Is Charter School Teaching Similar To Or Different From Teaching in Regular 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 3.2 million students (nearly eight percent of all public school students) in nearly 8,000 schools (2020). 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 three decades, charter schools continue to grow albeit slowly. Parental demand for school choice remains. 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).

Most school reformers view teaching practices as predictors of student achievement. So an obvious question to ask is: 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).

Those findings surprised me.

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 positive or negative, 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 255 elementary and secondary schools in 20 states and the District of Columbia serving nearly 115,000 students (2020) 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 imply neither acceptance nor rejection, appropriate nor inappropriate, nor effective or ineffective.

KIPP charter schools, then, to a large extent, duplicate the prevailing patterns of teaching in regular public schools. That is the answer to this post’s question.

8 Comments

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8 responses to “Is Charter School Teaching Similar To Or Different From Teaching in Regular Schools?

  1. the State Auditor in MA did a review of charter schools; the State board of education had never defined “innovation.” We have absolutely no operational measures of “innovation.” The innovations are in cooking the books as to create CEO salaries and a hand-picked board that raises the CEOsalary. We had a “SpecialSchool” in MA that siphoned off between 10 and 30. Million from taxpayer funds meant for handicapped students. The CEO used the “innovation” of entertaining his hand-picked board at the Kentucky Derby. He was also related to the Commissioner of Education and the former Governor (now deceased). The legislature tells me they have closed that loophole in MA but the U.S.D.E. has opened up a lot more paths for profits and privatizing of “hybrid/charters.” Jeb Bush and his brother the other one with Devos are marketing their “miracle” schools across the U.S. The republican governors like Baker in MA signed on with DeSantis to have no accountability on the funds because “you just can’t start a profit business if you have to meet standards and oversight.” You seem to have a picture of “Charters” that is narrow and doesn’t fit with my experience in MA (check the Boston Globe and the legal problems; only one guy went to jail in MA and one got a $5,000 fine)…

    • larrycuban

      Not an enviable story about charters in Massachusetts that you tell. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

  2. your comment to me I view as “cavalier” in your approach. Your article posted only covers the superficial elements of the charter industry . You don’t talk about the fraud and corruption. Your response made it look like only MASSACHUSETTS had the problem but it is everywhere. “”Federal law has previously prohibited grants to for-profit charter schools; yet. in the report, Chartered for Profit, the Network for Public Education exposed that too many nonprofits have been turning over virtually all of their state and federal dollars to a for-profit management company without any oversight of the use of the money: “Despite strict regulations against the disbursement of funds from the federal Charter Schools Program to charter schools operated by for-profit entities, we identified over 440 charter schools operated for profit that received grants totaling approximately $158 million between 2006 and 2017, including Charter Schools Program grants to schools managed with for-profit sweeps contracts.” See new article today (Tuesday) by Jan Resseger.

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