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1 of 22 Education Policy Analysis Archives Volume 9 Number 37October 1, 2001ISSN 1068-2341 A peer-reviewed scholarly journal Editor: Gene V Glass, College of Education Arizona State University Copyright 2001, the EDUCATION POLICY ANALYSIS ARCHIVES. Permission is hereby granted to copy any article if EPAA is credited and copies are not sold. Articles appearing in EPAA are abstracted in the Current Index to Journals in Education by the ERIC Clearinghouse on Assessment and Evaluation and are permanently archived in Resources in Education .Educational Performance and Charter School Authoriz ers: The Accountability Bind Katrina Bulkley Rutgers UniversityCitation: Bulkley, K. (2001, October 1). Educationa l Performance and Charter School Authorizers: The Accountability Bind. Education Policy Analysis Archives 9 (37). Retrieved [date] from http://epaa.asu.edu/epaa/v9n37.html. Abstract Charter schools involve a trading of autonomy for a ccountability. This accountability comes through two forcesmarket s through the choices of parents and students, and accountability to government through the writing of contracts that must be renew ed for schools to continue to operate. Charter schools are supposed t o be more accountable for educational performance than tradit ional public schools because authorizers have the ability to revoke char ter contracts. Here, I focus on one central component of accountability to government: performance accountability or accountability for ed ucational outcomes to charter school authorizers through the revocation o r non-renewal of charter contracts. In this paper, I suggest that co ntract-based
2 of 22accountability for educational performance in chart er schools may not be working as proponents argued it would. This article explores some explanations for why there are very few examples of charter schools that have been closed primarily because of failure to de monstrate educational performance or improvement. Future work will need t o test if these challenges for authorizers hold in a variety of con texts. The conclusion examines the implications of these findings for the future of charter school accountability. Introduction Charter schools are premised on the idea that one c an trade autonomy for accountabilityspecifically, that if one provides g reater autonomy to individual schools, through deregulation and/or school-site control ove r finances, hiring, curriculum and mission, then one can place greater demands on the educational performance produced by those schools (Kolderie, 1990; Nathan, 1996) Acc ording to one analysis of charter school legislation, [m]ost charter school statutes with sections on legislative intent are quite explicit in their expression of the legislatu res demand for accountability for student performance (Millot, 1996, p. 9). This acc ountability comes through two forcesmarkets through the choices of parents and s tudents, and accountability to government through the writing of short-term (gener ally 3-5 years) contracts that must be renewed in order for schools to continue to oper ate. (Note 1) While the theory underlying the charter school idea varies somewhat from state to state, a central part of that theory is that charte r schools will be more accountable for educational performance than traditional public sch ools, largely because authorizers have the ability to revoke or not renew charter con tracts (Kolderie, 1990; Nathan, 1996). This article focuses on one central component of ac countability to governmentthat of performance accountability or accountability for ed ucational outcomes to charter school authorizers (the public entities that grant operato rs charter contracts) through the revocation or non-renewal of charter contracts. The early information and this is early informati on, as only 29% of states with charter schools have had schools go through the ren ewal process is that in those states [where schools have come up for renewal], almost al l schools seeking renewal have been successful (SRI International, 2000, p. 56). While a number of schools have closed (39 as of 1999, according to the Center for Education Reform), these closures have mostly been for organizational or financial re asons; as Finn and his colleagues argue, the most common reasons for closure have bee n, organizational chaos, management meltdown, and fiscal shenanigans (Finn, Manno, & Vanourek, 2000, p. 137). One explanation for the continuing operation of the vast majority of charter schools is that they are, indeed, producing improve d student achievement. However, research and evaluations suggest a more complicated story, with a mix of success and struggles (Horn & Miron, 1998; Horn & Miron, 1999; Public Sector Consultants & MAXIMUS, 1999; RPP International, 1999). In this article, I suggest that contract-based acco untability for educational performance in charter schools may not be working a s proponents argued it would. According to SRI International, [f]ew charter scho ol authorizers have revoked or not renewed charters because of student performance pro blems (SRI International, 2000, p. 57). This article explores some explanations for wh y there are very few examples of
3 of 22charter schools that have been closed primarily bec ause of failure to demonstrate educational performance or improvement. Possible ex planations, including the challenges of determining school quality, the stron g and vocal support of charter school communities (relative to the quiet and diffuse publ ic interest), and concerns about damaging the charter school movement, provide stron g incentives for authorizers to allow schools to continue to operate. I am not sugg esting that no authorizers are taking performance accountability seriouslysome clearly a re but that acting as the originators of charter schools intended can be very difficult for authorizers. Following a brief description of the data sources d rawn on, I discuss the accountability ideal for charter schools, and the r elationship between this ideal and ideas of a new accountability for public education more generally. This is followed by a description of how authorizers are addressing their different roles that relate to accountability including approving applications, overseeing schools, and granting new contracts. In the next section, I explore some poss ible explanations for why charters schools are rarely closed and some of the middle g rounds authorizers have created to provide incentives and sanctions to schools without actually forcing them to close. Future work will need to test if these challenges f or authorizers hold in a variety of contexts. The conclusion examines the implications of these findings for the future of charter school accountability.The Accountability Ideal Charter school accountability has both unique compo nents, especially the granting of an actual charter contract allowing an entity no t governed directly by a school board to operate a public school, and facets that are clo sely intertwined with broader changes in ideas about public school accountability. In the following two sections, I examine both of these aspects of accountability.Ideals of accountability for charter schools One of the challenges of talking about accountabili ty for charter schoolsor a host of other issuesis the variation among states as to the interpretation of the charter school idea in legislation (Buechler, 1996 (July); Bulkley, 1999c; Mulholland, 1996). Accountability is often separated into two componen ts to whom an entity (such as a school) is accountable, and for what they are accountable (Elmore, 1995). As noted earlier, accountability for charter schools has two facets: Market-based accountability, which operates through the choices of parents and students; and Performance-based accountability, which operates th rough contracts between charter schools and their authorizers specifying th e educational and other outcomes the school will produce if it is to contin ue to operate. The reliance on both government and the market is a critical aspect of the charter school idea, and a method for ensuring that charter schools serve both parental and broader societal interests. As well, these two forc es are intended to combine and create a stronger form of accountability then is found in th e traditional public school system, where schools are less likely to face the possibili ty of closure through either the withdrawal of students or the removal of a contract that allows them to operate (although they are increasingly likely to face sanctions such as closure or reconstitution if they do
