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Essay Review: Beyond the One Best System: Case-Studies of Charter Schools

reviewed by Leonard J. Waks - 2003

coverTitle: Essay Review: Beyond the One Best System: Case-Studies of Charter Schools
Author(s): Bruce Fuller (Editor)
Publisher: Harvard University Press, Cambridge
ISBN: 0674008235, Pages: 302, Year: 2002
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Charter schools are public schools in that they are supported by public taxation and free from tuition, and accountable to the public in terms stated in their charters, yet they are granted waivers from some standard state and local rules and regulations. They receive the full state per-student allocation, and can be started and operated by parents, teachers, civic activists and non-governmental organizations, school administrators, and/ or universities. Establishment of such schools thus withdraws the exclusive franchise for public schools from local school districts.


Charter schools have won broad political support, and have expanded rapidly. Before 1991 no charter schools existed. By 2000, there were more than 2000 of them, serving more than 400,000 students in 37 states and the District of Columbia, and most had long waiting lists. When combined with the more than 1.2 million American children now being home schooled, up from a mere handful a decade ago (Stevens, 2002), charter schools pose an incisive challenge to the legitimacy of the “one best system” of mainstream district schools.


Since its initial development, the charter school concept has been subjected to much abstract policy argumentation, pro and con. Meanwhile the actual schools have been opening for business, and going through changes as they address concrete practical issues. By the late 1990s many charter schools in several states had four, five, or six-year track records and stable patterns of organizational life, making informative, detailed case studies possible.


The two books under review are both reports from research projects seeking to illuminate charter school theory and policy by means of such studies, and they are remarkably similar in design. Each starts with chapters framing the issues to be explored, and identifying the ‘lenses’ to be adopted to focus the case descriptions. In each, seven case studies including examinations of charter elementary, middle, and high schools in several states, are presented.


The differences between the books are also significant. Fuller and his co-authors have broad misgivings about the charter school movement. Concerns about the social fragmentation posed by charter schools, and their lack of documented educational effectiveness, shape the topics selected for close study. Brouillette and her co-authors, on the other hand, are cautious supporters of the charter movement, based on a nuanced policy argument that is presented in a final chapter (but that should have been included in the opening chapters). They wish to contribute to the success of charter schools, but aware of the many pitfalls in establishing “new settings,” they focus on critical incidents that can make or break these new schools. 


Fuller conceives of charter schools as components of the larger school reform movement, and frames his analysis around two “paradoxes” of the charter movement in particular. First, charter schools rely on the authority of the liberal state to legitimize institutions designed exclusively to serve distinct sub-groups with “tribal longings” for “isolationist retreat” from multi-cultural society (pp. 25-28). The paradox is that such institutions weaken the allegiance of the “tribes” to the liberal state. The movement thus uses the agencies of the liberal state to undermine the liberal state.


Second, the charter movement energizes a lot of school reform activity, but does not generate demonstrable improvement in standard measures of learning. Individual charter school leaders “wrongly” see the problem they are addressing “as only local,” (p. 8), rather than as part of a unified movement that should be “judged by universal benchmarks” (p. 13). By justifying charter schools on the basis of “choice” rather than “demonstrable effectiveness,” the charter movement may inadvertently exacerbate rather than alleviate unequal schooling.


To illuminate these concerns, Fuller’s contributing authors provide studies of (1) a K-6 school in Lansing, Michigan serving 181 at risk African-American children, using the “direct instruction” method; (2) an Afro-centric K-6 school (also in Lansing) serving an economically more diverse group of African American students in a “living museum” setting; (3) a middle school in Oakland, California serving 170 Latino students, by offering a curriculum emphasizing bi-lingual instruction, community values and character development; (4) a middle school in a Boston suburb providing alternative and individualized programs for 160 affluent (and mostly white) children; (5) a comprehensive high school in California that converted to charter status, serving 2,500 ethnically and racially diverse, but academically motivated students; (6) A multi-age school providing the parents of 750 home-schooled children (89% white) distributed throughout central California with curriculum materials, home teaching workshops, and a schedule of activities to bring the children together; and (7) a 7-12 school in rural Minnesota, organized as a co-operative, serving 96 children in a de-industrialized town and its surrounding farm community.   


Brouillette, by contrast, sharply distinguishes the charter movement from the school reform efforts organized by school district bureaucracies and private firms. On her account, which displays an unusually firm grasp of the relevant historical, philosophical, and policy issues, schools respond poorly to both bureaucratic or market controls, and charters offer a “third way” between them. Because the final learning needs of students can neither be predicted with certainty, nor abstracted entirely from the private values of families, no compelling case can be made for a single, fixed, curriculum evaluated by a single metric. The charter framework allows for the establishment of public-private partnerships with diverse approaches that nonetheless answer to relevant public and private concerns. She and her co-authors are more concerned to understand what “success” means to the stakeholders, and how they harmonize conflicting meanings and carry the resulting idea of success to fruition, than to impose any external, “objective” measures of success.


They adopt Seymour Sarason’s (1988) framework for the creation of new settings, in order to focus upon predictable external and internal challenges faced in the establishment of new schools. The key points include these: establishing a new organization to perform work already done by existing agencies carries the implicit message that the new agency is in some way “superior,” and this judgment shapes the relationships between the two agencies and their leaders, leading to potential conflicts over resources and prestige. What brings the founders of the new organization together may be little more than a rejection of the old agency, so that inevitable differences between the founders themselves are not anticipated. When they surface, they may degenerate into emotional battles because the founders have not worked out an explicit “constitution” for settling disputes. As the organization develops, new members will join with different ideas and motivations than the founders, and the organization will have to accommodate them while also preserving its own core identity. New settings go through normal stages of development: initiation, honeymoon, implementation, crisis, and aftermath. 


