What (If Anything) Makes Charters Different?
The promise of charter schools is only half fulfilled in comparison with traditional public schools, says the author of a new book
BY ZACHARY W. OBERFIELD/School Administrator, January 2018

Zachary Oberfield, a political scientist at Haverford College, studied classroom environment in charters and traditional public schools in Delaware.
Danielle is a kindergarten teacher in a rural elementary school in Delaware. A few years ago, when I was doing some research comparing charter schools and traditional public schools, I asked her how much testing influenced her day-to-day work. Her response caught me off guard.

“Fridays are test days, and it’s very standardized,” Danielle said. “It’s sad because it’s not at all what we were all taught in college or preach to, or what we firmly believe. However … [we] have to do standardized testing … we have to cram everything we’re going to teach into four days instead of educating for five. … It’s a shame at the kindergarten level because they … should be enjoying school and having fun and not dreading Fridays. Fridays should be a fun day.”

Our national obsession with testing has gotten a lot of attention. But one-fifth of kindergarten devoted to test preparation? That surprised me. I also was taken aback because, although charter schools are supposed to have their feet held more closely to the fire, Danielle was employed by a public school. If that’s what life is like in a public school, I wondered, what test-prep horrors must await teachers in charter schools? Nonetheless, when I spoke to teachers in charter schools in Delaware, my worst fears weren’t realized: I got the sense that tests were important, but they didn’t dominate teachers’ days.

Because these conversations were at odds with what I’d heard and read, they got me thinking: If we take teachers’ experiences seriously — and look over a wide geographic area and a sustained period of time — do we actually see differences in the teaching environments of charter and public schools?

Three Perspectives
Early proponents believed charter schools would operate differently from traditional public schools because of a bargain struck between schools and charter-granting entities, or authorizers. In essence, charter schools would have more autonomy from the standard rules and regulations and, in return, would be held more accountable. In this way, authorizers could encourage schools to be innovative without losing control over them.

In addition, because charter schools were decentralized, proponents expected them to forge more meaningful connections with parents and communities. In large part, charter school advocates today argue, these expectations have been met.

Not everyone agrees with this rosy portrait. As charter schools have proliferated, critics have sketched out an alternate reality. For them, charter schools are an unregulated mess with high levels of teacher turnover, an obsession with test scores and preparation, and rampant fraud and mismanagement. Highlighting this last point, the television comedian John Oliver reported that one charter school operated as a nightclub after school hours. Suffice it to say, most parents don’t want their kids’ school to smell like stale beer and smoke. In addition, critics have alleged that the consolidation of charter schools into corporate networks has prevented the formation of meaningful school-community connections.

A third view, emerging from academia, suggests that the diversity of the charter sector renders the category meaningless. From this perspective, if you’ve seen one charter school, you’ve seen one charter school. For example, it makes no sense to put the Delaware Military Academy, a charter school in Wilmington, Del., that prepares students for a military career, in the same category as Stephen W. Hawking Charter School in Chula Vista, Calif., which focuses intensely on a STEM curriculum. If charter schools within a state and across the nation differ in goals and pedagogy, why would we expect them to function alike?

Looking Inside
To help sort through these varied perspectives, it is helpful to look at the people with the closest perspective on how public and charter school classrooms actually function — teachers. To do so, I studied the U.S. Department of Education’s Schools and Staffing Survey, which has included charter schools since the 1999-2000 school year, and the New Teacher Center’s massive Teaching, Empowerment, Leading and Learning surveys, which were conducted in a geographically diverse array of states. If we use these surveys as a guide, what do they tell us about the life inside charter and public schools?

In essence, charter schools appear to be only fulfilling part of the promise envisioned by proponents. On the positive side of the ledger, teachers in charter schools report having more control over various aspects of school life, such as choosing the content they teach and making decisions about performance standards. Because these are parts of teaching about which teachers care a great deal, this is a crucial advance.

Also, there’s some indication that charter schools foster school environments that are more innovative than public schools and develop more meaningful connections with parents and communities.

