Issue Date: Feb 16, 2001
By Amy Vames
No one ever said being a professor and researcher would be easy. But Katrina Bulkley, an assistant professor at the Graduate School of Education, never expected that her primary focus of research -- charter schools -- would present as many challenges as it has. When she testified on Capitol Hill about her research on charter school accountability, one congressman told her that her research was "irrelevant." And not long ago, a professor at another university said Bulkley couldn't remain neutral on the subject.
But Bulkley has no intention of coming down on one side or the other of the charter school issue. "I consider myself an agnostic on the issue," she says with a smile. Her goal is to understand how charter schools are operating and the implications of that operation on the future development of the charter school movement. She also wants to determine whether charter schools are doing a better job at educating young people than traditional schools.
Charter schools are schools that are given contracts to operate outside the normal regulations imposed by the state or by local school districts. Renewal of these contracts is granted based on evidence that the schools are providing quality education.
Charter schools are run by a wide variety of groups, ranging from grassroots parents associations to professional, for-profit education management organizations. They were first set up in the early 1990s in an effort to provide an alternative to traditional schools. The thinking was that if charter schools were free of local school district control and bureaucracy, and could be chosen by parents for their children's education, they could be more creative in their curriculum and approaches to teaching.
It was also hoped that charter schools would provide competition for traditional schools and give them incentive to improve. In other words, the market, in conjunction with government through the contracting process, would determine which schools were a success. In the United States, there are more than 2,000 charter schools, with a total enrollment of more than half a million students. Thirty-seven states and the District of Columbia allow charter schools.
While many applaud the efforts of charter school leaders to "think outside the box" in terms of public education, there are just as many charter school critics. "The charter school environment is extremely politicized," Bulkley says. And, until recently, there's been little research done on charter schools and how they are performing. In the five years she's been studying charter schools, Bulkley has also found that most of the existing research has not undergone the rigorous peer- review process.
Bulkley was invited to speak before the House Subcommittee on Education and the Workforce in September; among the seven panelists, she was the only one who talked about charter school accountability and the only one who did not explicitly advocate charter schools. Despite, or maybe because of, that neutrality, she got the most questions from the subcommittee members holding the hearing.
In her testimony, Bulkley told the subcommittee that her research "suggests that there are certain aspects of charter school accountability that need to be revisited by policy-makers if the charter school idea is to meet its full potential."
She asked the panel to consider an example of a school that received its charter five years ago and is now confronting the reauthorization process. Although the school's first few years were difficult, a devoted group of parents and teachers worked hard to keep it afloat. Still, the school has not been able to raise the students' scores on the state's standardized tests.
Bulkley then asked the subcommittee members to put themselves in the shoes of the charter school authorizer: "As this school's charter comes up for renewal, you are faced with a painful dilemma -- to close a school that parents and teachers are convinced is a good place for children, or grant a new charter that allows a school with questionable academic credentials to continue to operate, despite your state's legislation that specifically says charter schools must demonstrate education performance to be renewed."
Although Bulkley's anecdote was hypothetical, the scenario is being played out more frequently as the large number of schools that were chartered in the mid-1990s now face the renewal process. One measure of a charter school's success is standardized test scores, but that measure is highly controversial, even in noncharter schools, Bulkley says.
"If objective measures such as standardized test scores were perfect, authorizers might feel justified in closing a school, but the measures are not perfect," Bulkley maintains. In the end, she adds, "Those in authority have little direct incentive to close charter schools, because they are very popular, and families have a very emotional and personal attachment to them. There's the sense that if you close a charter school, you're shutting down a community."
Bulkley hopes that, despite the admonition of the congressman who thinks her research is "irrelevant," her scholarship can at least enlighten the debate. "I don't think we'll ever have research driving the policy on charter schools, but we can use research to inform the discussion," she says.
Bulkley's research will be included in a report she is completing for the Consortium for Policy Research in Education, a group of universities working to improve elementary and secondary education through research on policy, finance, school reform and school governance. The report is scheduled to be issued in the late spring of 2001.
Bulkley is also studying the involvement of for-profit education management organizations, or EMOs, in charter school operations. "There's been little research on these companies," she notes. "Some EMOs handle only the business side of running charter schools; others are more comprehensive, handling such tasks as hiring the teachers and developing the curriculum." Her research will focus on EMOs that provide "comprehensive management."
She is also putting together a conference, to be held in the fall of 2001, on teaching and learning in charter schools. The conference will look at such issues as laws governing charters, accountability and quality.
Bulkley believes that, despite the problems some charter schools are facing, there is real potential for the schools to make a positive contribution to public education. Parents are attracted to them because they tend to be small and community oriented; often there is also a greater sense of security and safety in such schools, Bulkley says. The current emphasis in the education world on school choice is likely to grow,
Bulkley predicts: "In 20 years, choice will be a given."
What to look for in a charter school
In the course of her research, Katrina Bulkley has visited many charter schools, some wonderfully innovative, others appallingly bad, and she has come to some conclusions about what parents who are considering charter schools for their children's education should look for.
"Ask a lot of questions," she stresses. When visiting a prospective school, take along a teacher from another institution so that he or she can evaluate the program from a teacher's perspective.
"Be careful about putting too much trust in evaluations by parents of a particular school," she warns. Those evaluations tend to be positive because a) parents don't want to feel they've chosen a bad school for their children and b) parents who were not satisfied have moved their children to other schools.
This article was published in the Feb 16, 2001 edition of the Rutgers Focus and is available online at http://urwebsrv.rutgers.edu/focus/article/link/648/