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Brilliant, Bored or Badly-Behaved?: Media Coverage of the Charter School Debate in the United States


by Daisy Rooks & Carolina Bank Muñoz — 2015

Background: In recent years, charter schools have received a great deal of media attention, appearing in documentary films, newspaper articles, magazine profiles, television news programs, and even sitcoms and feature films. The media is not alone in its interest in charter schools; researchers in the public and for-profit arenas have also focused their attention on charter schools in recent years.

Questions: This paper employs qualitative content analysis to answer the following questions: What information have journalists contributed to the charter school debate in the United States? And how might this information have shaped or influenced the debate?

Research Design: To answer these questions, we conducted a qualitative content analysis of print media coverage of the early years of the charter school debate. We analyzed 145 articles about public charter schools and public alternative schools that appeared in the New York Times and Los Angeles Times between 1994 and 2006. We developed two types of coding categories: descriptive and interpretive. The descriptive coding categories captured the following information about each article in our dataset: the publisher, the type of school described and the student population. The interpretive coding categories captured reporters’ descriptions of the students, teachers, resources, and institutional cultures of charter and alternative schools.

Findings: Our analysis uncovered several interesting themes. First, we found that print media depictions of charter and alternative school teachers tended to be more positive than media depictions of teachers in traditional public schools. This was especially true of print media coverage of charter schools that serve low-income students and/or students of color. Our analysis also cast doubt on a core assumption of the charter school debate; that charter schools’ approach to educating their students differs significantly from that of traditional public schools and public alternative schools. In their articles about charter schools that serve middle-income students, reporters described institutional cultures and pedagogical strategies identical to those found in alternative schools with similar student populations. When reporting on alternative schools that serve low-income students and/or students of color, reporters described pedagogical strategies that mirrored those found in charter schools with similar student populations.

Recommendations: Further research is needed to determine whether charter and alternative schools are educating their low- and middle-income students differently. If future research confirms this, we warn that charter and alternative schools could be preparing their low-income students and/or students of color inadequately for higher education and work in professional environments.



INTRODUCTION


In recent years, charter schools in the United States have received a great deal of media attention. Documentary films such as Waiting for Superman, The Lottery, and The Experiment portray charter schools up as a salve for an ailing American public education system. Newspaper and magazine profiles often celebrate the innovation and the entrepreneurialism of charter school founders. Urban charter schools that serve low-income students and/or students of color have garnered the most media attention in recent years. News stories, documentaries, and scholarly reports have examined these schools’ efforts to provide educational opportunities that rival those available to middle-income students.


The media is not alone in its interest in charter schools; in the past 15 years researchers in the public and for-profit arenas have focused a great deal of attention on charter schools. At the heart of most of this scholarly research on charter schools is the “achievement gap,” i.e., the racial and class disparities in student achievement that have plagued the American educational system for decades (Hemphill & Vanneman, 2011; Kozol, 1992, 2005; Schrag, 2003; Vanneman, Hamilton, Baldwin Anderson, & Rahman, 2009). Much of the scholarly research on charter schools examines their ability to close this achievement gap. While some scholars have concluded that charter schools are providing high-quality education to students from low-income families in urban areas, others caution that these schools’ results are inconsistent, unreplicable, or unreasonably costly to achieve (Buckley & Schneider, 2007; Carnoy, Jacobsen, Mishel, & Rothstein, 2005; Dingerson, Peterson, & Miner, 2008).


Scholarly research on charter schools tends to be driven by quantitative data. In contrast, journalistic pieces tend to take readers inside charter schools by describing the students, teachers, parents, and administrators who populate these schools. This is the case for journalistic books about charter schools, such as Paul Tough’s (2009) profile of The Harlem Children’s Zone, Jay Mathews' (2009) book about the Knowledge is Power Program, and Jonathan Schorr’s (2002) case study of E.C. Reems Academy.


But what information, exactly, have journalists contributed to the charter school debate? And how might this information have shaped or influenced this debate? To answer these questions, we conducted a qualitative content analysis (Hsieh & Shannon, 2005; Zhang & Wildemuth, 2009) of newspaper coverage of charter schools in the United States between 1994 and 2006. Media coverage of charter schools is relatively new because, as we explain below, charter schools are a relatively new phenomenon in the United States. However, media coverage of education, and media coverage of public education in particular, is not a new phenomenon at all.  


MEDIA COVERAGE OF EDUCATION


Representations of teachers, students and schools can be found throughout popular culture, including in movies, television shows, songs, and cartoons. The topic of public education has been a common focus of the news media, appearing frequently in newspaper and magazine articles and in television programs. Several themes have dominated media representations of education: deficient (inner-city) teachers, heroic (white) teachers and principals, troubled students of color, and dysfunctional institutions.


The mass media’s portrayal of public school teachers has been overwhelmingly negative, especially in the United States, UK, and Australia. The mass media “phenomenon of the ‘teacher as failure’ character" (Shine & O'Donoghue, 2013, p. 387) implies that teachers’ lack of intelligence, insufficient work ethics, or lack of professionalism explain their poor results at work. These “deficit discourses” (Thomas, 2011) are especially likely in mass media portrayals of teachers who work in low-income and/or inner-city schools. According to Thomas (2011, p. 387), television sitcoms have played a central role in perpetuating this “media discourse of derision about teachers” by promoting “aggressively cruel stereotyping” of teachers. Tillman and Trier (2007, p. 126) agree, arguing that television sitcoms like Boston Public have contributed negative images of “teacher preparation and, more specifically, teacher competence” to the public. One exception to this rule, Leopard argues (2007, p. 33), are fictional films about white teachers in underserved urban schools which portray their subjects as “heroic figures by virtue of their centrality to the plot” and their commitment to helping students who often do not want their help. Anderson (2007, p. 105) concurs, arguing that films “from the Blackboard Jungle to Dangerous Minds” depict “the heroics of dedicated White, middle-class teachers.”


While teachers are routinely portrayed negatively in popular culture, principals of inner-city schools are occasionally depicted in a positive light. Zirkel et al. (2010, p. 142) describe a “master narrative of the ‘tough, urban principal’” that can be found in different media outlets. Trier (2001, p. 131) identifies this theme in his study of box covers of inner-city school films, many of which “feature male teachers or principals as the central figures, usually in aggressive poses (holding a baseball bat, standing behind a desk where an automatic weapon rests).” While films sometimes offer sympathetic portrayals of inner-city principals, they are less flattering in their representations of students in these schools. According to Anderson (2007, p. 105), “urban youth, usually of color, are depicted as depraved” in these films. According to Leopard (2007, p. 28) their “juvenile delinquency and pupil disrespect . . . create a reciprocal need for increased control on the part of teachers and administrators.” These negative representations of students of color reflect broader themes about the inner-city that can be found elsewhere in the mass media. According to McCarthy (1998, p. 32) , “televisual and filmic fantasies would underscore the extent to which the inner-city dweller was irredeemably lost in the dystopic urban core.”1 Audience members with limited experience with, or limited connection to, the inner-city are especially susceptible to this message, according to McCarthy.


Public education has also featured prominently in news media in the United States, UK, and Australia. Teachers have received the lion’s share of the news media coverage. Numerous scholars, including Thomas (2003, p. 19), have documented the “negativity of media coverage of schools and of teachers.” According to Warburton and Saunders (Warburton & Saunders, 1996, p. 308), negative media representations of teachers have intensified “during the last thirty years” to the point that the news media often depicts “teachers as the enemy within” (Warburton & Saunders, 1996, pp. 320–321). Given the negative portrayal of unions in the media, it is unsurprising that media coverage of teachers unions has been especially negative. This coverage, Baker argues (1994, p. 289), promotes a “view that [teachers] are not to be trusted with ownership of schools and the curriculum.”


There are real consequences to the negative portrayal of teachers, students, and inner-city schools in popular culture and the news media. While not every television show or movie reaches every American citizen, the message about public education that is embedded in popular culture “circulates to a wide national audience” (Tillman & Trier, 2007, p. 123). This audience is much larger than the audience for policy briefs, research reports, or press releases regarding schools. Like media coverage of other social problems, media coverage of education often focuses on sensational stories and appeals to audience members’ emotions and fears. As Trier (2001, p. 129) explains, “stories of schooling, such as those told in school movies, illumine these problems in ways that professional texts cannot, mainly by inviting us to experience situations vicariously through dramatic forms.”


This is especially true for audience members who have no personal experience with under-served urban schools. For these audience members, media coverage becomes a vehicle through which they learn about urban education. According to McCarthy (1998, p. 36), suburban middle-class audience members come to know about the inner-city through “substitutions and proxies: census tracts, crime statistics, tabloid newspapers and television programs.” A major problem with this, according to Tillman and Trier (2007) is that these audience members cannot distinguish between accurate and inaccurate representations of public education in underserved urban schools. Given its lack of personal experience “the viewing audience may internalize these images and come to believe that they are the reality in every large, urban high school” when in fact they are not (Tillman & Trier, 2007, p. 134). These media representations can also fuel fear and anxiety about the inner-city among middle-income and/or white audience members. By consistently providing negative, chaotic images of urban education, McCarthy (1998, p. 33) argues, the media play “a critical role in the production and channelling of suburban anxieties . . . onto its central target: the depressed inner city.”