4 of 22not meet state-defined performance expectations). T he implicit theory of charter schools is that these two forms of accountability will comp lement and reinforce each other. According to a study of accountability components i n charter school legislation, Lake and Millot find three general responsibilities for charter school authorizers (Lake & Millot, 1998)(the implementation of each of these areas are discussed below). The first responsibility is in the charter school appli cation itself, and involves the requirements to become a charter school (p. 19). Legislation varies, but generally includes some of the pieces that must be included i n an application, such as the schools mission, the type of staff who will be hired, the t ype of educational program that will be offered. Among these requirements are usually the e xpected outcomes of the educational program and some reference to the methods for measu ring those outcomes. The second responsibility is to monitor or oversee the charter school in some way; often, this responsibility rests with the authorizer and with o ne or more other branches of government (i.e. the state board of education). Wit hin legislation, specific and/or general reports may be required. Thirdly, at the core of the charter school theory, authorizers must use their authority to choose not to renew a charter for a sc hool that has not met the terms of the contractincluding expectations involving education al performanceor to revoke a charter when the operation of a school has clearly strayed from the original intentions. (Note 2) In a book on contracting in education, an idea that has some strong similarities to chartering, Hill and his colleagues describe a c ontract in this way: A contract is a promise to deliver quality educatio n for children in return for public funds and a warrant to operate a school for some period of time. Some procedure is needed to make sure the school li ves up to that promise. Relying solely on parent choice only holds the scho ol responsible for the private benefits of education. (Hill, Pierce, & Gut hrie, 1997, p. 67) In the case of charter schools, advocates have focu sed their rhetoric on renewal as the procedure that will ensure that these schools a re meeting publicly desirable educational goals. This is consistent with Lake and Millots argument that, [e]ffective accountability requires an efficient means of termi nating schools that fail to achieve their contractual requirements, particularly in the area of educational outcomes (Lake & Millot, 1998, p. 20). The combination of performanc e expectations and a contract creates a theory of charter school performance acco untability that rests on two key assumptions: Authorizers can assess the quality of education off ered by charter schools, using test scores and, if needed, other methods; and, Authorizers will act on their assessments by revoki ng or not renewing charters that do not demonstrate that they are providing quality education. The New Accountability in public education While charter schools are generally considered to b e outside the domain of mainstream educational reform efforts such as stand ards-based reform (cf. Smith & O'Day, 1991), changing ideas about educational acco untability influence both. Calls for a new accountability, according to Elmore, Abelma nn, and Fuhrman, have three central components: a primary emphasis on measured student performance; the creation of relatively complex systems of standards used to make comparisons among
5 of 22schools, districts, etc.; and the creation of rewa rds and penalties and intervention strategies to introduce incentives for improvement (Elmore, Abelmann, & Fuhrman, 1996, p. 65). Within the traditional system, this new accountabil ity has focused on the creation of aligned state standards and assessments that are more challenging and rigorous than in the past, and tools for recognizing and rewarding s chools (and sometimes districts) that are rising above expectations and penalizing or off ering assistance to schools/districts that are failing to meet them. In theory, focusing on student performance should move states away from input regulations and toward a mo del of steering by results (Elmore et al., 1996, p. 65). In the theory underlying char ter schools, the primary incentives for improving performance are the ability to continue t o operate as a charter school by having a contract renewed and to be successful in t he market by attracting students and the public resources they bring with them. The reve rse of this are the clear sanctions for charters if they fail to improve performancethe re moval of their contract, and the loss of students through the market. Another facet of this new accountability, at least in some cases, is attempts to increase the involvement of parents and communities in school reform. This is done largely through the public reporting of assessment results. The expectation underlying public reporting is that it, energizes parents and other community members to pressure schools for higher performance, particularly when d ata show differences in performance among schools that are roughly comparable in the pu blics eye (Elmore et al., 1996, p. 67). Public reporting of a range of information, fr om test scores to attendance and graduation rates, has also been a piece of charter school accountability. However, in the case of charter schools, the purpose of public repo rting has primarily been to influence the market; that is, provide information that will better enable parents and students to select among charter schools and between charter sc hools and other schooling options. While some progress has been made towards the goals of the new accountability (Education Week, 1999), challenges are still abunda nt; The reality of educational accountability at the close of the century involves contested standards, a problematic distribution of authority, weak incentives, variabl e capacity, and rudimentary technology (Adams & Kirst, 1999, p. 464). Some of these same challenges have emerged for charter school authorizers, particularl y regarding contested standards and variable capacity.Performance accountability and charter school autho rizers While the approach of charter school authorizers to issues of performance accountability is the focus of this article, it is important to embed it within the broader context of the multiple ways in which charter schoo l authorizers address accountability. Following a brief description of the data used here I quickly describe how charter school applications and oversight by authorizers during th e term of a contract are used as tools of accountability issues. This is followed by a mor e in-depth exploration of the oversight of educational programs and the renewal process.Data This research draws on a variety of sources of data However, as an exploratory piece, it also raises questions and issues that nee d further consideration, and does not claim to offer a definitive discussion of charter s chool accountability. I draw on two
