Charter School Teaching: Similar to or Different from Regular Public Schools?

Since 1991 when Minnesota launched the first charter schools, the movement to create publicly funded charters freed from district rules where parents can choose to send their children has spread to 40 states (and the District of Columbia) enrolling almost two million students (nearly four percent of all public school students) in over 5,000 schools (over five percent of all public schools). Most charter schools are located in urban districts with one-quarter to one-third of all students enrolled in charters. In some cases such as New Orleans, the majority of children and youth attend charter schools.

The theory driving charter schools is that schools unchained from district policies (including union contracts) for three to five years  would have legal, budgetary, and organizational autonomy to steer its own course and, through innovative changes, increase the quality of schooling. Moreover,  charter schools would be held accountable to the market—parents and students choose to attend—and to stipulations in the charter itself to perform well academically and be fiscally responsible. If there were serious lapses, charter renewal would be forfeited ( WP-01).

A flexible curriculum, eager teachers, parental choice, accountability, and public funding would combine to create innovative schools where a new organization, hard-working teachers using different pedagogies, and satisfied parents would add up to higher student achievement than would have occurred in regular public schools. That is the theory.

After two decades, charter schools continue to grow. Parental demand for choices in schools remains high. There is evidence that charter schools compared to regular ones differ in organizational practices (e.g., block scheduling, extended school day, teachers staying with same students two or more years; small group instruction). Yet, in the face of this growth in these publicly funded organizations, charter and regular teachers both say, given the theory driving charter schools, that they exert little influence over curriculum and instruction. That surprised me.

Because school reformers view teaching practices as predictors of student achievement, have teachers in charter school, freed from district rules and prescriptions, practiced their craft differently than their peers in public schools?

What evidence there is  says that with even more autonomy and flexibility for teachers in charter schools there is little difference between their classroom practices and peers in public schools. Researchers who examined studies of pedagogy across charter and non-charter schools concluded that

“as charter schools implement innovations in governance, management, and other organizational practices, charter schools are embracing curricular and instructional approaches already in use (original italics) in other public schools that are considered as traditional ‘basic’ approaches to instruction” (Goldring-Cravens_2006).

Such findings leave holes in the theory embedded in charter schools. Like their counterparts in regular public schools, charter school teachers mainly use teacher-centered classroom practices such as lectures, scripted lessons, textbooks, worksheets, homework, question/answer/evaluation exchanges seasoned by certain student-centered practices such as small group work, student discussions, project-based learning, internships, and independent learning.

Keep in mind that when I use the phrase “teacher-centered” and “student-centered” instruction I do not infer that such teaching practices are either appropriate or inappropriate, effective or ineffective. I am reporting what many researchers, including myself, have documented in classrooms.

When one looks at Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) where all 109 elementary and secondary schools in 20 states serving over 30,000 students are charters, teaching approaches are  unmistakably teacher-centered. KIPP is not, of course, representative of all charter schools in its teaching practices. Aspire, Green Dot, and other charter management organizations have schools in their networks where teaching practices vary considerably but still work within the tradition of teacher-centeredness.

Note that these elementary and secondary school charters are geared to preparing children and youth for college. That is their unvarnished mission. College prep begins early in these charter elementary and secondary schools; frontal teaching, direct instruction, extended day, and no-nonsense approaches to student behavior are the norm. So any variation among teachers in different networks of charter schools falls within a narrow band of teacher-centered practices—again when I use that phrase I do not suggest that such practices are either appropriate nor inappropriate, either effective nor ineffective.

Until more evidence comes from direct observation of lessons in charter schools, teaching practices in charters and public schools appear more similar than different. To the degree that teaching practices shape student achievement, such results throw doubt upon  the theory driving charter schools.



Filed under how teachers teach

15 responses to “Charter School Teaching: Similar to or Different from Regular Public Schools?

  1. Pingback: Charter School Teaching: Similar to or Different than Regular Public Schools? « juandon. Innovación y conocimiento

  2. Christy

    I wonder how teacher preparation plays a role in the use of “traditional” teacher-centered instruction. Since many teachers in charters schools are not licensed, are they falling prey to the apprenticeship of observation? That they teach how they were taught?

    • larrycuban

      Your observation about the teacher corps in charter schools needs to be nailed down but if you are correct, it is an interesting inference that could be researched.

  3. Kay Merseth

    Larry I think you fail to mention some notable exceptions: High Tech High, Envision, Francis Parker Charter in Massachusetts are outstanding charters that are not teacher centric. .
    I do agree in general, and worry about the ‘frontal teaching’ as you describe (for all schools charter and traditional) KIds are not being exposed to high cognitive demand content As I described in my book Inside Successful Urban CharterSchools (Harvard Education Press 2008 Chapter 10 on Instruction), much of this frontal teaching gains high scores on high stakes tests like MCAS but it does not gain high scores on SAT results and other higher cognitive demand assessments, such as those found in PISA. That is the worrisome part. But because the tesing environment has such a strangle hold on charters, I doubt if they will venture to do anything else but frontal test preparedness.
    Kay Merseth (

    • larrycuban

      Thanks, Kay, for adding the charters that do have a broad band of instruction occurring in their schools. I think you nailed the reasons for the kind of instruction that does occur in charters.