Negative media coverage of education also has important consequences for teachers and prospective teachers. As Warburton and Saunders (1996, p. 308) explain, teachers are acutely aware of the way that their profession is portrayed in the media. “Teachers believe that their status and authority have been eroded,” often commenting “that they have ‘received a bad press.’” According to Warburton and Saunders (1996, pp. 320–321), this negative media coverage “does not just marginalise teachers, it also demonizes them” in the general public, and contributes to “a crisis in professional confidence and authority for teachers” (p. 308). Negative representations of teachers in the media can also convince aspiring teachers to pursue different, more respected professions. Those who become teachers might enter the profession with unexamined assumptions and biases about low-income students and urban schools that they gleaned from their exposure to the media. This is especially true of teachers “who are White and who come from middle-class backgrounds” with “limited substantive knowledge about and experiences with groups of color” (Brown & Kraehe, 2011, p. 73). Indeed, when Trier (2005, p. 185) asked preservice teachers to describe inner-city schools, most of them acknowledged that


their assumptions, beliefs and knowledge about inner-city schools [were] generally negative, and they thought that this negativity was a product of both media representations and a lack of experience in urban schools, which meant a lack of enough substantive contact and interchange with people of color.


If preservice teachers do not examine their media-inspired assumptions, Trier (2001, 2005) and Brown and Kraehe (2011) warn, they are likely to treat white students and student of color differently once they get into the classroom. In these ways, the media contributes “to myths and misconceptions about teacher competence, principal leadership, and urban schooling” (Tillman & Trier, 2007, p. 126).


There is ample evidence that media coverage of public education and teachers in particular is largely negative. But is the same true of charter schools? How do the media represent administrators, teachers, and students in these schools? What information about charter schools have the media offered to the general public? In particular, how have the media covered charter schools in inner-cities and charter schools that serve low-income students and/or students of color? Are teachers and students in these charter schools portrayed more negatively than their counterparts in charter schools that serve suburban, middle-income, or white students? By answering these questions, we will gain a greater understanding of how the media have contributed to the debate about charter schools. While little is known about the media’s role in the charter school debate, a great deal is known about how the media intervene in public debates about a range of social, economic, and political issues.


MEDIA AND PUBLIC DEBATES


Media coverage of social, economic, and political issues influences audiences’ “definitions and perspectives about social relationships” (Altheide, 2000, p. 288) and “contribute[s] to public perceptions” (Altheide, 1997, p. 664) about these relationships. How do the media accomplish this, though? One way is by facilitating public debate. As Lefstein (2008, p. 117) explains, “most public debate is not conducted in face-to-face encounters; rather, it is mediated by print and broadcast journalism.” This is even more true in the four years since Lefstein published his article, given the proliferation of websites, blogs, and podcasts dedicated to social, economic, and political issues.


Another way that the media shapes public debate is by providing the general public with information about a wide range of social, economic and political issues. “It is important to note,” Anderson (2007, p. 107) argues, that the media can inform “the public about issues, and in cases such as Watergate, they have” done just that. This is a critical role, according to Lefstein (2008, p. 1117), because “deliberative democracy, in contrast to procedural or formal democracy, is based on the idea that the people should form and exercise their will through reasoned, informed deliberation in the public sphere.”


Media outlets take this role seriously. Most journalists strive for high levels of objectivity and accuracy in their reporting on social, economic and political issues. As Hammersley (2003, pp. 341–342) explains, “truth-as-correspondence” is “a key part of the occupational perspective of journalists.” Although they strive for high standards of accuracy and objectivity, media outlets do not simply present information to their audiences; they also select, discard, and package information when covering public debates about social, economic, and political issues. These “news judgments” include decisions about “i) which stories editors choose to run or leave out; ii) the prominence they give to different stories; iii) the treatment or ‘angle’ they give to stories” (Baker, 1994, p. 288). As a result of these news judgments, journalists end up drawing “attention to particular issues, actors, definitions and interpretations” and skimming over or ignoring others (Hansen, 2009, p. 336).


One example of these news judgments are the frameworks that media outlets provide their audience members to help them make sense of public debate. In his study of media coverage of the 1981 Northern Irish hunger strike, Mulcahy (1995, p. 464) demonstrates how print media outlets offered their audience “coherent frameworks with which to interpret the hunger strike.” These frameworks often provide audience members with explanations of who or what is responsible for the social problem and who or what is capable of solving the problem (Altheide, 2000; Berns, 1999).


Another example of news judgments is media outlets’ attempts to simplify complex public debates for their audiences. In order to “present an account that is immediately intelligible to their audiences” (Hammersley, 2003, p. 341), media outlets often simplify complex issues. In his study of the “reading wars” in England, Lefstein (2008) describes how this happens. The media’s main priority is to engage audiences, and according to Lefstein a “more complex and nuanced exposition” of the reading wars “would have yielded a less engaging story” than the one produced by UK media outlets (2008, p. 1129). While some observers view news judgments as an inevitable part of media coverage of complex public debates, others do not.


One critique of news judgments is that they can misrepresent perspectives in public debates. Lefstein’s (2008, p. 1128) case study of media coverage of the reading wars in England illustrates “how easily and seamlessly arguments can become mangled in the medium” of television, by even the most well-intentioned journalists. Another critique of news judgments is that they exclude certain perspectives from public debate about social, economic, and political issues. According to Hammersley (2003, p. 331), for many media outlets the “significance of what is said often depends a good deal on who said it.” As such, journalists use news judgments to exclude the perspectives and opinions of individuals that they do not consider significant or important.


Another critique of news judgments is that their tendency to stoke audience members’ fears and anxieties. As we discussed above, McCarthy (1998) argues that the mass media have generated fear and anxiety about the inner-city among white middle-class audience members. In his study of media, schooling and school reform, Anderson (2007, p. 103) illustrates how media distortions have generated anxiety about a wide range of “education policies, practices, and ideologies.” For example, Farmer’s (2010) study of media representations of youth crime shows how media coverage has generated fear of young people of color, which has resulted in the criminalization of students of color.2


The media certainly play an important role in public debates. By providing information and frameworks, simplifying complex issues and amplifying certain voices at the expense of others, the “media continue to be a major ‘window’ for shaping, viewing and addressing concerns” of politicians, civic leaders and citizens (Altheide, 1997, p. 665). To what extent and how does the media influence the debate about charter schools, though? The rich literature chronicling the media’s role in education debates is instructive here.


MEDIA AND EDUCATION DEBATES


Given the important role that the media play in public debates, it should be no surprise that media outlets provide “an important public arena for definitions of what the key issues, challenges and tasks facing education and teachers are” (Hansen, 2009, p. 344). Media outlets and news media outlets in particular have played a critical role in many education debates in the United States, UK, and Australia. These include debates about “back to basics” curricula, teacher quality, teacher recruitment and preparation, literacy instruction, and many others (Baker, 1994; Cohen, 2010).


Media coverage of education debates often present public education as an institution in deep crisis (Anderson, 2007; Berliner & Biddle, 1995; Blackmore & Thomson, 2004; Cohen, 2010; Shine & O'Donoghue, 2013; Thomas, 2003). Media coverage of these debates often creates “heroes and villains, for instance, characterizing educators as ‘the education establishment’” and holding them responsible for the crisis in public education (Anderson, 2007, p. 109). Media coverage of education debates often makes heroes out of bombastic reformers and tough-talking education leaders, presenting them as the “kind of leaders urban school districts need” (Zirkel et al., 2010, p. 143).3


Just as they do in other public debates, journalists exercise news judgments when covering education debates. One consequence of these news judgments is that journalists often favor some voices and marginalize others. According to Hansen (2009, p. 336), “politicians and interest groups” are featured prominently in news coverage of education debates, “followed, less prominently and with greater variation over the period, by teachers, experts and lay citizens.” Unsurprisingly, then, official government positions often dominate media coverage of education debates (Blackmore & Thomson, 2004; Thomas, 2003). Blackmore and Thomson (2004, p. 316) offer the individualistic portrayal of principals that dominates media coverage of education in Australia and the UK as a perfect example of journalists “producing stories that support government agendas” by personalizing “policy agendas that produce competitiveness and divided schooling.”


One reason that politicians and government agendas dominate media coverage of education is that governments have become increasingly sophisticated at influencing media coverage of education debates. Governments often view the media as “the means by which they can position themselves, and also make a case for their” positions (Blackmore & Thomson, 2004, p. 301). As such, many governments employ individuals whose sole job it is to court media outlets (Cohen, 2010; Gewirtz, Dickson, & Power, 2004; Thomas, 2003). When engaging with reporters, these individuals strive “to highlight government ‘successes’ and to deflect attention away from areas of policy failure or weakness” (Blackmore & Thomson, 2004, p. 302). Many observers of this phenomenon warn about its negative consequences for education policy and the general public. For example, Gewirtz et al. (2004, p. 339) argue that “the colonization by government of large swathes of the media means that critical public debate has, to a significant extent, been stifled.”


Media coverage of education debates also shapes public opinion about public education. In his study of newspaper coverage of teachers unions, Baker finds that media coverage “shape[s] the picture the public has of schools” and, by extension, public opinion about education debates (Baker, 1994, p. 287). In their study of media coverage of Michigan’s anti-affirmative action ballot initiative, Saenz and Moses (2010, p. 267) note the “power of the print news media to shape public views” about affirmative action, and education more broadly. In her study of representations of teachers in print media, Cohen (2010, p. 106) finds that “talk about teachers” in media outlets “is likely to be especially effective for mobilizing public opinion about education.” The media’s ability to influence public opinion about education debates is critical, given that “policy formation regarding many educational issues is at least partially shaped by public deliberation (Lefstein, 2008, p. 1133).”