6 of 22research studies that examined charter school autho rizers, a study of New Regimes in Educational Governance conducted for the Consortiu m for Policy Research in Education (CPRE) (Bulkley, 1999a) and the national study of charter school accountability conducted by the Center on Reinventi ng Public Education (CRPE) at the University of Washington (Hill et al., 2001). Both of these studies included interviews with charter school authorizers and charter school personnel; the latter involved authorizers and schools in six states (Arizona, Mic higan, Georgia, Massachusetts, California and Colorado), and the former with schoo ls and states in Arizona and Michigan. Evidence is also gathered from other rece nt literature on charter schools (i.e. Arsen, Plank, & Sykes, 1999; Center for Education R eform, 2000; SRI International, 1997; SRI International, 2000; Wells & others, 1998 ; Wohlstetter & Griffin, 1998). A report based on the CRPE study was published in 2 001 (Hill et al., 2001). This study explored a number of different aspects of the accountability issue, including market, government and internal accountability. Tha t report provides an overview of some of the progress and challenges experienced by charter schools as they have sought to contend with the many forces placing demands upo n them. In particular, the report offers a description of the strengthening internal accountability found in many schools (or accountability among immediate stakeholders in a school, including educators, parents, students and community members) and some o f the issues faced in addressing external accountability, including accountability t o charter school authorizers. Applications The first formal stage for any prospective charter school operator is to submit an application to a public organization allowed to aut horize charter schools. The expectation of many policy makers and advocates of charter school laws was that these contracts would have very explicit performance obje ctives (Bulkley, 1999b). However, research suggests this if often not the case. For e xample, Hannaways work on educational performance contracting suggests that s pecificity for performance in educational contracts is often low (Hannaway, 1999) and one study in California found that goals in contracts ranged from concrete and qu antitative to informal and process-oriented (SRI International, 1997; see also Wells & others, 1998). In Colorado, charter school applications must explicate student performance standards, measurable objectives for student growth, and assessment and r eporting procedures. But, in practice, some plans are very specific while others are less susceptible to easy measurement (Clayton Foundation, 1999, p. 51). When charter school laws were first adopted, author izers or potential authorizers with little or no experience in granting performanc e contracts were placed in a position of wanting or needing to evaluate and approve appli cations almost immediately. In addition, some authorizers were under extreme polit ical pressure to allow some schools to get up and operating quickly. In this unclear an d sometimes harried environment, applicants often went through a fairly minimal proc ess (c. f. Bulkley, 1999a). (Note 3) The national situation may be improving, however. F or example, every chartering agency in SRIs national survey reported that some or all of its schools had measurable goals in the area of student achievement (SRI Inter national, 2000). Since those early years, authorizers with more expe rience have developed clearer guidelines for applicants and, in some cases, clear er guidelines for the evaluation of applications. Many of these authorizers now require information that, they hope, will help to determine if applicants will be equipped to handle the administrative, financial and educational aspects of operating a charter scho ol. (Note 4)
7 of 22 For some authorizers working with a large number of schools, the process of granting a charter is seen as a way to influence sc hool quality both by selecting the most promising applications and by having an application process that builds capacity. Thus, these authorizers believe, the process itself can i mprove the quality of the schools that open by forcing applicants to address some issues i nvolved in operating a charter school that they might not have considered previously. Acc ording to a staff person at Central Michigan University, in the application process, w ere going to take you through a structured process, were going to help you anticip ate operational difficulties, were going to help you prepare your organization so that the first day that you open the doors, youre going [to] be prepared to educate kids. Implicit in this focus on applications as an accoun tability mechanism is a belief, at least among staff at some of the larger authorizers that if they make the process rigorous enough at the beginning, then they wont need to w orry as much about the school in practice. While the theory of charter school accoun tability has generally focused on some interpretation of student outcomes, staff work ing for some authorizers expressed a belief that charter schools can be more accountable because of the initial application process. The more rigorous the process, they argue, the more accountable the school. Oversight Once an authorizer grants a charter and a new schoo l opens or a pre-existing school begins to operate with a new governance stru cture, the authorizer is responsible for overseeing the school in a number of different areas. The authorizer must determine if a school is compliant with any applicable laws a nd regulations, as well as any specific provisions in the charter document. As a part of co mpliance, the authorizer needs to examine the finances of a school to check if they c omply with spending and bookkeeping requirements and determine if schools a re functioning organizations. The following section examines their oversight of the e ducational programs of charter schools during the contract period. Authorizers use a variety of tools for oversight, i ncluding required reports, site visits, parental complaints and surveys, outcome da ta, regular meetings and informal contact. There is considerable variation between au thorizers as to the types of tools used and the frequency with which they are used, ranging from those who have very minimal contact with schools (generally limited to written reporting unless major problems arise) to others who supplement reporting with regular con tact through visits, meetings and phone calls. The most basic level of oversight for charter schoo l authorizers is ensuring that schools meet legal requirements regarding complianc e with state, federal, and local laws and regulations, with acceptable accounting practic es, and with reporting requirements. While the theory underlying charter schools in most states revolves heavily around student achievement and school performance, a numbe r of studies suggest that authorizers often focus their oversight on the fami liar, such as compliance and financial stability, rather than on performance (Bulkley, 199 9a; Garn, 1998; Henig, Moser, Holyoke, & Lacireno-Paquet, 1999; Hill et al., 2001 ; SRI International, 1997). In one California study, school district officials note t hat, given all the ambiguity around student outcomes and what measures are valid, they are holding charter schools accountable more on fiscal, rather than academic, m easures (Wells & others, 1998, p. 19). Regardless of whether or not compliance requirement s directly impinge on the abilities of a school to operate the educational pr ogram it desires, there is clearly an
8 of 22opportunity cost for the schools related to complia nce; the more time spent on regulatory requirements, the less time and money available for other purposes (Arsen et al., 1999). Alongside general oversight, there is a subset of c harter schools that require additional attention from their authorizers. These non-functioning organizations are experiencing major problems such as a substantial l oss of students and/or staff, considerable infighting among staff, parents, board members or others in the school community, severe student discipline issues or majo r financial problems. Authorizers can identify schools that are completely, or in som e aspect of their operations, non-functional through a number of sources. These i nclude parental complaints, site visits, financial audits or reporting, and media e xposes. Often, multiple sources inform an authorizer that a school is having serious strug gles. In some cases, authorizers do nothing but simply mo nitor the situation unless or until it becomes severe. Other times, however, they become more engaged with the troubled school, often behind-the-scenes. For exa mple, authorizers can work directly with school boards and school leaders to attempt to resolve problems. In Michigan, some universities have taken an active rolesometimes ap parent and sometimes behind the scenesin schools that have been struggling; for ex ample, authorizing staff have helped to identify governance problems in schools and prom oted the replacement of board members and school leaders through advice to boards and leaders. Similarly, in Colorado, the school leader in one school visited f or the CRPE study left in part because of pressures from the sponsoring district. Finally, regular monitoring combined with detailed feedback to schools can be useful for authorizers and