But the bad news for charter proponents is that these schools do not appear to be promoting more accountability. Across the nation and over time, teachers in charter schools weren’t more likely to report that their performance would result in reward or punishment. In other words, one of the main knocks on public schools — that subpar teachers con-tinue to skate by without consequence — appears to also describe life in charter schools. I should hasten to add, however, that charter teachers weren’t less likely to believe they’d be held accountable. But since accountability is central to arguments for charter schools, this non-finding is problematic.

Accountability wasn’t the only non-finding. In various ways, the teaching climates of charter and public schools didn’t seem to differ. Charter teachers reported high levels of content coordination and satisfaction and low levels of burnout. They also left their jobs at relatively low rates. But so did public school teachers and, when compared side by side, there weren’t significant differences between the two groups. In other words, my inquiry revealed that, in many ways, the teaching climates fostered by public and charter schools were analogous.

Leadership and Red Tape
What explains these findings and non-findings?

One possibility is that the teaching climates of public and charter schools were similar because school leaders, who are thought to play a major role in shaping school life, didn’t differ much. Proponents portray charter school leadership as “dynamic and visionary” while critics describe charter operations as “slipshod and ineffective.”

My research, however, revealed few differences. Teachers in public and charter schools felt supported by school leaders, agreed that leaders articulated a clear mission and believed they ran their schools well. Without clear differences in leadership, charter schools may not have achieved some of the distinctiveness that their proponents envision.

The observed differences in teacher control, my research suggests, are likely driven by lower levels of red tape in charter schools. With fewer burdensome administrative du-ties, charter teachers may have more latitude to focus on the aspects of their teaching about which they care the most — such as choosing texts for classes, improving their de-partment’s curriculum and generating new approaches to engage students. Consider this response of a teacher in an urban Delaware charter school when I asked about red tape: “There are plenty of rules and regulations,” she said “… but I don’t think it gets in the way of us doing our jobs … [or] gets in the way of us coming up with new things and trying new things.”

Parent Relations
Two explanations exist for the higher levels of parental engagement in charter schools.

First, some of this difference is likely related to self-selection. Parents who make an affirmative choice to send their children to a charter school may want more interactions with teachers and school leaders than parents who did not make this choice.

The teachers I spoke with recognize this reality. Caroline, a teacher in a large, urban charter school, noted: “The vast majority of our students come from families that really place an emphasis on education, and they really work hard, and … just choosing to enter the lottery, to come to the school, would be an indication of that.”

But charter schools also appeared to make parental outreach and engagement bigger priorities for their schools. In other words, these schools of choice seem to have institutionalized parental involvement in a way public schools have not.

Teaching Climate
At their start, charter schools were expected to serve as experiments from which public schools could learn. With this in mind, how might public school leaders use these findings to build better teaching climates in their schools?

Though public schools typically are bound by collective bargaining agreements, there are some actions public school administrators can take.

First, they can free up educators from pointless duties, such as posting lesson plans online before class. Many of these rules are meant to enhance accountability, yet the results in my book suggest that requirements such as these fail to achieve this goal. As such, I’d encourage principals to reach out to teachers and district administrators to determine how they might reduce the number of administrative burdens placed on teachers.

Second, public school administrators should study and replicate the parent outreach practices adopted by charter schools. In doing so, they may foster higher levels of parent-school engagement and create more fertile learning environments for their students.

Raising Accountability
But my research also carries lessons for charter school leaders and their advocates. Most important, charters have not yet achieved the significantly higher levels of accountability they seek. In both public and charter schools, teachers generally agreed that they would be rewarded for a job well done, but their jobs wouldn’t be affected by how their students perform. Thus, if charter schools hope to distinguish themselves from public schools — and justify their enhanced level of autonomy — they will need to get more serious about teacher accountability.

If charter leaders can find ways to more meaningfully maintain teacher accountability without transforming their schools into testing factories, they will take another step toward achieving the initial promise of charter schools.
ZACHARY OBERFIELD is an associate professor of political science at Haverford College in suburban Philadelphia. He is the author of Are Charters Different? Public Education, Teachers, and the Charter School Debate (Harvard Education Press, 2017). E-mail: zoberfie@haverford.edu. Twitter: @ZachOberfield