While Baker (1994), Cohen (2010), Lefstein (2008), and others argue that media coverage of education debates shape public opinions, other scholars offer a more a more tempered view of the media’s influence. For example, Hansen (2009, pp. 344–345) argues that “it would be foolhardy to think of the role of news-definitions of teachers and education in terms of ‘direct impact’ on political, public or teachers’ own perceptions of the status of teachers.” However, Hansen (2009, p. 345) believes that the media exerts some influence on public opinions. He contends that the media provides a “reservoir of public images” about teachers, schools, and the education system, “from which such perceptions may draw.” In their study of representations of teachers and principals in television sitcoms, Tillman and Trier (2007, p. 126) conclude that “representations of teaching, learning, and leadership can also have implications for the way in which educational policy is discussed and perhaps shaped at the local, state, and federal level.” Note their hesitation to assert that this definitely happens, though.


To develop a “comprehensive understanding of the contexts shaping education practice and policy,” observers must pay close attention to the media, and the news media in particular (Cohen, 2010, p. 107). Curiously, though, we know very little about the media’s role in one of the most heated education debates in the United States today: the debate about charter schools. We know very little about the media’s contributions to discussions about charter schools’ effectiveness, their impact on the achievement gap and their proliferation across the country. This is especially curious given the centrality of charter schools to many contemporary debates about public education in the United States.


By specifying what information the media have contributed to the debate about charter schools, this study fills a critical gap in our existing knowledge about media and public debates. It also deepens our understanding of a high-profile education debate today: the debate about charter schools in the United States. Before presenting the findings of our study, we first explain the data and methodology that we used.


DATA AND METHODS


To identify the media’s contributions to the charter school debate, we conducted a qualitative content analysis. Qualitative content analysis is often used to analyze secondary data sources such as meeting minutes, drafts of legislation, legal documents, advertisements, and newspaper articles (Hsieh & Shannon, 2005; Zhang & Wildemuth, 2009). Unlike quantitative content analysis, which focuses on “the proportion of representation” of an idea, theme, word, or image in a text, qualitative content analysis concerns itself with “what was said rather than how much was said” (Biscomb & Griggs, 2013, p. 109).


Qualitative content analysis is a method that allows for “subjective interpretation of the content” of data (Hsieh & Shannon, 2005, p. 1278). In quantitative content analysis, researchers quantify utterances, interactions, and/or discussion of certain subject matter to determine their relative importance. While frequency is often equated with importance in quantitative content analysis, frequency is not the primary determinant of importance in qualitative content analysis. Researchers using qualitative content analysis situate their analysis within the social, political, and communicative contexts that shape the texts that they are examining. By examining documents within their broader context, researchers can “examine meanings, themes and patterns that may be manifest or latent in a particular text” (Zhang & Wildemuth, 2009, p. 308). In this way, qualitative content analysis makes it possible for “researchers to understand social reality in a subjective but scientific manner” (Zhang & Wildemuth, 2009, p. 308).


DESIGNING THE PROJECT


Context is a critical part of qualitative content analysis since researchers are not simply counting utterances in texts, but are trying to make sense of the themes and patterns that they identify in the texts that they are analyzing. As such, we paid close attention to the context of the media coverage of charter schools when designing this research project. We had to make several decisions about time period, geography and topic of the documents that we analyzed for this project.


Time Period


Our preliminary research indicated two distinct periods of media coverage of charter schools: from early 1990s to mid-2000s and from mid-2000s to present. In 1991 Minnesota passed the first law authorizing charter schools in the United States, and in the years that followed media coverage of charter schools emphasized the growth and geographical expansion of these schools.4 Media coverage of charter schools began to change in the mid-2000s. During this period media coverage of charter schools was dominated by stories about charter school networks such as the Knowledge Is Power Program, Green Dot Public Schools, Aspire Public Schools, Yes Prep Public Schools, and Achieve Charter Schools.


This shift is significant given the differences between charter schools in networks and stand-alone charter schools. While stand-alone charter schools serve students from diverse backgrounds, charter school networkers tend to cater to urban, low-income students of color.5 Many networks rely heavily on corporations, corporate foundations, and/or fundraisers called “venture philanthropists” to supplement the state funding that their schools receive (Riley, 2009). In contrast to stand-alone charters, many of which have strong city or regional identities, charter school networks tend to have ambitious regional and/or national expansion plans.


When designing this project, we had three choices: focus on media coverage in the first time period, focus on media coverage in the second period, or focus on media coverage from both time periods. Analyzing media coverage from both periods would enable us to track discourse or follow “certain issues, words, themes, and frames over a period of time, across different issues, and different news media” (Altheide, 1997, p. 659). While this is a worthwhile endeavor, it would undoubtedly require that we analyze thousands of texts. Datasets consisting of hundreds or thousands of texts are well-suited to quantitative content analyses, which tends to rely heavily on computer-assisted keyword searches. However, large datasets are unwieldy for qualitative content analysis, which requires that researchers code all text in the dataset by hand. Analyzing the second time period would also be interesting if our research question was limited to media coverage of charter school networks, which it was not. In order to maintain a focus on media coverage of the charter school debate in general, and not the debate about charter school networks, we focused our analysis on the first period.


Geography


Our preliminary research indicated that geography was an important component of the charter school debate. Charter schools do not exist in every state in the United States. After Minnesota passed its charter authorization law in 1991, California followed close behind in 1992. In 1993 six more states passed charter authorization laws: Colorado, Georgia, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Mexico, and Wisconsin. New York eventually passed a law authorizing charter schools in 1998. Today 40 states and the District of Columbia have charter authorization laws. We decided to focus our analysis on media coverage in states with charter schools. Although charter schools sometimes appear in the news in states without charter authorization laws, this happens rather infrequently. As such, a qualitative content analysis of media coverage of charter schools in these states would not be very rich or interesting. After taking these factors into consideration, we decided to focus our analysis on media coverage in states with charter school authorization laws.


Comparison Groups


Our preliminary research suggested that media coverage of charter schools frequently contained comparisons with other types of schools. In these articles, journalists often compared charter schools with traditional public schools and/or public alternative schools to highlight the unique characteristics of charters. The assumption underlying many of these comparisons was that charter schools embody a coherent approach to education, one that is distinct from that of traditional public schools and public alternative schools. In order to examine this assumption, we decided to include media coverage of either traditional public schools or alternative schools in our analysis.


If we had included media coverage of traditional public schools in our analysis, our dataset would have contained thousands, or perhaps hundreds of thousands of texts. As we explained above, this is untenable for qualitative content analyses. After a preliminary search of newspaper articles about public alternative schools uncovered just several hundred articles, we decided to include media coverage of these schools in our analysis as a comparison group for charter schools. Appendix A describes the key features of charter and alternative schools for readers not familiar with these types of schools.


Media Type


After refining the context of the analysis, we had one more decision to make regarding the type of media on which to focus our analysis. Although media coverage of the charter school debate has spanned many types of media, we decided to focus on print media. Texts are well-suited both to qualitative content analysis and the qualitative coding software that we planned to use. Despite reports to the contrary, the print media is still a relevant and important source of news in the United States. As Saenz and Moses (2010, p. 268) explain “the American public continues to turn to newspapers, whether digital or paper based.” They continue that “63 percent of Americans . . . read either a print or an online newspaper” on a typical day.


CONSTRUCTING THE DATASET


All of the articles in our dataset were published between 1994 and 2006 in two sources: the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times. Our selection of these two news outlets was influenced by two factors. First, to ensure depth and quality of the media coverage in our study we needed newspapers with one or more reporters who were assigned to an education beat. Second, as we explained above, we wanted newspapers in states with charter school authorization laws, and California and New York both have these laws.


Only a handful of print media outlets met both criteria. These included newspapers in Texas, Illinois, Florida, Michigan, New York, and California. We chose the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times after determining that the high quality and quantity of their education coverage was comparable. As table one demonstrates, 43.5% of the articles in our dataset came from the Los Angeles Times and 56.5% came from the New York Times.


Table 1. Sources

Newspaper

Total #

Los Angeles Times

63 (43.5%)

New York Times

82 (56.5%)

 

145


Having selected these two newspapers, we conducted a preliminary search of articles using Lexis-Nexis and the following search terms: “alternative schools,” “experimental schools,” “alternative education,” and “charter schools.” This search yielded a total of 1628 articles; 528 articles about alternative schools and 1,100 articles about charter schools.


During our review of these 1,628 articles, it became clear that many of them were not relevant to this analysis. These included articles that: (1) described continuation schools, (2) described community day schools, (3) described military schools, and (4) contained no information relevant to our preliminary interpretive coding categories described below. We omitted articles in the first three categories because the schools that they described differed drastically from the alternative schools described in Appendix A. Continuation schools, community day schools and military schools typically submit their students to “zero tolerance” disciplinary regimes that are quite harsh and punitive. Although Los Angeles Times and New York Times reporters often referred to these schools as alternative or experimental schools, they bore almost no relation to the rest of the alternative schools in our dataset, so we excluded these articles. We decided to exclude articles in the fourth category because they provided no insights about what information the print media contributed to the charter school debate. After excluding articles in the four categories described above, our final dataset contained 145 articles. As Table 2 demonstrates, 30% of the articles in our dataset described alternative schools and 70% described charter schools.