struggling charter schoo ls. In Massachusetts, in-depth school site visits are one opportunity to assess how well a school is functioning. The two schools in the CRPE study authorized by the Massach usetts Board of Education both had difficulties early on, one where problems where largely governance-oriented, and another where they primarily involved the schools educational program. In each case, the site visit reports provided a form of technical assistance to the schools. By seeing themselves through the eyes of outside experts, sch ool personnel were more able to identify and address their internal problems.Examining the educational program and performance In the theory underlying charter schools in most st ates, the schools are expected to offer an educational program that leads to improved student achievement (Lake & Millot, 1998). Authorizers can look at the outcomes of a schools education program only at the time of renewal or formal review, or th ey can monitor this program throughout the charter contract period as well. Monitoring during the Contract Early on in their work with charter schools, authorizers often focused their energy on ensuring that schools were functional organizations and were in compliance with fiscal an d regulatory requirements. As authorizers have gained knowledge and experience wi th compliance issues, the time required for addressing these issues has been minim ized and become more routinized. This has allowed them to turn increased attention t o the educational programs offered by schools. Authorizers use a number of different tools in moni toring academic achievement and a schools educational program. The most common and certainly the most publicly visible, is student test scores. Some authorizers m erely collect test score data, but do little with it during the charter contract period. In other cases, authorizers analyze the
9 of 22scores and provide information to the public and/or school personnel about these outcomes. A recent study by RPP International found that 85% of charter schools reported test scores to their authorizer (RPP Inter national, 2000). However, it is important to note that the fact that student achiev ement is monitored, or tracked, does not necessarily mean that this data is utilized in decision-making and other actions by the authorizer. For example, in a study of California c harter schools, 85% schools said they reported student achievement data to their sponsor, but only 4% said that the sponsor had ever requested specific actions or imposed sanctions in response . .. (SRI International, 1997, Part II, p. 16, emphasis in or iginal). This potential lack of use of achievement data is tied closely to a lack of clear standards for schools; as Wohlstetter and Griffin found, sponsoring agencies, in general required assessment information on performance from charter schools but often failed to specify any clear performance standards or consequences (Wohlstetter & Griffin, 1998, p. 15). Test scores are not the only information used by au thorizers to assess a schools educational program, as the following two examples demonstrate. In Massachusetts, where charter schools negotiate an accountability c ontract with their authorizer at the beginning of their charter, schools submit an annua l report that includes, among other things, a discussion of their progress towards the goals of their accountability contract. Authorizers in several other states also require an nual progress reports; these vary from one-page commentaries to more elaborate formal repo rts that include specific examples and evidence demonstrating educational progress. In Michigan, one university has recently been pushing charter schools to develop go als that are clear, concise and measurable, in response to concerns that goals in charter contracts have at time been imprecise and progress on them difficult to assess. However, it is unclear what, if any, formal actions are taken if a schools educational program is seen as inadequate by authorizer staff. Another way of assessing a schools educational off erings and aiding in improvement is through the use of outside organizat ions. For example, there a number of organizations that either accredit schools or ar e planning to offer accreditation, including several state charter school organization s. Two school districts in the CRPE study have required that the schools they authorize become accredited by their respective state charter organizations when this becomes possi ble. In general, during the period when a charter contra ct is in effect, authorizers may be more focused on the day-to-day issues of complia nce and dealing with non-functioning organizations than they were on bro ader issues of accountability for the education program schools offer. Even within the do main of educational accountability, authorizers cite actions such as e nsuring that teachers are certified and the schools curriculum is properly aligned with st ate standardswhile these certainly may influence the academic program offered by schoo ls, they are not the kinds of new accountability tools that charter advocates have e mphasized. Nationally, such monitoring of performance has seldom led to charter revocation (SRI International, 2000). Renewal The renewal process for charter schools varies co nsiderably across states and across authorizers. The process and criteria fo r renewal can be fairly clear and defined, or undefined to the point of great confusi on for school personnel. The renewal process has the potential (not necessarily attained ) to be a serious undertaking that holds the genuine possibility of a school not receiving a new charter, thus providing schools with a strong external incentive. The Massachusetts Department of Education is probab ly the authorizer whose
10 of 22renewal process is most frequently held up as a mo del. In Massachusetts, a number of different data sources are used in the renewal proc ess. The most elaborate piece involves an evaluation/renewal inspection by an outside team hired by the authorizer. These teams, which consist of experienced educators and o thers, conduct 3-4 day visits at each school up for renewal and write a detailed report o n their findings for the authorizer. A number of schools have come up for renewal, and all have received new charters along with suggestions for improving their programs. Among other large authorizers, few have developed a s clear or rigorous a procedure as has the Massachusetts DOE. For example in the spring of 1999, one Michigan universitys office that works with charte r schools recommended that the university board renew all the schools whose contra cts were due to expire. The materials provided to the university board included test scor e data on the MEAP (the Michigan state test) and another national standardized test, alongside other information on school goals. The test scores were mixed, with some school s and grades showing marked improvement and some showing little or negative cha nge; how good is good enough was not spelled out either formally or informally t o these schools or the university board. Other goals tended to emphasize participation rathe r than performance, such as attendance in foreign language or computer classes. At another Michigan university that has authorized a significant number of schools, sta ff said that they expected all their schools to be reauthorized before the renewal proce ss had even begun. Small authorizers (those that have granted only a f ew charter contracts) vary considerably in their approaches to renewal and are unlikely to be as clear or thorough as larger authorizers that have more resources and cap acity at their disposal. Some have few clear procedures and criteria for renewal. Amon g the case study schools, those whose charters were granted by small authorizers we re generally not very concerned about renewal. For example, personnel at the Georgi a Department of Education have emphasized to the two CRPE schools the need for sch ools to have specific performance outcome goals in their charters, yet there was litt le focus on performance as an aspect of the renewal process at either school. Some of the small authorizers have or intend to uti lize external information sources in their renewal decisions, including accre ditation (discussed above). For example, one district in Colorado hired an independ ent evaluator to evaluate a school in the year it was being considered for renewal. One C alifornia district used an external review of a charter school that was done for other district purposes in its renewal decision alongside an external study completed spec ifically for the renewal process. While authorizers are using a variety of tools to e valuate a school when its charter is up for renewal, the authorizers in the CRPE study gene rally expected to renew the charters they had granted when the time came. Overall, for many authorizers, accountability to go vernment has primarily focused on issues of financial and legal compliance, with s ome monitoring of educational programs (primarily through test scores). However, it is unclear to what extent government authorizers are using educational monito ring or evaluation to make serious decisions about the operation of individual schools This challenge to performance accountability is recognized by both advocates and critics of charter schools; as one study noted, in practice, "accountability typically means a half-baked version of the top-down regulation-and-compliance system that the state or community applies to its conventional public schools" (Finn et al., 2000, p. 135).The Accountability Bind
