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Leading in charter school research

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The Center on Educational Governance (CEG) under the leadership of Priscilla Wohlstetter, took on the issue of charter schools nearly two decades ago when the first charter school law was passed in Minnesota in 1991. There are now 40 states and the District of Columbia that permit charters and close to 5,000 schools enroll more than 1.6 million students. Charter schools are autonomous schools of choice that give the school community the freedom to hire staff, make school budgeting decisions and design the education program. The theory of action suggests that when school communities are given more autonomy, they will try new ways of doing things to improve student achievement.

CEG’s work in the area of charter schools is a string of firsts—the first entry in the World Book Encyclopedia on charter schools; the first published research article on charters which distilled lessons from Britain’s experience with charter-like schools for U.S. charter schools. CEG was a partner in creating the National Center on Charter School Finance and Governance, which offers strategy briefs for state policymakers, profiles of promising practices, and guidebooks on emerging charter issues like family engagement, public-private partnerships, and charter management organizations. CEG also developed the first accountability tool for evaluating California charter school performance statewide—Charter School Indicators-USC (CSI-USC). Now CEG is leading the first comprehensive, systematic review of research on charter schools, as part of a five-year national evaluation, funded by the U.S. Department of Education. CEG’s assistant director, Joanna Smith, leads the effort.

Charter School Indicators-USC, now in its sixth year, rates charter schools in California on 12 indicators of performance. The Wall Street Journal recognized the uniqueness of CSI-USC’s performance indicators, noting that it was the first of its kind to feature measures of financial health, in addition to academic measures. CSI-USC also rates schools on academic productivity—for the amount of money spent per child, what is the school’s output in terms of student achievement. The data for CSI is downloaded from California’s state data system, and individual charter schools are rated from 1 to 10 on each performance indicator. With the release of the CSI-USC 2010, CEG added an online, searchable database that invites users to compare a single school’s performance over time and to benchmark the performance of groups of schools of interest. CEG researcher Guilbert Hentschke is the CSI-USC innovator. CEG’s indicator work is now serving as a model for the development of a national charter school data warehouse, funded by the U.S. Department of Education.

Reformers envisioned that charter schools would serve as “idea labs” for public schooling—places where new ideas could be developed, incubated and scaled-up if they worked. There’s a gap, however, between idea creators and potential users—diffusing innovation and scaling-up successful models of schooling hasn’t occurred much.

To help address the gap, CEG, in collaboration with the charter community, has held competitions to identify promising practices in school governance, finance and curriculum and instruction. The award winners are profiled in an on-line compendium of promising practices. The compendium is designed around school problems that affect the quality of schooling and ultimately student achievement. The profiles are intended to get users to think out-of-the-box and whet their appetite to try something new. A contact person at the school site and relevant resources are also provided in the profile so that users can follow-up easily with creators of the practice.

Charter schools, themselves, have also been concerned about replicating innovation and with help from the philanthropic community, a new phenomenon has emerged, charter management organizations (CMOs)—networks of schools that share the same education program. CEG’s research, the first national study of CMOs, examined the process of scaling-up.

CEG is about to embark on a new study comparing CMOs to traditional school districts. Are CMOs bureaucracies like school districts, or do they represent a different form of organization? Early evidence suggests many CMOs are highly successful in educating the students they serve—largely urban, poor, ethnic minorities. CEG’s study asks questions that compare the structures and processes of the two systems.

The pioneering work of CEG continues to lead the field in the study of governance, management and performance of charter schools.

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