Table 2. School Type

 

Total #

Alternative Schools

44 (30%)

Charter Schools

101 (70%)

 

145


CODING THE DATA


Our coding scheme involved two types of coding categories: descriptive and interpretive (Altheide, 1996; Saenz & Moses, 2010). As Saenz and Moses (2010, p. 269) explain, while descriptive codes do “not require any interpretation or judgment on [the researchers’] part, interpretive codes [require researchers] to analyze the content of the article.”


Descriptive Codes


The descriptive coding categories identified the publisher of the article (Los Angeles Times or New York Times), the type of school described in the article (alternative or charter) and the demographic composition of the school’s student population. The first two types of information were rather simple to extract by simply reading each article in the dataset. Ascertaining information about the student population of the school described in each article was a bit more challenging. First we extracted the name of each school described in each article in our dataset. Then we used school websites, school district websites, and websites that compile data on public schools, such as greatschools.org, to research each school.


We created three categories to describe the class composition of the student population of the school.6 If more than 50% of the students in the school were eligible for free or reduced-price lunch based on their household income, we coded the article “low-income.” If less than 50% of students met this criterion, we coded the article “not low-income.” If an article described several schools with different class compositions, we coded the article “not applicable.” As Table 3 demonstrates, the articles about alternative schools in our dataset were evenly split between low-income and not low-income schools. However, this was not the case for the articles about charter schools. 65% of the articles about charters focused on low-income schools, while only 9% focused on charter schools that were not low-income.


Table 3. Class Composition of Student Population

 

Total #

Low-income

Not Low-income

N/A

Alternative Schools

44

17 (38.5%)

13 (29.5%)

14 (32%)

Charter Schools

101

66 (65%)

9 (9%)

26 (26%)

 

145

83 (57%)

22 (15%)

40 (28%)


We created four categories to describe the racial composition of the student population of the school described in each article. If the student population in the school was more than 50% African American and/or Latino, we coded the article “people of color.”7 If the student population in the school was more than 50% white, we coded the article “white.” If the student population in the school was evenly divided between three or more racial groups we coded the article “diverse.” In most of the “diverse” schools in our dataset, the student population was approximately 1/3 white, 1/3 African American and/or Latino, and 1/3 Asian or Asian American. If an article described two or more schools with different racial compositions, we coded the article “not applicable.” As Table 4 demonstrates, 38.5% of the articles about alternative schools in our dataset described schools whose student populations were majority Latino or African American. Equivalent numbers of articles about alternative schools focused on schools with “diverse” or majority white populations. In contrast, 63% of the articles about charter schools described schools whose student populations were majority Latino or African American. Only 9% of the charter schools in our dataset had “diverse” student populations, and 5% were majority white.


Table 4. Racial Composition of Student Population

 

Total #

White

Diverse

People of Color

N/A

Alternative Schools

44

9 (20.5%)

9 (20.5%)

17 (38.5%)

9 (20.5%)

Charter Schools

101

5 (5%)

9 (9%)

64 (63%)

23 (23%)

 

145

14 (10%)

18 (12%)

81 (56%)

32 (22%)


Interpretive Codes


First, we developed a preliminary set of interpretive coding themes: how reporters described the students, how reporters described the schools and how reporters described the instruction. Each theme contained a number of preliminary codes. For the complete list of preliminary themes and codes, see “first iteration” in Appendix B.8


One of the strengths of qualitative content analysis is that it not only allows but actually encourages the researcher to modify their coding categories during the coding and analysis process (Anfara, Brown, & Mangione, 2002). In his qualitative content analysis of newspaper reporting on Irish hunger strikes, Mulcahy (1995) identified several issues highly relevant to his final analysis while coding the articles in his dataset. As he explains, “a qualitative approach allowed me to identify and focus on emergent issues that a more rigidly structured approach might overlook” (Mulcahy, 1995, p. 455).


As we were coding the articles in our dataset, several themes and issues emerged that our preliminary themes and codes did not, and indeed could not, capture. For example, while describing the students in charter or alternative schools reporters often described why the students had failed to thrive in traditional public schools. This was not part of our preliminary themes or codes. We also noticed that reporters frequently mentioned disciplinary regimes and incentive systems when describing the instruction in charter schools. Neither was included in our preliminary themes or codes, though. In response to these discoveries we renamed the theme “how reporters described the students” to “how reporters explained students’ failures in traditional public schools.” We also renamed the theme “how reporters described the instruction” to “how reporters described pedagogical strategies.” We broke the theme “how reporters described the schools” into two themes, “how reporters described the resources and support provided by the schools” and “how reporters described institutional cultures.”


After we made the adjustments described above, our final interpretive coding schema consisted of four themes each with one or more sub-themes. The first final theme, “how reporters explained students’ failures in traditional public schools,” contained information about the emotional, social and academic problems that led many charter and alternative school students to fail in traditional public schools. The second final theme, “how reporters described the resources and support provided by the schools,” encompassed how charter and alternative schools help their students develop academically, ethically and socially. The third final theme, “how reporters described institutional cultures,” contained information about the size and mechanisms for parental involvement found in charter and alternative schools. The fourth final theme, “how reporters described pedagogical strategies,” encompassed the curriculum, instructional methods, motivational techniques, and evaluation procedures found in charter and alternative schools. For a list of the final themes, sub-themes, and codes, see “second iteration” in Appendix B.


While coding the 145 articles in our dataset using our finalized themes, sub-themes, and codes, we noticed a perplexing trend in the data. In nine of the articles in our dataset, reporters described charter schools in terms that resembled alternative schools and in 13 of the articles reporters described alternative schools in terms that described charter schools. When we looked closely at 22 articles in this subset, we noticed that they described charter schools that served middle-income and/or white students and alternative schools that served low-income students and/or students of color.

We present the findings of our analysis of print media coverage of charter and alternative schools in two stages. First, we describe the information that print media outlets provided about charter schools that serve low-income students and/or students of color and alternative schools that serve middle-income students between 1994 and 2006. Next, we present the information that print media outlets provided about charter schools that serve middle-income and/or white students and alternative schools that serve low-income students and/or students of color provided during the same time period.


PRINT MEDIA COVERAGE OF LOW-INCOME CHARTER AND MIDDLE-INCOME ALTERNATIVE SCHOOLS


One hundred twenty three of the one hundred and forty five articles in our dataset described either charter schools that served low-income students and/or students of color or alternative schools that served middle-income and/or white students.


FAILURE TO THRIVE IN TRADITIONAL PUBLIC SCHOOLS


In their articles about charter and alternative schools, reporters often described the reasons that their students failed to thrive in traditional public schools. Reporters identified three main reasons for students’ struggles, social problems, emotional problems, and academic problems, but they did not attribute these problems to charter and alternative school students equally. According to reporters, teachers and administrators of alternative schools often viewed their students as brilliant and bored, while their counterparts in charter schools often viewed their students as badly behaved.


In their articles about alternative schools that serve middle-income and/or white students reporters described young people who had failed to “fit in” at traditional public schools. A reporter quoted one advocate of alternative schools as saying “there simply are kids that are wired differently or have had different life experiences. They need schools that are highly individualized and highly supportive” (Mehren, 2004). In another article, a reporter quoted a student who explained that alternative schools were “the right choice for smart, outsider kids who just don't fit in at traditional high schools” (Cooper, 2000).” According to reporters, many middle-income and/or white alternative school students were bored in traditional public schools. According to one reporter, many alternative school students were “disengaged in their previous schools” because their “classmates . . . were disengaged; they complained of the slow pace and their impatience to move along more quickly” (Arenson, 2001). According to reporters, most middle-income and/or white alternative school students left traditional public schools of their own accord.


In the articles about charter schools that serve low-income students and/or students of color, reporters described many students as “high-risk youths” with emotional problems, some of whom were “on probation for some criminal activity” (Lin, 2006). According to reporters, many charter school students had “either dropped out or [had been] expelled from traditional” public schools because of their emotional problems (Lin, 2006). Several reporters attribute these students’ emotional problems to their home lives. For example, one article quoted a charter school administrator as saying that “after-school is an unsupervised time when young people get in the most trouble” (Sauerwein, 1999). Although these descriptions recall media portrayals of inner-city students as depraved, disrespectful youth (Leopard, 2007; McCarthy, 1998), the articles in our dataset did not portray charter schools’ low-income students and/or students of color quite as negatively.


According to reporters, many low-income students and/or students of color of charter schools also struggled academically when they attended traditional public schools. In an article about a San Diego charter school, a reporter described new students as typically arriving “with academic skills 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 years below their grade level” (Brennan, 2003). It is interesting to note that reporters did not characterize these charter school students as failing to thrive in traditional public schools because they were gifted, talented, or bored, but instead pinned their problems on academic deficiencies and insufficient discipline at home.


When describing charter and alternative school students’ failure to thrive in traditional public schools, reporters tapped into the media narrative of public education in crisis (Anderson, 2007; Berliner & Biddle, 1995; Blackmore & Thomson, 2004; Cohen, 2010; Shine & O'Donoghue, 2013; Thomas, 2003). Although they did not portray traditional public schools as being in crisis, the articles in our dataset noted these schools’ failure to engage independent learners and students with emotional problems.