Brouillette and her co-authors use this framework to explore the development processes of (1) an elementary school in Colorado providing a core knowledge curriculum to 324 affluent suburban children; (2) a K-12 school in Colorado providing alternative and individualized programs for 400 suburban children; (3) a high school for 120 at risk African-American youth who had dropped out or been thrown out of neighborhood schools, that initially provided a college prep curriculum but shifted to alternative and individualized programs; (4) a K-8 professional development school initiated by a district-university partnership, serving faculty and neighborhood children and using progressive methods including multi-aged grouping, dual language immersion, and parent participation; (5) a K-6 school in a previously unincorporated, semi-rural area of metro Houston, providing “direct instruction” for  750 poor African-American children; (6) an ethnically diverse K-4 technology academy, also in Houston, designed by an educational psychologist to provide 101 children with a constructivist learning program; and (7) a middle school in an affluent  Boston suburb, offering 200 children a more progressive alternative to the traditional district middle school.


There is much to say about these studies, but, unfortunately, in a brief review I must limit myself to a few comments about the projects that have generated them.


Fuller’s concerns about “tribalism” strike me as overblown, and not supported by the fourteen case studies in these volumes. African-American parents concerned about the safety of their children in a mean and neglected neighborhood elementary school, Latino community members upset by the lack of respect shown to them by the school district, and concerned about the character development of their children, middle class suburbanites escaping the “drill and kill” atmosphere of the district middle school, rural parents trying to preserve the benefits of a partnership between their high school and a small high-tech firm after the school was closed because of a consolidation of school districts, or affluent parents preferring to send their children to an economically and ethnically diverse, but academically challenging, public high school rather than elite private schools (all these cases are from Fuller’s book), hardly count as “tribes” seeking “isolation.” The “one best system” has already isolated most of them, while affluent white parents who might have remained isolated in their private school enclaves (Fuller, case #5) instead used the charter format to build a multi-ethnic, multi-class school. Or consider the charter school for home school kids (Fuller, case #6), which has forged an effective coalition between right-wing Christian fundamentalist and do-your-own-thing hippie libertarian home school families, while teasing the former apart from even more traditional Christian home school parents who have rejected them for partaking in any form of public education; in this case the charter school is breaking up, rather than promoting, anti-liberal state “tribes.” For the most part, parents in these case studies just want a decent education for their children.


And what is a decent education? Fuller’s single-minded focus on test score improvement is imperious and condescending (See, e.g., p. 14.). The parents and teachers who organize charter schools, as Fuller knows (p. 7, 14), have other concerns and different measures of success, from safety to program flexibility to ethnic diversity. Barbara Korth’s chapter, “Understanding the Complexities of Success in the Making of a New Setting,” in Brouillette’s volume, is a case study of the negotiation of success criteria in a charter school community. Politicians may use the test score gambit to win cheap political points against public education, but scholars of charter schools should appreciate the many competing values promoted by such schools.


And while most of the variance in a school’s test scores is accounted for by the socio-economic statuses of its family population, the case of Wesley charter elementary (in Brouillette) shows that it is possible to raise test scores in low socio-economic status schools, but only by  sharply focusing on scores to the neglect of other worthwhile goals. This is a trade-off that many charter school parents reject, and Fuller is in no position to denigrate their judgment. Without such a trade-off, it is unreasonable to expect dramatic improvements in the test scores of any school without changing its socio-economic composition. White – and middle class minority – flight to the suburbs has rendered this nearly impossible within the framework of local school districts. 


Fortunately Fuller’s co-authors use his framework gently to identify issues for exploration, without allowing its limitations to distort their studies, several of which are as captivating as New Yorker feature articles. The three that best illustrate the diversity of charter schools are: “Diversity and Inequality: Montera Charter High School,” by Amy Stuart Wells, Jennifer Jellison Holme, and Ash Vadudeva; “Losing Public Accountability: A Home Schooling Charter” by Luis Huerta; and “Teachers as Communitarians: A Charter School Cooperative in Minnesota,” by Eric Rofes.    


Brouilette’s and her co-authors’ use of Sarason’s framework helps them to probe critical incidents in the progress of charter schools from the initiation to stability. It provides a simple narrative spine (initiation, honeymoon, crisis, aftermath) shaping the studies into stories. It also helps the authors, (among them Brouillette herself who contributed two of the case studies including the detailed study of Wesley elementary referred to earlier), identify and probe specific issues, including the inadequacy of informal verbal agreements among founders, and the need to anticipate and prepare for conflicts between founders and new arrivals. One minor shortcoming is that the cases may have somewhat less general interest than those in Fuller’s book, appealing primarily to those with theoretical or practical interests in establishing new organizations. Another is that the authors might have used their empirical case studies to test and refine Sarason’s theoretical framework, but instead used it simply to structure their case reports. Brouillette herself addresses the implications of the case studies for Sarason's theory in a summary chapter, but many issues remain for further exploration.


In sum, these two volumes of case reports are valuable additions to the charter school literature. In every case, the writing is crisp, and the details fascinating. Everyone interested in charter schools should read these fourteen studies, and none, having done so, should be quick to hazard further loose-fitting generalizations about charter schools.  




Sarason, S. B. (1988) The creation of settings and the future societies. Cambridge MA: Brookline Books. 


Stevens, M. (2001). Kingdom of children: culture and controversy in the home schooling movement. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 105 Number 1, 2003, p. 97-102
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 10951, Date Accessed: 1/27/2022 9:21:17 PM

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About the Author
  • Leonard Waks
    Temple University
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    LEONARD J. WAKS is Professor of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at Temple University.
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