11 of 22 Charter school authorizers vary in important ways, such as their emphasis on compliance vis a vis oversight of educational progr ams, their beliefs about the proper role of an authorizer in the day-to-day operations of schools, and their faith in test scores as an appropriate measure of quality. These differe nces can be explained as a combination of differences in the will and capacity of authorizing agencies. For example, the charter schools office in the Massachu setts Department of Education has operated in a political climate where there is a co nsiderable interest in close monitoring of charter schools, and the office has responded in kind. This contrasts considerably with the two state boards in Arizona, where there is lit tle political will for strong oversight; that political will has been translated into the se lection of staff who are supporters of a more laissez-faire approach to authorizing, and i nto minimal funding for charter staff which effectively limits the oversight potential re gardless of the inclinations of the staff members. As the study by SRI International notes, while the vast majority of charter schools have yet to come up for renewal, those that have ar e generally receiving new contracts (SRI International, 2000). This is consistent with the information provided by the school and authorizing agency staff interviewed for the CR PE study. Interviews with authorizers and a review of the literature on chart er schools suggest that they all share a number of significant challenges to closing schools despite considerable and very important variation across authorizers in their app roaches to the renewal issue. These challenges are tied to the some basic assumptions u nderlying the idea of charter school accountability. Four challenges are: Educational performance is not simple to define or measure, nor is how good is good enough in educational quality. 1. Other aspects of a schools program, often more dif ficult to measure than test scores, are also important to families and authoriz ers. In this context, authorizers sometimes turn to proxies to assess school qualit y. 2. Teachers, parents and students become very invested in particular schools and destroying a community may be more difficult for au thorizers than serving a diffuse public interest. 3. Finally, charter schools have become a highly polit icized issue on both sides, and some authorizers are concerned about their decision s reflecting poorly on charter schools as a reform idea. 4. I call this constellation of challenges the accoun tability bind, as authorizers are stuck between wanting to enforce accountability thr ough renewal, but finding doing so fraught with difficulty. I am not suggesting that n o authorizers are taking performance accountability seriouslysome clearly are but tha t acting as the originators of charter schools intended can be very difficult for authoriz ers. Challenge 1: Defining educational performance with test scores One of the greatest challenges for states attemptin g to develop accountability systems as part of standards-based reform is to cre ate systems that are considered by those within education and the public to be fair an d defensible (Elmore et al., 1996). Thus, in order to attach consequences to performanc e measures, they must be viewed as valid and reliable measures that appropriately dist inguish between schools where a desirable level of learning is taking place and oth ers where learning is inadequate. For charter school authorizers, these demands of fairne ss and defensibility are even greater
12 of 22than for state assessment systems, because the sanc tion of revoking or not renewing a contract is so high. This challenge sits alongside the challenge of using standardized tests to assess the performance of individual chart er schools, which often aim to offer non-traditional educational programs. While authori zers are clearly monitoring the test scores of students in charter schools, it is extrem ely important to distinguish between gathering information about school quality and using that information for improvement and accountability purposes. Some authorizers have worked with schools to develop expectations that are more aligned to the schools stated purpose than an off-the-shelf standardized assessments, but this makes comparison s with other schools one way of determining if a school is successful all the mor e challenging. As well, charter schools often must adapt their programs to serve the needs of students who enroll at the school, who may or may not match the students expected by t he founders; this can lead to a situation where meeting specific contract goals may be an unreasonable expectation. As the Hill et al study notes, Finding ways to measur e not only student achievement on standardized tests but the value-added qualities of charter schools has proven to be a challenge (Hill et al., 2001, p. vi).Challenge 2: Assessing quality beyond test scores Authorizers' uncertainty about closing schools is a lso tied, at least in some cases, to staff members who feel that the essence of a sch ool can never be captured by quantifiable measures, and who instead rely on a se nse of feel about the quality of the school. As one staff person said, [you need to] lo ok into the eyes of the kids and the teachers and if you see the magic you know youve got something good happening. While this attention to "feel" may well capture asp ects of the educational experience offered by a school that would be missed by test sc ores and other such measures, it is inconsistent with the idea that charter schools sho uld continue to operate based on their ability to demonstrate academic performance. The challenges of determining success have often led authorizers to proxies that, they believe, provide indicators about the pe rformance of individual schools. Interestingly, proxies generally seem to be used to justify an authorizers assessment of success in a school, and rarely to argue that a s chool is not doing well. The most obvious proxy authorizers use is parental choice an d satisfaction. While markets and government authority are intended to work separatel y in creating accountability for charter schools, authorizerswhen asked to explain successfrequently point to the market. For example, the existence of waiting lists for slots at a charter school is often given as proof or evidence of the schools worth. T he challenge, of course, is that if market accountability is created (obviously) via th e market, and government is turning to the market to demonstrate success or performance, t han the ideal of joint accountability for performance between markets and government is c ompromised. Authorizers also point to the mark of approval gi ven by external organizations as evidence of success or an increased likelihood o f a successful school. One such mark is accreditation, both from organizations that predate charter schools (i.e. accreditation from the North Central Association Commission on Ac creditation and School Improvement ) and those that have sprung up specifi cally to work with these schools (mainly state charter school associations). The app roval given by these organizations is a sign of quality in the eyes of many authorizers, al though the lack of accreditation is not generally seen as problematic. (Note 5) Finally, educational management organizations (EMOs ), sometimes called service providers, have become increasingly common in a num ber of states (in Michigan, over
