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Are Charters Different?: Public Education, Teachers, and the Charter School Debate

reviewed by Jason Giersch - July 02, 2018

coverTitle: Are Charters Different?: Public Education, Teachers, and the Charter School Debate
Author(s): Zachary W. Oberfield & Jeffrey R. Henig
Publisher: Harvard Education Press, Boston
ISBN: 1682530671, Pages: 272, Year: 2017
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The title of Zachary W. Oberfield’s new book poses a yes or no question, but anyone familiar with charter schools knows that a straightforward answer of “yes” or “no” will not be found among its pages. As each chapter reveals, charters are indeed different, but they are not as different from traditional public schools as their supporters hoped or as their opponents feared. Instead of taking sides in the debate, Are Charters Different? illustrates the ways in which charters are similar to and different from traditional public schools, especially regarding the experiences of teachers and administrators.

Drawing on multiple data sources ranging from the nationwide Schools and Staffing Survey (SASS) to a survey of 1,000 teachers in Delaware and using techniques ranging from logistic regression to interviews, Oberfield argues that schools are distributed along a continuum of publicness. Traditional public schools are at one end and for-profit charters operated by education management organizations (EMOs) are at the other, with independent non-profit charter schools somewhere in the middle. Doing so allows Oberfield to navigate the diverse charter sector and illuminate some complex differences. For example, Oberfield finds that for-profit, EMO-run charter schools tend to have fewer students with special needs than other charter schools. Additionally, while teachers in charter schools express more job satisfaction than those in traditional public schools, satisfaction is lower in the EMO-run charter schools. Another chapter reports that while teachers in traditional public schools and for-profit charters experience similar amounts of paperwork in their jobs, teachers at non-profit charters deal with less. The reader quickly realizes that the title is not merely asking whether charters are different from traditional public schools; it is also asking whether charters are different from one another.

An associate professor at Haverford College, Oberfield is a political scientist whose previous work has explored how working environments can shape the professional development of public service employees. Are Charters Different? brings that line of inquiry to public education. The first chapter presents the book’s goals and definitions. It also identifies the sources of data and analytic techniques used. The second chapter delves into his theoretical perspective on publicness and how the matter of who runs a school impacts the learning and working environment.

The remaining chapters present the results of the author’s analyses. In Chapter Three, these analyses give a bird’s eye view of public school types in terms of location, students, and teachers. Chapters Four through Six consider the experiences of teachers, particularly in terms of autonomy, leadership, satisfaction, and turnover. Chapters Seven and Eight compare charters and traditional public schools in terms of other stakeholders, namely parents and administrators, and their relationships with teachers. Chapter Nine reviews the findings of the book, presents some overall conclusions about how the school sectors differ, and offers implications for employees, leaders, and advocates for both charters and traditional public schools.

Three key strengths make the book a valuable addition to the growing literatures on school choice and school administration. First is the even-handed approach. At no point does the author encourage the reader to believe that charters are either inherently beneficial or harmful to students. He stays true to his purpose of simply showing how they are different. It is left to the reader to decide which work environment would be preferable or more effective. Second, the use of multiple sources of data enables Oberfield to tackle questions with a variety of methods. Third, the analyses cover multiple years, allowing the reader to see trends in the charter movement, which is still very much in its developing stages.

Two realities of school reform in the United States present challenges for Oberfield and for everyone doing research in this area. The first is self-selection, a point that the author acknowledges in the first chapter. As students and teachers are not randomly assigned to their schools, we cannot be certain that that observed differences come from the schools themselves or if they already existed in the different populations that selected one type of school over another. Additionally, education policy in the United States is highly decentralized, resulting in very different policy, economic, and political environments. It is difficult to draw conclusions using data from across such varied contexts.  

My greatest criticism of the book would be Oberfield’s decision to maintain a limited scope. To give proper treatment to his focal research questions, the author left out important issues that many readers might be looking for, particularly questions about achievement and equity. Job satisfaction and autonomy are important, but what drives the policy debates over school choice are disagreements about whether charters produce better results for the money and whether they have the potential to extend high-quality educational opportunities to all students. Perhaps Oberfield could delve into such matters in a second volume. Given the quality of his work in Are Charters Different?, I would be eager to read it.

Scholars of education policy, politics of education, and education leadership will find Are Charters Different? to be a useful assessment of current working environments for educators. Unbiased and methodical, the book gets readers past prevailing assumptions about charters and traditional public schools and provides facts and analyses that lend new insights to the debate. With so many books on the market that paint charters as either a cure-all for education’s ills or a dangerous and counterproductive reform, Oberfield’s latest contribution is a refreshing and welcome read.


Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: July 02, 2018
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22414, Date Accessed: 5/21/2022 8:13:28 AM

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About the Author
  • Jason Giersch
    University of North Carolina
    E-mail Author
    JASON GIERSCH IS assistant professor of Political Science and Public Administration at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Jason’s research investigates education policy, specifically school choice, segregation, accountability, and teacher quality. Recent publications include “Principals’ Preferences when Hiring Teachers: A Conjoint Experiment” in the Journal of Educational Administration (forthcoming) and “Academic Tracking, High-Stakes Tests, and Preparing Students for College: How Inequality Persists Within Schools” in Educational Policy (2016).
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