AVAILABLE RESOURCES AND SUPPORT


In their articles, reporters described the resources and support that charter and alternative schools offer to their students. According to reporters, alternative schools offered their middle-income and/or white students flexible learning environments and creative outlets, while charter schools offered their low-income students and/or students of color structure and discipline.


In the articles in this dataset, reporters described the resources that alternative schools provided their middle-income and/or white students, many of whom “have shown potential, but [were] bored in [traditional public] high school[s]” (Miller, 1996). According to reporters, alternative schools encouraged students to take “charge of their own learning” (Rosenberg, 2002) by determining what they want to learn about, how much they want to learn about a given topic and when they are done learning about it. For example, one Manhattan alternative school required its students to “write and present a research paper in science and math and two in humanities. Topics have ranged from the Vietnam War to Israel, slavery to racism, immigration to New York City tenements” (Hernandez, 1996). According to reporters, many alternative schools that serve middle-income and/or white students believed that “young children develop at their own pace and should not be intellectually rushed” (Gershenson, 1999).


In stark contrast, reporters described highly structured, disciplined learning environments in charter schools that serve low-income students and/or students of color. According to reporters, many charter school administrators embraced “50s-style discipline” in order to maintain control over their students (Anthony, 1994). Reporters described discipline systems so elaborate that students received days of training before they became proficient in them. For example, “mindful of the chaos that often pervades inner-city schools” administrators at one Bronx charter school “made order paramount in the opening weeks, even if it meant sacrificing time with textbooks for hours of drills on hallway etiquette” (Wilgoren, 2000a).


DEPICTING INSTITUTIONAL CULTURES


When describing the institutional cultures of charter and alternative schools, reporters focused on the size and mechanisms for parental involvement in these schools. According to reporters, charter and alternative schools tended to be small in order to make “teaching and learning . . . as personal as possible” (Hershenson, 1994). This was where the similarities ended, though. According to reporters, alternative schools offered the parents of their middle-income and/or white students numerous ways to participate in the life of the school, while charter schools that serve low-income students and/or students of color tended to mandate, rather than encourage, parental involvement.


In their articles, reporters described several alternative schools that engaged students and parents even before they opened their doors. At one Manhattan alternative school, parents collaborated “with school officials to help draft a curriculum and admission rules” before the school opened (Lee, 2002). As reporters explained, student and parent involvement did not end after the schools opened. At one Scarsdale New York alternative school middle-income majority white students and their teachers routinely met “as a body to decide school policies like whether students should be required to perform community service” (Hershenson, 1994).


In contrast, reporters described many charter schools that serve low-income students and/or students of color with limited, and mandatory, parental involvement. For example, one Newark New Jersey charter school required parents of its low-income students of color to “sign a pledge saying that they will get their children to school on time each day and that they will telephone the school if their children will be absent” (Newman, 2000). According to reporters, these parental contracts often extended into the home. For example, the same school required parents to “promise to provide quiet time and space for their children to complete homework” in the evenings and on weekends (Newman, 2000). Reporters’ descriptions of parental contracts suggest that low-income parents and parents of color are likely to be much less involved in decisions about curricula, discipline or hiring in charter schools than their middle-income and/or white counterparts in alternative schools.


DOCUMENTING PEDAGOGICAL STRATEGIES


When describing the teaching and learning, reporters focused on what charter and alternative school teachers teach, how they teach and how they evaluate and motivate students. According to reporters, alternative school teachers’ primary role was facilitators of learning for their middle-income and/or white students, while charter school teachers provided highly structured, standardized instruction to their low-income students and/or students of color.   


What and How Teachers Teach


According to reporters, charter and alternative schools both offered curricular staples such as math, reading and writing. That was where the similarities ended, though. In their articles about alternative schools that serve middle-income and/or white students, reporters described lessons about critical thinking and problem-solving. For example, teachers at such a Bronx alternative school “want [their] kids to be able to pose questions, as well as solve problems” so they “frame things as provocatively as possible” to help students develop these skills (Kershaw, 1996).


According to reporters, many teachers in such alternative schools employed student-centered methods. For example, according to a student at a Queens alternative school “it's not like a teacher stands in front of the class, hands out a book, and then asks, 'O.K. do you understand it?'” (Holloway, 1999). Journalists also reported a strong emphasis on experiential learning in these alternative schools. For example, in an article about a Manhattan alternative school a reporter described a group of students who “surveyed the mammal collection at the American Museum of Natural History and wrote essays on the ethics of collecting specimens” afterwards (Dillon & Berger, 1995).


In contrast, reporters described a focus on test preparation, values, and manners in charter schools that serve low-income students and/or students of color. Test preparation loomed especially large in the articles about such charter schools. In an article about a Bronx charter school, a reporter described “a straightforward curriculum of basic skills and test-preparation drills” (Wilgoren, 2001b). Reporters also described lessons about values and manners in their articles about these charter schools. For example, in preparation for a trip to a local restaurant, the students of a Boston charter school “sat in a circle, going over their homework assignment: writing 20 rules for good manners at the restaurant . . . [One student] wrote these: ‘I will say please and thank you. I will not slurp my drink. I will say bless you if someone sneezes.’” (Rimer, 1997). Although reporters described many middle-income and/or white alternative school students as having social problems and problems “fitting in,” none of the articles in our dataset mentioned classes about etiquette or manners in these schools.


In their articles about these charter schools, reporters described highly structured, teacher-centered approaches to instruction that relied heavily on rote learning. For example, a reporter described teachers at the Bronx charter school mentioned as “heavily dependent on lectures, textbooks and work sheets” (Wilgoren, 2001b). According to reporters, rote learning was a common feature of instruction in these charter schools. For example, in the same school “students whip through pages of simple computation” during a math lesson, and during a lesson called math Jeopardy two students “face off at the front of the room, reciting the multiples of 6 in an alternating duet” (Wilgoren, 2001b). Although rote learning was often mentioned in articles about these charter schools, reporters never mentioned it in their articles about alternative schools that serve middle-income and/or white students.


For the most part, reporters described charter and alternative school teachers as energetic, passionate and dedicated to the academic successes of their students. This is surprising given the negative portrayal of teachers in popular culture and the news media (Baker, 1994; Shine & O'Donoghue, 2013; Thomas, 2003, 2011; Warburton & Saunders, 1996), and especially interesting in light of media depictions of teachers in inner-city schools as incompetent, unmotivated and ill-prepared (Tillman & Trier, 2007).


Methods for Evaluating and Motivating Students


In the articles in our dataset, reporters described very different methods for evaluating and motivating students in alternative schools that serve middle-income and/or white students and charter schools that serve low-income students and/or students of color. In their articles, reporters described many alternative schools that collected “a portfolio of work, like research papers and science projects,” from their middle-income and/or white students (Herszenhorn, 2005). According to reporters, many of these alternative schools also required students “to defend their work before an audience of their peers and educators” (Holloway, 1999).

In contrast, reporters identified just one metric used by charter schools to evaluate their low-income students and/or students of color: performance on standardized tests. For example, when describing the low-income students of color at one New Haven Connecticut charter school, a reporter explained that “fifth, sixth and seventh graders . . . enter the school, on average, performing two years behind grade level” (Wilgoren, 2001a). Reporters rarely mentioned standardized tests in their articles about alternative schools that serve middle-income and/or white students. When they did, they tended to quote teachers and administrators who believed that standardized tests were “obstacles to the learning process” for their students (Kershaw, 1996).


According to reporters, many charter schools used elaborate systems of rewards and punishments to motivate their low-income students and/or students of color. For example, at a Bronx charter school “the missteps and plaudits” of low-income students of color were “carefully chronicled on faux weekly paychecks, which [they could] redeem at the school store” (Wilgoren, 2000b). Reporters described no such systems in their articles about alternative schools that serve middle-income and/or white students.


Our analysis suggests important differences between charter schools that serve low-income students and/or students of color and alternative schools that serve middle-income and/or white students. According to reporters, these schools differ from each other on almost every count: their students’ personal and academic challenges, the resources and support that they offer their students, their mechanisms for parental involvement, their curriculum and instructional techniques and the methods they use to evaluate and motivate their students. This finding is consistent with a core assumption of the charter school debate, namely that charter schools have adopted a coherent approach to educating their students, one that distinguished them from traditional public schools and public alternative schools.


If ours had been a quantitative content analysis, we would have ended our study with this conclusion. Since quantitative content analysis is concerned with the prevalence of themes in the data, prevalence indicates the relative importance of each theme. Since the vast majority (123 out of 145) of the articles in our dataset described charter schools as categorically different from traditional public schools and public alternative schools, if we were using quantitative content analysis we would have concluded that the charters-as-unique-and-coherent narrative defined the media coverage of the charter school debate. However, that would have been a mistake. Our analysis of a subset of 22 articles in our dataset, which we present below, cast suspicion on the notion that charter schools embody a coherent approach to education, one that distinguishes them from traditional public schools and public alternative schools.


PRINT MEDIA COVERAGE OF MIDDLE-INCOME CHARTER AND LOW-INCOME ALTERNATIVE SCHOOLS


As mentioned above, our dataset contained a subset of 22 articles that described charter and alternative schools in terms that were inconsistent with the charters-as-unique-and-coherent narrative. Of these 22 articles, 13 described alternative schools whose student population was low-income and of color, four described charter schools whose student population was middle-income and diverse, and five described charter schools whose student population was middle-income and majority white. With one exception,9 in their 13 articles about alternative schools that serve low-income students of color, reporters’ descriptions of these schools closely resembled charter schools that serve similar student populations. With one exception,10 in their nine articles about charter schools that serve middle-income and diverse or majority white students, reporters’ depictions of these schools closely resembled alternative schools that serve similar populations.