13 of 22half of all charter schools now use a service provi der). These organizations can offer a variety of services, from simply keeping track of a schools finances to running the entire school, including providing the facility, hi ring the staff, and selecting the educational program. Comments by authorizers sugges t that, when one school operated by an EMO is seen as successful, than other schools run by the same company are more likely to be seen as successful. As with the proxy of accreditation, this reliance on EMOs may or may not be appropriate, but it is still an i ndirect mechanism for determining success. These examples suggest that proxies for qu ality often involve organizations or individuals that are largely outside the government domain, and do not themselves have a direct obligation to serve public purposes.Challenge 3: The preferences of charter school comm unities vs. the public interest While authorizers have difficulty with determining what is and is not a successful charter school, they have even more difficulty deci ding that a school is unsuccessful enough to justify as high a sanction as closure. Authoriz ers serve a diffuse public that has general needs for high quality education, but t heir day-to-day reality centers around working closely with charter school operators and c ommunities of teachers, parents and students who are heavily invested in the continuing existence of a particular school. As one staff member with an authorizer said: The theory sounds great about shutting schools down The practice is much more difficult. And whether youre revoking a contr act or not renewing a contract, theyre both gonna be tremendously diffic ult the reality is youve got teachers, youve got parents, youve got a community thats now used to the school, depending on the school, loving the school and either way youre gonna have difficulties. This attitude towards renewal appears to be common among authorizers, despite their recognition of the political rhetoric arguing that charter schools should not be renewed if they cant prove they are improving achi evement. The turmoil created for a specific group of educators, parents and children t hat results from not renewing a charter may outweigh the difficult to define the ideal of p erformance accountability for authorizers. Their relationships with charter commu nities bring them into regular contact with parents who are convinced of the value of indi vidual schools and schools that have long waiting lists (with or without proof of acad emic quality), and this positive response of the market can have a profound impact o n the thinking of authorizers, despite the ideal separating accountability to the market from that to government. Challenge 4: Politics and the charter school moveme nt Finally, a number of authorizers are themselves pol itically invested in the success of the charter school movement. The authorizers I have studied, particularly those who are involved with a large number of schools, are ge nerally staffed by people sympathetic to charter schools. Even if they personally support the ideals of performance accountability, they may be hesitant to close schoo ls because of fear that this will be seen as a failure of the general charter school ide al.Finding the middle ground
14 of 22 Overall, the forces working against the closure of charter schools based on student performance seem likely to result in schools being renewed at a very high rate. What seems to be needed is a less all-or-nothing definit ion of accountabilitymore of an ongoing relationship than a single decision point. There are a number of ways authorizers are currently working to establish more productive and educationally substantive accountability relationships with chart er schools through middle grounds that allow them to take some action short of actual ly revoking or not-renewing a charter contract. These middle grounds include: focusing on applications as a form of input accountability, direct or indirect intervention in schools, and capacity building/technical support. As described earlier, authorizers (especially large authorizers) have increasingly emphasized the importance of the application proces s as a quality control mechanism. When asked about how schools are held accountable, several staff members working with authorizing entities responded in part by disc ussing the rigors of the application process. In light of the difficulty of closing scho ols, it makes sense that authorizers pour considerable time and energy into doing what is in their power to see that new charter schools have the greatest potential to be successfu l. Authorizers can also intervene once schools have be gun to operate, especially when problems are present, through direct or indire ct methods. Direct intervention involves requiring that schools do something. These interventions often involve compliance issues and schools that are struggling t o be functional; for example, a school with financial problems might be told to undergo an external audit. A study by SRI International examined corrective actions taken b y authorizers, including not only revocation and non-renewal but also probationary me asures; they found that such corrective actions were most often related to fisca l or management issues (SRI International, 2000). Direct interventions linked t o the educational program appear less common, but do occur. For example, in Arizona, the State Board of Education required all schools it had authorized that had average test scores below the 35th percentile to provide information explaining these scores. (Note 6) While direct interventions happen, indirect interventions seem far more common. These often take the form of discussions about problems between school and authorizer staff, including problems around issues such as staffing, curriculum, test scores, and goal s. Finally, authorizers seek to find a middle ground b y providing schools with technical assistance or other capacity-building mea sures with the hopes that the increased capacity will result in higher achievemen t and better functioning organizations. Technical assistance can include pro fessional development or, more often, suggestions of where to turn for professiona l development. Another form of capacity-building is to send external reviewers to schools, with the expectation that they will provide summative evaluations and formative ev aluations that offer suggestions and insights that school personnel might find useful. T his form of review has been used since the beginning in Massachusetts, and has also appeared in a variety of other states. For example, one California charter school authoriz ed by a district that is very focused on test scores and student achievement experienced declining scores. The district responded by providing an external review designed to offer suggestions for improvement. Finally, authorizers can work to build capacity among parents for making good choices (i.e. through providing information), attempting to improve quality through improving parental decisions in the educational mar ket. One of the challenge of technical support designed to help schools improve themselves, however, is similar to that faced by st ates and districts trying to reform "under-performing schools"it is not always clear t o either authorizers or schools what
