Archive for September, 2010

Asking the Right Questions about School Choice

Thursday, September 30th, 2010

This is an interesting time in the world of school choice. On the one hand, there’s a growing body of research examining the effectiveness of choice, most often comparing achievement in charter schools or voucher plans to traditional public schools. But the lack of consensus among some prominent studies has left many in the public confused. Add to that recent expressions of disillusionment by early choice advocates such as Diane Ravitch and debates about  the success of school choice become even more complicated.

One long-time choice advocate is taking a stab at explaining the sources of disillusionment and suggesting different ways to frame the debate. In a new essay and blog post, both entitled “Does School Choice ‘Work’?”, Rick Hess, writes that, for starters, whether choice “works” is the wrong question. Framing the question that way, he says, creates expectations that charter schools or voucher programs have the power to quickly raise test scores and cure problems across the wide range of American schools.  Instead, Hess, who is director of educational-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, advocates focusing on larger organizational issues, such as whether the creation of school choice has brought market forces to education. Has it, for example, introduced innovations and competition that have forced public schools to change and diminished the power of their bureaucracies?   “The key,” he writes on the Education Week blog,“is to stop fixating on ‘choice’ and start talking about ‘deregulation’.” The post is based on a longer essay on the National Affairs site that explains his opinions more fully.

Hess also tosses a few barbs at some of his fellow choice advocates, arguing that part of any current disappointment can be traced back to overpromises by early choice advocates, citing particularly John Chubb and Terry Moe who use of the word “panacea” in their influential book Politics, Markets and America’s Schools. “The search for that panacea, and the insistence that it must be just around the corner, have been destructive distractions,” Hess writes, because they have led to narrow judgments of success based on test scores and ignored bigger questions about how market forces play out in a domain shaped by large public bureaucracies. “Since reformers have suggested that the mere presence of choice will bring about dramatic improvement in schools, the expectation has been that the simple fact of having an alternative — even inadequately funded vouchers, or charter schools hog-tied by regulation — should yield demonstrable gains in academic achievement,” he writes. In this environment, he challenges reformers and researchers to shift the focus to what market forces should look like in American K-12 education, the extent to which these forces exist at this point, and how their success should be assessed. “The questions to focus on are when, how, and why deregulation and monopoly-busting improve the quality and cost effectiveness of goods and services,” he writes, “and whether they can do the same for K-12 schooling.”


One hallmark of the National Center on School Choice’s research has been a mission to investigate the effects of choice within broader contexts. Some examples:

Teacher Turnover in Charter and Traditional Public Schools

Friday, September 17th, 2010

A new study has found that while charter school teachers are more likely to switch schools or quit teaching altogether than peers at traditional public schools the difference appears to be due mostly to characteristics of charter school teachers and the schools themselves, suggesting that turnover rates are similar between the two sectors if schools serve similar students and neighborhoods. The findings led the authors to surmise that high turnover in charters could be “a disadvantaged school problem, rather than a charter school problem per se.” The study, entitled Parallel Patterns: Teacher Attrition in Charter vs. District Schools, initially found that charter teachers had 40 percent greater odds of switching schools – and 52 percent greater odds of leaving teaching – than peers in traditional public schools (TPS), but the gap shrank dramatically and became statistically insignificant when characteristics of teachers and their schools were considered. Nonetheless, charters often still have high turnover rates, so the study also examined reasons teachers gave for leaving or quitting. It found that while charter and TPS teachers cited some of the same reasons for leaving, including salaries, teachers in charters were more likely to express dissatisfaction with job security and requirements of their jobs. The study also found that that charter teachers were less likely to leave schools serving disadvantaged students than were teachers in TPS.