ALTERNATIVE SCHOOLS THAT SERVE LOW-INCOME STUDENTS OF COLOR


In the 13 articles about alternative schools that serve low-income students of color, reporters described students’ failure to thrive in traditional public schools. Instead of focusing on social problems or boredom, reporters documented students’ emotional problems. For example, a Santa Ana California alternative school focused on the low self-esteem of its low-income students of color. The reporter quoted a school official who described the school’s art program as providing “a release for troubled youngsters’ anger” ). It is interesting to note that the reporter did not depict the school’s art program as an outlet for unique, talented students who needed creative outlets to succeed academically; a common theme in articles about alternative schools that serve middle-income and/or majority white students.


In these 13 articles reporters also described resources and support that were similar to those provided by charter schools that serve low-income students and/or students of color. In contrast to the energetic, chaotic environments that they found in alternative schools that serve middle-income and/or majority white students, reporters described “pristinely quiet and empty” hallways and classrooms with “studious, disciplined atmosphere[s]” in these schools ). According to reporters, alternative schools that serve low-income students of color tended to have different education missions than alternative schools that serve middle-income students. For example, one Los Angeles alternative school’s mission was to help its low-income students of color to “toe the mark” by getting them to “stay out of trouble with the law, complete their school work and wear uniforms of white-collared shirts and black pants or skirts” ). Reporters’ descriptions of alternative schools that serve low-income students and/or students of color were reminiscent of the structure and discipline that other reporters found in charter schools with similar student populations.


The same is true of the pedagogical strategies that reporters found in alternative schools that serve low-income students of color. In the 13 articles about these schools, reporters described teachers who relied heavily on lecturing, rote learning, and memorization games. Reporters also described systems of rewards and punishments that these schools used to motivate their students. For example, one such Manhattan alternative school used “incentives like pizza parties to help persuade rebellious fifth-graders to keep wearing their uniforms” ). These systems closely resembled those described in articles about charter schools that serve low-income students and/or students of color.


Our analysis uncovered two similarities between alternative schools that serve low-income students and/or students of color and those that serve middle-income students. Like alternative schools that serve middle-income students, reporters found numerous mechanisms for parental involvement in alternative schools that serve low-income students of color. Reporters also found very similar methods of evaluating students in both types of alternative schools. For example, a Manhattan alternative school used “homegrown and sometimes idiosyncratic” methods for evaluating its low-income students of color ) including independent research, exhibitions, and portfolios. Since robust parental involvement and holistic evaluation methods are key features of alternative schools, their appearance in newspaper articles about low-income alternative schools is not surprising. However, it is curious that student-centered instruction and flexible learning environments did not appear in the 13 articles in this subset, since they are also key features of alternative schools.


CHARTER SCHOOLS THAT SERVE MIDDLE-INCOME STUDENTS


In the nine articles about charter schools that serve middle-income students, reporters described students who failed to thrive in traditional public schools either because they were bored, or because they failed to “fit in” socially. According to reporters, many students at these schools had been bullied or socially ostracized when they attended traditional public schools, just like their middle-income and/or white counterparts from alternative schools. For example, a parent of a student at a Long Island New York charter school explained that his “oldest daughter was always teased in school.” His and his wife’s search for “a school where no kid is singled out and where all of them are seen as real people” (Swirsky, 2000) led them to the charter school described in the article.


Reporters’ descriptions of the resources and support that charter schools offered their middle-income students resembled those provided by alternative schools with similar student populations. In contrast to the highly structured, disciplined learning environments found in charter schools that serve low-income students and/or students of color, reporters found flexible learning environments and numerous creative outlets in charter schools that serve middle-income and/or white students. For example, a Norwich Connecticut charter school assigned its middle-income majority white students to classes according to their “developmental levels, rather than . . . their ages” (Musante, 1997). Such flexible approaches did not appear in the articles about charter schools that serve low-income students and/or students of color in our dataset.


According to reporters, the institutional cultures of these charter schools mirrored those found in alternative schools with similar student populations. For example, such a Princeton New Jersey charter school has a “curriculum committee for each subject, made up of faculty members, parents and experts in the area” (Newman, 1999). In the nine articles, reporters often quoted teachers and administrators who viewed education as “a collaborative effort between parents, administrators and teachers” (Blaire, 1995). This robust parental involvement is very different from the limited and mandatory parental involvement that reporters described in their articles about charter schools that serve low-income students and/or students of color.


In the nine articles about charter schools that serve middle-income students, reporters described pedagogical strategies that bear little resemblance to those found in charter schools that serve low-income students and/or students of color. Like teachers in alternative schools that serve similar student populations, reporters found that teachers in these charter schools emphasized problem-solving, student-centered instruction and self-evaluations. For example, teachers at a Los Angeles charter school emphasized “thinking and problem-solving process” to their middle-income diverse students (Blaire, 1995). At the same school, teachers had also largely “moved away from standing in front of the classroom” and instead worked “side by side with” the schools’ middle-income diverse students to facilitate their learning (Blaire, 1995). At another such charter school in Norwich Connecticut, “students take on research projects, choosing the topics and supporting field trips themselves” (Musante, 1997). At the same school, a reporter found classrooms that were “laid out as workspaces, not with [the] regimented rows of desks” that other reporters found in many charter schools that serve low-income students and/or students of color (Musante, 1997). At the Los Angeles charter school mentioned above, “twice a year, the teachers, the student and the parents have conferences . . . [that generally] begin with the child reading his [or her] self-evaluation” (Blaire, 1995). According to a parent at this school, the middle-income diverse students at this charter school “are harder on themselves than anybody,” and as a result these self-evaluations are “terribly honest” (Blaire, 1995). These evaluation methods differ dramatically from the reliance upon standardized testing that reporters described in their articles about charter schools that serve low-income students and/or students of color.


Our analysis did not uncover any similarities between charter schools that serve low-income students and/or students of color and those that serve middle-income students. In the nine articles in this subset, reporters’ descriptions of charter schools that serve middle-income students bore a close resemblance to other reporters’ descriptions of alternative schools that serve similar student populations.


DISCUSSION


As we explained above, media outlets offer their audiences “coherent frameworks” to help them interpret public debates (Mulcahy, 1995). According to our analysis, the framework that dominated print media coverage of the charter school debate between 1994 and 2006 was charters-as-unique-and-coherent. In 123 of the 145 articles in this dataset, reporters described charter schools as institutions whose students, resources and support, institutional cultures, and pedagogical strategies differ significantly from those found in traditional public schools and alternative schools.


The charters-as-unique-and-coherent framework would be a useful contribution to the charter school debate if charter and alternative schools actually had coherent strategies for educating their students. However, our analysis casts doubt on whether this is actually the case. Early in this project, we recognized both that reporters’ descriptions of charter schools that serve middle-income students made these schools resemble alternative schools, and that their descriptions of alternative schools that serve low-income students of color made these schools resemble charter schools. If we identified this trend rather quickly, why have print media outlets failed to either make this connection or integrate it into their coverage of the charter school debate?


It is quite possible that journalists with the New York Times and Los Angeles Times simply did not notice this trend. As we explained above, by using qualitative content analysis researchers can identify “meanings, themes and patterns that may be manifest or latent in a particular text” (Zhang & Wildemuth, 2009, p. 308). Journalists, who typically work on tight deadlines and scramble to complete several stories at a time rarely have the time or energy for such systematic examinations of media coverage.


Another possibility is that print journalists did recognize the counter-evidence for the charters-as-unique-and-coherent framework, but exercised their ‘news judgments’ by not reporting on it (Baker, 1994). Some journalists might have done this to simplify a complex public debate for their audiences (Hammersley, 2003; Lefstein, 2008) while others might have done it to promote a particular “treatment or ‘angle’” (Baker, 1994, p. 288), i.e., that charter schools offer a unique and coherent approach to education. Whatever their motivations, if journalists knowingly paid “attention to particular issues, actors, definitions and interpretations” and ignored others, they have exerted troubling influence over the charter school debate (Hansen, 2009, p. 336).


But how has the charters-as-unique-and-coherent framework shaped or influenced this debate? Media coverage of the charter school debate in the United States is a vehicle through which nonexperts learn about traditional public schools as well as charter schools. As we noted above, in the 101 articles about charter schools in our dataset, reporters cast charters, but not traditional public schools, in a positive light. Reporters’ portrayal of traditional public schools as rigid, impersonal and dysfunctional echoes media coverage of public education and could well have exacerbated public anxiety and concern about public education in the United States (Anderson, 2007; Leopard, 2007; McCarthy, 1998). Reporters’ positive portrayal of charter schools could also have shaped public perceptions of these schools. This is especially likely for audience members without any experience with charter schools. Not all consumers of print media will connect the dots between reporters’ negative portrayals of traditional public schools and their positive portrayals of charter schools, but those who do might see charters as the solution to dysfunction in the public education system.