15 of 22exactly is needed to improve performance. This chal lenge of an unclear technology (Tyack, 1993) is obviously not unique to the charte r context, but it may be exacerbated by the separation between charter schools and other entities that may be in a position to support change and provide expertise (i.e. school d istricts). As Elmore and his colleagues comment, performance-based accountabili ty systems depend heavily for their success on whether school administrators, tea chers, parents, and students know what to do to improve performance (Elmore et al., 1996, p. 9 2, emphasis in original). Attempts by authorizers to find a middle ground, so me set of actions that allows them to influence charter schools without taking th e undesirable step of closing them, has led to a variety of creative approaches. Howeve r, there is a serious challenge for the theory of charter school accountability in an incre ased focus on middle grounds and a lesser focus on contract renewal. The way in which charter advocates have presented t he idea of a performance contract is, fundamentally, as an all or nothing proposition. In arguing for a broad-based system of contracting, Hill and his col leagues make the case that, Contractors who failed to provide instruction as p romised, or whose students outcomes were low and not improving as anticipated, could be fired or given an ultimatum to improve or be replaced (Hill et al., 1997, p. 70). In addition, they argue that, accountability only means something if there are c onsequences when children do not learn (Hill et al., 1997, p. 68). The rationale be hind the additional autonomy provided to charter schools is that there will be real and s ignificant consequences if performance is not demonstrated. If, as appears to be the case, renewal is not alway s (or even often) serving its intended function as a mechanism for performance ac countability, the autonomy/accountability bargain on which charter sc hools are based is out of balance. Given the problems inherent in an all-or-nothing re newal decision, the goal is to make sure that accountability for educational performanc e is maintained throughout the contract by building in a range of incentives, supp orts, and consequences less drastic than non-renewal. The challenge is to do this witho ut the authorizer becoming so involved in the day-to-day operations of charter sc hools that the autonomy that makes them distinctive is threatened.Conclusion Charter school authorizers, in the years since stat es began passing charter school laws, have had to develop a set of procedures and s tandards to work with public schools governed in a very different way than the hierarchi cal, bureaucratic method traditionally followed. While their focus has rhetorically been o n school performance, they have come up against many of the challenges that the pub lic education system has faced in determining performance and meting out rewards (con tinued operation in the case of charter schools) and punishments (revocation or non -renewal). However, internal accountability mechanisms in char ter schools may be compensating for the lacking external accountabilit y envisioned by some charter advocates; internal accountability involves, a set of productive and mutually responsible relationships among teachers, administr ators, and parents, united on behalf of effective instruction for children (Hill et al. 2001, p. iv). The charter school authorizer-charter school relationship has shown it self to be different in most cases than the traditional school-district relationship (with the most common exceptions being districts authorizing public school conversion char ters). However, it has often not met the ideals of those charter advocates who envisione d a rigorous authorizer accountability
16 of 22system that only continued to support those schools that had unequivocally improved student achievement. So, where does this leave us? These findings are pr eliminary, and other states with more explicit laws may have authorizers relying mor e heavily on renewal and revocation as accountability mechanisms. However, the incentiv e structure that is operating for authorizers described here seems likely to apply to authorizers more generally. In this environment, one could simply argue that the fundam ental theory of charter schools is flawed, and thus this reform effort should be place d in the "loss column." On the other hand, one can turn to other alternativ es to support charter school accountability, such as internal accountability and the marketplace and one can focus on middle grounds, including those discussed here and others that will be created over time as authorizers grapple with the challenges of using renewal and revocation or accountability. One possibility, which has its own difficulties, would be to separate authorizers from those who make decisions about ren ewal. In theory, this would remove the political disincentives of non-renewal and the personal relationships that can convolute renewal decisions. However, a risk in thi s approach is that authorizers who have developed relationships with schools are likel y the entity in the best position to assess the quality of an individual school. Charter schools are simply one form of contracting in public education. Other forms, such as when a school district contracts dir ectly with a private provider, may encounter similar challenges, i.e. the uncertainty of assessing quality and the reticence to invoke high stakes. However, there are some importa nt differences. The most important such difference is that the stakes in the case of c harter schools are so incredibly high. When a district contracts with a private provider, ending the contract generally does not mean ending the existence of the school. In this en vironment, the theory of high stakes and the actuality of high stakes for private provid ers may be more closely aligned. (Note 7) In this article, I have questioned one of the funda mental elements of the charter school theorythat accountability to government can be achieved through "all or nothing" contractual arrangements. The accountabili ty bind that this creates for authorizers seems unlikely to change. Thus, charter school advocates may be well advised to reevaluate and adjust their theoryand p ossibly their rhetoric and legislationin light of the questionable value of s uch a heavy reliance on revocation and renewal for ensuring performance accountability. Th e real risk is that there will be no change in the status quo, and the ideal of charter schools as jointly accountable to the market and government for educational performance a nd quality will simply be lost, with the market dominating the accountability equat ion.Acknowledgement Funding for this research was provided by the U.S. Department of Education's National Institute on Educational Governance, Finan ce, Policymaking and Management (Grant #OERI-R308A60003). The opinions expressed in this research are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Consortium for Policy Research in Education, the National Institute on Educational Go vernance, Finance, Policymaking and Management, the Office of Educational Research and Improvement, the United States Department of Education or the institutional partners of CPRE. The data was collected in collaboration with the Center on Reinv enting Public Education at the University of Washington. An earlier version of thi s article was presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Associ ation in New Orleans, LA, April
17 of 222000.NotesArizona and the District of Columbia allow charters of up to 15 years. 1. All states allow charters to be revoked or not renewed for reasons related to educational performance. However, allowing performa nce to be a criterion and requiring it are different things. Several states ( none of which were included in the CRPE study), including Texas, Louisiana and New Ham pshire, require in their legislation that schools must demonstrate acceptabl e levels of performance or improvement, based at least in part on test scores (Lake and Millot, 1998). It is unclear what effect this will have on renewal in th ose states. 2. One clear exception to this was applications submit ted to the Massachusetts Board of Education, which had a more elaborate applicatio n process from the beginning. 3. The application process can include intensive inter views with prospective authorizers, site visits to potential facilities, a nd reviews of the intended curriculum and personnel or type of personnel to be hired. 4. This appears to be changing, at least in some cases as more authorizers are requesting that their schools go through an accredi ting process. 5. For one school that served a largely at-risk studen t population, the 35% cut-off point was seen as arbitrary and inappropriate as a tool for judging their success with their particular student body. 6. While charter school advocates have tended to be sk eptical of public school conversions, such schools may in fact be more accou ntable in certain ways than "new start" schools because there is the real possi bility that the charter could be removed since the school itself would continue to o perate. 