a realistic, valuable resource to anyone seeking to create effective educational reform through charter schools.

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    Book Notes

    Curriculum Work as a Public Moral Enterprise
    Edited by Rubén Gaztambide-Fernández and James T. Sears

    Walking the Road
    By Marilyn Cochran-Smith

    Charter Schools
    Edited by Liane Brouillette

    Surviving Inclusion
    By Kay Johnson Lehmann

    Young Children and Trauma
    Edited by Joy D. Osofsky