The general public is not the only group that might be influenced by the media coverage of the charter school debate. As Brown and Kraehe (2011) and Trier (2001) demonstrate, media coverage of education can influence aspiring teachers. The positive print media coverage of charter schools could have influenced aspiring teachers to work for charters instead of traditional public schools. It could also have confirmed some of their assumptions about low-income students and urban schools.


CONCLUSIONS


Our analysis of print media coverage of the early years of the charter school debate in the United States uncovered several interesting themes. We identified interesting discrepancies between media coverage of charter schools, alternative schools, and public education in general. For example, print media coverage of charter and alternative schools contained more positive depictions of teachers than are typically present in media coverage or popular culture. This was especially true of reporters’ descriptions of teachers in charter schools that serve low-income students and/or students of color.


While print media coverage of charter and alternative schools contained negative messages about traditional public schools, they never reached the fevered pitch found in popular culture and the news media. In the articles in our dataset, reporters described charter school students as badly behaved and alternative school students as brilliant and bored when both groups of students were attending traditional public schools. While reporters noted the challenges that these students faced in traditional public schools, they rarely condemned all public schools as failures.


Our analysis uncovered counterevidence for the assumption that underlays the charter school debate in the United States: the notion that charter schools embody a coherent approach to education, one that is distinct from that of traditional public schools and public alternative schools. Our analysis suggests that student demographics, not school type, shape the resources and support, institutional cultures, and pedagogical strategies of charter and alternative schools. For example, when describing charter schools that serve middle-income students, reporters described institutional cultures and pedagogical strategies identical to those found in alternative schools with similar student populations. When reporting on alternative schools that serve low-income students and/or students of color, reporters described institutional cultures and pedagogical strategies that mirrored those found in charter schools with similar student populations.


One of the strengths of qualitative content analysis is that researchers can uncover trends and patterns in primary and secondary sources that their creators and consumers are not aware of (Hsieh & Shannon, 2005; Zhang & Wildemuth, 2009). One of the limitations of qualitative content analysis, however, is that researchers cannot use it to determine whether or not the patterns and trends are happening in the real world. While our analysis uncovered interesting trends in the print media coverage of the charter school debate, for example, it cannot confirm or deny whether charter and alternative schools educate low- and middle-income students differently. To determine whether this is happening we would need to conduct additional research. Ethnographic observation in charter and alternative schools could shed light on whether student demographics, not school type, shape the resources and support, institutional cultures, and pedagogy present in these schools. A qualitative content analysis of lesson plans, teacher training materials, parent contracts, and/or mission statements could provide additional insights about whether charter and alternative schools educate their low- and middle-income students differently.


If further research determines that charter and alternative schools are educating their low- and middle-income students differently, this would raise a host of additional questions. For example, are charter and alternative school founders, administrators and teachers aware that this is happening? If they are, what explains their decisions to use different strategies to educate low-and middle-income students? Do their assumptions about their students shape their approach to educating them, as our analysis of print media coverage suggests, or are there other explanations? In-depth interviews with charter and alternative school founders, administrators and teachers would generate the data necessary to answer these questions.


If further research determines that charter and alternative schools are educating their low- and middle-income students differently, this has important implications for low-income students and/or students of color. For one, charter and alternative schools could be providing their low- and middle-income students with very different academic skills. As Arum and Roksa (2011) have demonstrated, abstract reasoning, critical thinking, and writing skills influence students’ success in higher education. If charter and alternative schools are providing their middle-income students with opportunities to develop these skills, as the articles in our dataset suggest, they would be preparing them well for college. If charter and alternative schools are emphasizing rote learning and test preparation with their low-income students and/or students of color, as the articles in our dataset suggest, they would be depriving them opportunities to develop these skills and inadequately preparing them for college.


If further research determines that charter and alternative schools are educating their low- and middle-income students differently, they could be encouraging different types of motivation in their low- and middle-income students. Intrinsic motivation is critical for individuals’ success in education and beyond (Agarwal & Karahanna, 2000; Black & Deci, 2000; Deci & Ryan, 1985; Kohn, 1999). While extrinsic motivation works in educational and professional environments with extrinsic rewards, it does not work in environments that lack these kinds of rewards. If charter and alternative schools are encouraging their middle-income students to take responsibility by providing them with individualized, hands-on learning opportunities, as the articles in our dataset suggest, they would be preparing them to thrive in a variety of educational and professional environments. If charter and alternative schools are using elaborate systems of rewards and punishments to manage the behavior of their low-income students and/or students of color, as the articles in our dataset suggest, they would be encouraging extrinsic motivations in these students.11 By extension, they would be depriving these students of opportunities to thrive in many educational and professional environments.


Finally, if further research determines that charter and alternative schools are educating their low- and middle-income students differently, they could be preparing their low- and middle-income students to navigate higher education institutions very differently. According to Lareau (2003), children who are taught “that they have a right to pursue their own individual preferences” enjoy advantages in “future institutional negotiations” (p. 6), while children who are taught to defer to authority will “gain an emerging sense of distance, distrust, and constraint in their institutional experiences” (p. 3). These skills can determine an individual’s success in higher education institutions, especially those with large classes, complex general education requirements and labyrinthine financial aid rules and regulations. If charter and alternative schools are encouraging their middle-income students to challenge authority and advocate for themselves, as the articles in our dataset suggest, they would be giving them the skills and confidence necessary to thrive in higher education. If charter and alternative schools are discouraging their low-income students from challenging authority, as the articles in our dataset suggest, they would be depriving them of the skills and confidence necessary to thrive in higher education.


This is not the first time that researchers have suggested that schools either treat their low- and middle-income students differently, or their treat their white students and their students of color differently. As Anyon (1980, p. 90) and many others have explained, schools frequently “emphasize different cognitive and behavioral skills” and facilitate the “development in the children of certain potential relationships to . . . authority” based on students’ class and/or race. However, our study offers two new, and potentially troubling, insights about charter schools. First, our findings suggest that charter and alternative schools’ approaches to educating low-income students and/or students of color are neither new nor progressive. Our study suggests that charter schools might very well be operating on outdated assumptions about low-income students and students of color, assumptions that were disproven long ago. Second, our study suggests that charter schools might be actively “reproduce[ing] racial categories” and class categories “while ostensibly repudiating them” (Winant, 1998, p. 762). This is especially troubling given advocates’ insistence that charter schools have the potential to close the educational achievement gap in the United States.


APPENDIX A: KEY FEATURES OF CHARTER AND ALTERNATIVE SCHOOLS


CHARTER SCHOOLS


Although the term “charter school” refers to a broad range of institutional forms, there are several key features that most schools in this category share (Brouilette, 2002; Lubienski & Weitzel, 2010; Murphy & Shiffman, 2002). Most charter schools are embedded within existing public school systems and receive public funding (Fuller, 2000; Hassel, 1999). Some even inhabit buildings owned and/or operated by local school districts. Charter schools also tend to be exempt from many of the rules and regulations that govern traditional public schools (Hill & Lake, 2002). While most traditional public schools must use tenure, seniority, and teaching credentials as the primary criteria for recruiting and selecting teachers, charter schools are typically free to develop their own hiring, firing, and promotion procedures. Some charters are also free to determine the beginning and end of their teachers’ workdays and pay scales. Finally, many charter schools augment their public funding with donations from individuals, corporations, and philanthropic foundations.


Despite these shared features, there is tremendous diversity among charter schools. While some charters are stand-alone schools established by local parents or educators, others are parts of networks, referred to as “charter maintenance organizations” (CMOs), of schools with similar educational models and/or missions (Sizer & Wood 2008, p. 4; Toch, 2009). While some charter schools are organized around themes such as art, mathematics or civic engagement, with all instruction touching on these themes, others have more traditional curricula. While the curriculum in charter schools affiliated with CMOs often reflects the CMO’s mission, the curriculum in stand-alone charters often represents “the teaching and learning values of a particular community” (Sizer & Wood, 2008, p. 4).


While some charters offer a rigorous college preparatory curriculum, others focus on self-esteem, community-building, or diversity. Finally, charter schools’ student populations vary greatly. Some charter schools have racially diverse student populations, while others serve students of color almost exclusively. Some charter schools serve students from wealthy and middle-class families, while others serve low-income students exclusively.


ALTERNATIVE SCHOOLS


Like charter schools, the term “alternative school” invokes a wide array of institutional forms. Like public charter schools, public alternative schools are embedded within the larger public education system but are exempt from many of the rules and regulations that traditional public schools must contend with. Like charters, alternative schools often augment their public funding with donations from individuals, corporations, and philanthropic foundations.


Like charter schools, alternative schools can be stand-alone or part of networks. However, while CMOs tend to be organized hierarchically, networks of alternative schools (such as Sudbury Schools and the Coalition for Essential Schools) tend to be decentralized and geographically diffuse. Although reformers have experimented with alternative elementary and middle schools, alternative high schools have historically been most common. Many of the alternative high schools created in the 1960s and 1970s eschewed classes, lecturing, teachers, and curricula (Rowe, 2002). Instead, they offered modular scheduling and mini-courses that “matched the current interests of students and teachers” (Tyack & Cuban, 1995, p. 88). These schools encouraged students to teach themselves by transforming classrooms “into resource centers for independent learning” (Ravitch, 2000, p. 397). Another common feature of alternative schools is robust parental involvement. In contrast to traditional public schools, which tend to be hierarchically organized with a principal in the top leadership position, many alternative schools give students and parents meaningful roles to play in school governance and decision-making.