7.ReferencesAdams, J., & Kirst, M. (1999). New demands and conc epts for educational accountability: Striving for results in an era of e xcellence. In J. Murphy & K. S. Louis (Eds.), Handbook of research on educational administration: Second edition San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.Arsen, D., Plank, D., & Sykes, G. (1999). School choice policies in Michigan: The rules matter East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University. Buechler, M. (1996, July). Charter Schools: Legislation and Results after Four Years (PR-B13). Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana Education P olicy Center. Bulkley, K. (1999a). Charter school authorizers: A new governance mechanism? Educational Policy, 13 (5). Bulkley, K. (1999b). Telling Stories: The Political Construction of Char ter Schools. Unpublished Dissertation, Stanford University, Stan ford, CA. Bulkley, K. (1999c). Understanding the charter school concept in legisla tion: The cases of Arizona, Michigan and Georgia. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Montreal Quebec. Center for Education Reform. (2000). Charter schools today: Changing the face of
18 of 22American education Washington, D.C.: author. Clayton Foundation. (1999). 1998 Colorado charter schools evaluation study Denver, Colorado: Colorado Department of Education.Education Week. (1999). Quality Counts '99: Demanding Results Washington, DC: Education Week.Elmore, R. (1995). How schools construct accountability (Working paper ). New Brunswick, NJ: Consortium for Policy Research in Ed ucation. Elmore, R., Abelmann, C., & Fuhrman, S. (1996). The "New Accountability". In H. Ladd (Ed.), Holding Schools Accountable : Performance-Based Ref orm in Education Washington, DC: Brookings Institute.Finn, C. E., Manno, B. V., & Vanourek, G. (2000). Charter schools in action: Renewing public education Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. Garn, G. (1998). The Accountability System for Arizona Charter Schoo ls. Unpublished Dissertation, Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ.Hannaway, J. (1999). Contracting as a mechanism for managing education s ervices (Policy Brief RB-28). Philadelphia: Consortium for Policy Research in Education. Henig, J. R., Moser, M., Holyoke, T. T., & Lacireno -Paquet, N. (1999). Making a choice, making a difference? An evaluation of chart er schools in the District of Columbia Washington, DC: Center for Washington Area Studi es, George Washington University.Hill, P., Lake, R., Celio, M. B., Campell, C., Herd man, P., & Bulkley, K. (2001). A study of charter school accountability Seattle, WA: Center on Reinventing Public Educat ion, University of Washington.Hill, P., Pierce, L., & Guthrie, J. (1997). Reinventing Public Education : How Contracting Can Transform America's Schools (RAND R esearch Study) Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Horn, J., & Miron, G. (1998). First annual report of the evaluation of the charte r schools and the charter school initiative in the st ate of Connecticut Kalamazoo, MI: The Evaluation Center, Western Michigan University.Horn, J., & Miron, G. (1999). Evaluation of the Michigan Public School Academy initiative Kalamazoo, Michigan: The Evaluation Center, West ern Michigan University. Kolderie, T. (1990). Beyond Choice to New Public Schools: Withdrawing th e Exclusive Franchise in Public Education (8). Washington, DC: Progressive Policy Institute. Lake, R. J., & Millot, M. D. (1998). Accountability for Charter Schools: A Comparative Assessment of Charter School Laws Seattle, WA: Center on Reinventing Public Education.Millot, M.D. (1996). Autonomy, accountability and the values of public e ducation.
19 of 22Seattle, WA: Institute for Public Policy and Manage ment, University of Washington/RAND.Mulholland, L. (1996). Charter schools: The reform and the research Tempe, Arizona: Morrison Institute for Public Policy.Nathan, J. (1996). Charter schools: Creating hope and opportunity for American education San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. Public Sector Consultants, & MAXIMUS. (1999). Michigan's charter school initiative: From theory to practice Lansing, MI: author. RPP International. (1999). The state of charter schools, third year report: Na tional Study of Charter Schools Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Of fice of Educational Research and Improvement.RPP International. (2000). The state of charter schools: 2000 Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Rese arch and Improvement. Smith, M., & O'Day, J. (1991). Putting the pieces together: Systemic school reform New Brunswick, NJ: Consortium for Policy Research i n Education. SRI International. (1997). Evaluation of charter school effectiveness Menlo Park, CA: Author.SRI International. (2000). Evaluation of the public charter schools program: Y ear one evaluation report Washington, DC: SRI International. Tyack, D. (1993). School governance in the United S tates: Historical Puzzles and Anomalies. In J. Hannaway & M. Carnoy (Eds.), Decentralization and School Improvement San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. Vergari, S. (2000). The regulatory styles of statew ide charter school authorizers: Arizona, Massachusetts, and Michigan. Educational Administration Quarterly, 36 (5), 730-757.Wells, A. S., & others. (1998). Beyond the rhetoric of charter school reform: A stu dy of ten California school districts Los Angeles: UCLA Charter School Study. Wohlstetter, P., & Griffin, N. (1998). Creating and Sustaining Learning Communities: Early Lessons from Charter Schools (OP-03). Philadelphia, PA: Consortium for Policy Research in Education.About the AuthorKatrina BulkleyAssistant ProfessorRutgers Graduate School of Education Email:firstname.lastname@example.org Katrina Bulkley is an Assistant Professor of Educat ional Policy at the Rutgers University
20 of 22 Graduate School of Education. Much of her work has focused on issues involving school choice and charter schools. Recent articles include "Charter School Authorizers: A New Governance Mechanism?" in Educational Policy (November 1999), and "'New Improved' Mayors Take Over City Schools" (with Mich ael Kirst) in Phi Delta Kappan (March 2000). She is currently working with the Con sortium for Policy Research in Education on a literature review of research on cha rter schools and a study of for-profit management companies and charter schools, and with the Center for Education Policy Analysis, located at Rutgers University, on two stu dies of the impact of standards, testing and professional development on instruction al practices in New Jersey. Bulkley has reviewed articles for Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis Educational Policy and Policy Studies Journal .Copyright 2001 by the Education Policy Analysis ArchivesThe World Wide Web address for the Education Policy Analysis Archives is epaa.asu.edu General questions about appropriateness of topics o r particular articles may be addressed to the Editor, Gene V Glass, email@example.com or reach him at College of Education, Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ 8 5287-0211. (602-965-9644). The Commentary Editor is Casey D. C obb: firstname.lastname@example.org .EPAA Editorial Board Michael W. Apple University of Wisconsin Greg Camilli Rutgers University John Covaleskie Northern Michigan University Alan Davis University of Colorado, Denver Sherman Dorn University of South Florida Mark E. Fetler California Commission on Teacher Credentialing Richard Garlikov email@example.com Thomas F. Green Syracuse University Alison I. Griffith York University Arlen Gullickson Western Michigan University Ernest R. House University of Colorado Aimee Howley Ohio University Craig B. Howley Appalachia Educational Laboratory William Hunter University of Calgary Daniel Kalls Ume University Benjamin Levin University of Manitoba Thomas Mauhs-Pugh Green Mountain College Dewayne Matthews Education Commission of the States William McInerney Purdue University Mary McKeown-Moak MGT of America (Austin, TX)
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Educational performance and charter school authorizers : the accountability bind / Katrina Bulkley.
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