The study, which was conducted by the National Charter School Research Project at the University of Washington’s Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE), provides an additional layer of understanding about teacher turnover in charter school at a time when research into charter schools is expanding beyond a longtime focus on student achievement to consider other aspects of school life, such as operations and instructional climate. Teacher turnover – and how it compares in charters and TPS – is important because it bears on academic quality and raises questions about whether high turnover is linked to specific characteristics of charter schools, such as their freedom from regulation, their differences in governance structure and their frequent tight focus on a mission. Another recent study, Teacher Turnover in Charter Schools, which was conducted through the National Center on School Choice, also found higher turnover rates for charter school teachers and that teachers’ characteristics, including age and certification status, explained much of the difference. But a gap still remained even after controlling for these characteristics. The NCSC study also examined reasons teachers gave for leaving and found that most charter teachers left voluntarily and that the most frequent reason was dissatisfaction with the school and/or its working conditions. The authors noted that frequent departures by teachers unhappy with their jobs could cause disruptions that endanger a school’s academic effectiveness.  

 The Parallel Patterns study followed newly hired teachers in Wisconsin charter and TPS from 1998 to 2006 to capture their mobility patterns and note many characteristics of the teachers and their schools and students. The researchers turned to the 1999-2000 federal Schools and Staffing Survey and 2000-01 Teacher Follow-up Survey to find reasons charter and TPS teachers gave for leaving their schools. The study report points out several circumstances with Wisconsin charter schools that could affect the study’s findings. Teachers in Wisconsin charter schools and TPS within a district generally work under the same contract provisions for functions such as compensation, certification and dismissal. Charter school teachers in Wisconsin also are more likely to be African American and to work in urban schools that serve minority students and have lower average performance levels on state tests. They also are less likely to hold advanced degrees and have lower average salaries. 


To learn more about teachers in schools of choice check out these additional papers from the NCSC publications archives.

Charter Schools and the Teacher Job Search in Michigan

 Teacher Working Conditions and Qualifications in Schools of Choice

The Qualifications and Classroom Performance of Teachers Moving to Charter Schools

Charter Schools and Civic Leadership in Indianapolis

Wednesday, September 15th, 2010

What makes an education reform successful? Researchers often assess the success of charter schools by comparing their academic performance with that of traditional public schools. A National Center on School Choice project in Indianapolis is pushing for a deeper understanding by also investigating the social and political context of a unique charter school experiment run out of the mayor’s office. The project is explained in a new research brief on the NCSC Web site.

The study found that students who moved to charter schools for more than one year had bigger gains in mathematics than they would have experienced if they had stayed in public schools. Gains were also larger in reading but those results were not statistically significant. NCSC researchers found evidence that Indianapolis charters differ in instructional conditions than traditional public schools and that teachers in the charters go into more depth when teaching mathematics, particularly focusing on a sound understanding of basic skills.

The NCSC researchers surmised that at least some of the academic success arose from the combination of independence and civic support enjoyed by Indianapolis charter schools. The experiment is unusual in several ways. The mayor’s office not only has special permission granted by the state to authorize charter schools, it also has designed a comprehensive accountability system to ensure quality. Both parts of the process are characterized by extensive outreach and local support. Leaders from the city’s business, service and philanthropic sectors stepped forward to found charter schools, which had to survive a rigorous and competitive application process to be approved. Once schools were up and running they were subjected to annual scrutiny through a system that includes standardized testing; site visits by teams of experts; surveys of parents, students and staff; and external financial reviews. The mayor’s office continues to approve new schools, and the number has grown from three in 2002-03 to 17 in 2008-09. The system has been praised for emphasizing quality over quantity. 

 The brief, which explains the paper Charter School Effects in an Urban School District: An Analysis of Student Achievement Gains in Indianapolis, is written in plain language that makes it useful to lay readers as well as scholars.

 For More Information

Read these additional papers about Indianapolis charter schools from the NCSC publications archive.

Taking Charge of Choice: How Charter School Policy Contexts Matter

Opportunities for Innovation in Indianapolis Mayor Sponsored Charter Schools

Mathematics and Reading Instruction in Charter and Traditional Public Schools:  Content, Cognitive Complexity and Alignment to State Standards and Assessments

Choosing Indianapolis Charter Schools: Espoused Versus Revealed Academic Preferences

The NCSC is funded by a 5 year, $13.3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education's Institute of Education Sciences. Its lead institution is Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. The center is housed on the campus of Peabody College, one of the nation's top graduate schools of education.