  4. Bob Calder

    There may be a reason for a school like High Tech High having notable success, aside from teaching and learning. The model Larry retells at the top of the essay is a business gospel that ignores failure. It’s a story that business tells the public. But we know a huge number of new businesses fail. A chain-like management model could limit exposure to failure to some extent. We are witnessing failures right now. They are operational failures that may or may not be related to education outcomes.

    But it seems to me that to a proportional extent, innovation is necessarily limited.

    In order to be innovative, a business needs to be unfettered. Let’s call it creativity to make it more clearly framed. I’m not thinking this through clearly, but I think it’s good enough to put on the table right now. Qualcom’s Jacobs family has a strong commitment to High Tech High. I don’t know about the other schools, but let’s say they are pristine examples of the Charter Gospel. It is to be expected. There *will* be undeniable successes. I’m not sure that it tells us anything. Probably not.

    Does this say anything we want to hear about the charter school model? Can I take creative chances and still succeed as a charter operator? Nope. Not without increasing risk to a high level.

    At this point I could say something about the traditional role of academic research but the readers of this blog know far better than I.

    • larrycuban

      Most businesses do fail. Most charters do not although in some states such as Arizona and Ohio a fair number do. As you point out, Bob, it serves us well to keep in mind that autonomy from restrictions such as district rules and union contracts do not automatically lead to innovation (however defined). Thanks for the comment.

  5. Cal

    In my experience, most of the “progressive” charters (Summit, HTH, and so on) are the ones that try, at least, to be student-centric. They often exist in school districts with a large URM population co-existing with a still substantial middle class or higher income population, and their students are made up of the earnest mid-achievers of both groups. Hence their less than stellar scores that nonetheless aren’t dreadful. They are always under pressure to “increase their diversity”.

    These schools are marketed to give well-off but not rich white parents in a split-income district a less expensive alternative for their middle-achieving kids than an equivalent mid-level private school (which charges just as much as the high-achieving schools).

    The “progressive charter” can’t be compared with the typical urban charters that give a low-achieving population a safe haven from the often out of control schools they’d otherwise attend. These schools aren’t even slightly interested in being student-centric, but in providing a tough, disciplined, safe environment.

    I know there are a few high-performing charters (Pacific Charter School in Santa Cruz comes to mind) designed for high-achieving students, but they are the minority.

    The common denominators for all charters: they are all designed to appeal to one or two specific populations and “bleed off” the high achievers from public schools. The suburban charters rely on money from their parents; the urban charters rely on grant money from Gates and the other philanthropists.

    That’s why charters continue to grow, despite their lackluster results. Despite their billing, they aren’t designed to change curriculum, instruction–or even results. They are designed to provide an environment that will please the target population. Mid-level suburban charter students (Summit, HTH) are getting As instead of the Bs and Cs they’d get at their local public schools, and their parents aren’t forking out private school funds. Urban students at KIPP and the rest feel safer and are in an environment where the other students have to behave or get kicked out, so their peer environment makes their parents happier.

    But are charters benefitting the overall population? I don’t think so.

    Incidentally, High Tech High’s test scores are…okay. Nothing spectacular. (I’m talking SAT and CST). I wouldn’t say they are outstanding. Everyone gets all worked up about the projects, but so often, close inspection shows them to be the work product of just a few students.

    • larrycuban

      Cal, thanks for the distinctions that you draw among charters in teaching approaches and connecting them to percentages of low-income minorities in those schools. It got me thinking.

  6. Thanks for this has implications for our policy of “free” schools here in England and when considered alongside the “disputed” Hoxby research really does raise some critical questions.

  7. Kate

    I was under the impression that the reasons you cite were the historical reasons why charter schools were started. Today, it seems that the urban charter schools that exist in extremely high-need areas differ from the neighborhood schools more in discipline policies and educational philosophy than actual teaching practice. It is more evident in school culture (“All students WILL go to college”) than individual lessons. I don’t think that school personnel or parents at these schools are under the impression that their students are being involved in some cutting-edge, experimental curriculum but rather in a rigorous, college prep curriculum akin to what wealthy suburban students have access to.

    I think the appropriate comparison to make would be between a charter school and the neighboring district schools–I still doubt you’d find differences in teaching practices, but there are probably many other differences.

    And yes, I believe charter schools being used in this way creates huge problems in the educational system, as Cal mentions above.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks, Kate, for reminding me that the culture of the school–its ethos–make for coherence and consistency in teaching and program. That may well be the biggest difference between charters and local school. Whether charters “cream” the population, that is, taking motivated kids from supportive families, or not there are differences nonetheless. They do not seem to show up, however, in classroom practice.

  8. I work for the CA Charter Schools Association and have had the joy of touring many diverse charter schools and talking to teachers. They are the first to point out that it’s not that helpful to compare traditional schools vs. charter schools because there is no typical charter. Yes, many of the best known schools like KIPP might use very traditional pedagogy, but there are many small charters with very different approaches to teaching and learning. We put together some video interviews with teachers about what they like about teaching at a charter school – more food for thought:

    • larrycuban

      Thank you for commenting and sending along the video interviews with charter school teachers.

    • Bob Calder

      Yes, we realize all charter schools are not alike. But the 500 pound gorilla in the room is the well funded, cookie cutter factory school. Pretending he doesn’t run the operation is laughable.

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