Like charters, alternative schools’ student populations vary greatly. While alternative schools have historically served white and middle class or wealthy students, this has changed somewhat in recent years. In the past two decades, alternative schools have become more common in low-income areas, urban areas, and areas with large concentrations of students of color.


References


Brouillette, L. (2002). Charter schools: Lessons in school reform. New York, NY: Routledge.


Fuller, B. (2009). Inside charter schools: The paradox of radical decentralization. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


Hassel, B. C. (1999). The charter school challenge: Avoiding the pitfalls, fulfilling the promise. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.


Hill, P. T., Lake, R. J., & Celio, M. B. (2004). Charter schools and accountability in public education. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.


Lubienski, C., & Weitzel, P. C. (2010). The charter school experiment: Expectations, evidence, and implications. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.


Murphy, J., & Shiffman, C. D. (2002). Understanding and assessing the charter school movement. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.


Ravitch, D. (2001). Left back: A century of battles over school reform. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.


Rowe, C. (2002, February 20). In Woodstock, a nonschool with nonteachers, The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2002/02/20/nyregion/in-woodstock-a-nonschool-with-nonteachers.html


Sizer, T., & Wood, G. (2008). Charter schools and the values of public education. In L. Dingerson, B. Peterson, & B. Miner (Eds.), Keeping the promise?: The debate over charter schools (pp. 3-16). Milwaukee, WI: Rethinking Schools.


Toch, T. (2009). Charter-management organizations: Expansion, survival, and impact. Education Week, 29(9), 26–27, 32. 


Tyack, D., & Cuban, L. (1995). Tinkering toward utopia: A century of public school reform. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.





APPENDIX B: INTERPRETIVE CODE MAPPING


First Iteration

Second Iteration

Preliminary Themes

Preliminary Codes

Final Themes

Final

Sub-Themes

Final Codes

Sample Data Excerpts

Charter Schools That Serve Low-Income Students and/or Students of Color

Alternative Schools That Serve

Middle-Income and/or White Students

How reporters described the students

Bored

Too intelligent

Drug use

Bad attitude

Troubled

Under-achievers

How reporters explained students’ failures in traditional public schools

Emotional and social problems

Criminal history

Drug abuse

Behavioral problems

Family dysfunction

Emotional problems

Don’t fit in socially

“‘I started to get A's and Bs instead of straight Fs,’ a smiling Galindo told the seniors at Soledad Enrichment Action Charter High School, whose students are described as high-risk youths who had either dropped out or been expelled from traditional high schools, or were on probation for some criminal activity.”


“There simply are kids that are wired differently or have had different life experiences. They need schools that are highly individualized and highly supportive.”

Academic problems

Lagging academically

Poor work ethic

Underachieving

Bored

Not challenged

Unique learning styles

“The students began the year with academic skills 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 years below their grade level. Yet the school's teachers and administrators see these strikes against them as all the more reason to invest in their futures.”


“Geometry was so easy, it was boring. History had too many dates to memorize. And in English, the other kids talked too much and distracted him. Derek Aten, 18, has a list of excuses for the host of Cs he earned last semester as a junior at Moorpark High School.”

How reporters described the schools

Warm

Supportive

Challenging

High expectations

Tough love

Structure

Rules

Discipline

Uniforms

How reporters described the resources and support provided by schools

What charter and alternative schools provide for their students

Behavior modification

Tough love

Discipline

High expectations

Nurturing

Respect

Support

“Bronx Prep's experience this fall suggests that such independence means an opportunity to establish rigorous standards, depending in part on the added autonomy of charter schools, whose staffs serve at will and whose students can be held to strict behavior contracts.”

“Its eight-hour day gives students a flexible schedule similar to that of a college. Students get more study periods and more individual sessions with teachers.”

Skills and abilities that schools want to help their students develop

Motivation

Work ethic

Self-discipline

Self-esteem

Determination Focus

Self-esteem

“Drawing upon a number of studies on the needs of middle schools, Elliot said she and the school's four teachers would nurture the preteens and try to instill the self-worth needed to be successful in high school and college and avoid such dangers as drugs, gangs and sexual promiscuity.”

“But many Leonia graduates warned that the education they received is not appropriate for everyone. Since nobody took attendance and the schedule was not rigid, students had to be extremely self-disciplined. For those who excelled in traditional classrooms, the transition might have proven difficult. But for motivated teen-agers who did not fit in, the alternative school was a godsend.”

How reporters described institutional cultures

Size

Small schools

Extended class periods

Extended days

Extended school years

“Very little about the Family Academy resembles other public elementary schools in New York City—or anywhere else—and to visit is to feel all the possibilities of urban educational reform, as well as the size of the task. The school day ends at 5 P.M., the school year is 11 months.”

“The idea behind the new schools is disarmingly simple: Smaller is better.

Break up the impersonal school factory into intimate, more familial academies. Strip away the assistant principals and other layers of bureaucracy, reducing schools to the essentials: a teacher and a small group of students who can more easily know one another.”

Mechanisms for parental involvement

Parent contracts

Encouraging parent involvement

“For example, at the Promise Charter School in Camden and the North Star Academy Charter School of Newark, parents are required to come to school to pick up report cards.”

“Students and teachers—there are five full-time faculty members—also meet as a body to decide school policies like whether students should be required to perform community service. These and small group meetings on day-to-day matters reflect the school's democratic approach and fulfill a basic principle of the coalition: teaching and learning should be made as personal as possible.”

How reporters described the instruction

Experiential

Inter-disciplinary

Project-based

Self-directed

Drills

Call and response

How reporters described pedagogical strategies

What teachers teach

Test preparation

Values

Manners

College preparation

Critical thinking

Problem-solving

“Bronx Prep—which opened last August in the Morrisania section and plans to add a grade each year through high school—devised a straightforward curriculum of basic skills and test-preparation drills, heavily dependent on lectures, textbooks and work sheets.”

“‘We want our kids to be able to pose questions, as well as solve problems’ said Kiran Chaudhuri, who has taught at the school for five years, ‘so we frame things as provocatively as possible. You need to start where the kids are. One of our primary purposes is to help them make sense of their own lives.’”

How teachers teach

Chants

Drills

Teacher-centered

Experiential

Interdisciplinary

Project-based

Self-directed

Self-paced

“It is a morning ritual, like prayer at a parochial school. Denniston Reid stalks across his classroom, scowls at his sixth-grade students and barks the same simple question: ‘What is this?’ ‘This is math,’ they respond. ‘I don't have to like it to pass it. I don't have to enjoy it to learn it. I don't have to love it to understand it. But I must, and I will, master it.’ The chant is just one cut on the educational soundtrack at the nascent Bronx Preparatory Charter School, whose 100 fifth and sixth graders rhapsodize about their readiness to read and rap their multiplication tables.”

“This interdisciplinary approach, all the rage these days, puts academic courses together like a puzzle, showing students that everything is interconnected. In Catherine R. Harris's math class, for instance, students learn new vocabulary—palindrome— while learning how a palindrome orders a set of numbers so that their sequence is the same backward and forward.”

Procedures for evaluating students

Portfolios

Exhibitions

Committee review Standardized testing

“The school will not have to comply with California's rigid education code, but teachers will be responsible for annual standardized testing.”

“Nonetheless, Ms. Francis was given only a mastery. She plans to appeal for a higher evaluation. Although she is one of the school's top students, she may have had a harder time because she stocked her committee with literature teachers and students. Presenters can select their own panelists, as long as there are at least two teachers. Students tend to take the task seriously.”

Techniques to motivate students

Rewards

Punishments

“Attendance counts. And effort. Participation, following directions, being a ‘good teammate,’ showing improvement, expressing creativity and even sitting up straight can earn children up to $50 a week.”

 


Acknowledgment


We are grateful for the help and support that we received while working on this project, especially the generous support that we received from the Research Foundation of CUNY in the form of a PSC-CUNY Research Award. This project would not have been possible without the able and enthusiastic work of Rebecca Goe, our research assistant, and the editorial assistance of Corry Rooks. Thanks, too, to Carly Phillips and Ryan Arthun for helping us with some of the logistics of our coding and data analysis. Our thinking about race, class, and education was greatly enhanced by discussions with our colleagues and friends, including: Ted Levine, Jake Hansen, Meredith Kolodner, Prudence Cumberbatch, Juliana Ugalde, Jill Esbenshade, Edna Bonacich, and the two anonymous reviewers from Teachers College Record.


Notes


1. Scholars concede that some mass media representations of the inner-city are positive. In their article about the television show The Wire, Brown and Kraehe (2011, p. 86) praise the show for presenting “a complex set of images of the Black male that renders him more realistic to life—human, thoughtfully complicated, struggling against social forces that seek to confine and define his being.” According to Brown and Kraehe (2011), this representation informs the show’s fourth season, which focuses on public education.

2. Anderson (2007) and Farmer (2010) both draw upon Cohen’s (1972) notion of moral panic. During periods of transition in societal values, moral panics or “intense hostility toward a particular group of people” often emerge (Farmer, 2010, p. 370). The public often directs fear and antipathy at the “targeted group” because they think that it represents “a moral threat to the values of a community or society” (Anderson, 2007, p. 113). Moral panics, which are often created or exacerbated by the media, often result in “hasty policy decisions” that are designed to appease public distress (Anderson, 2007, p. 113).

3. A 2008 Time Magazine profile of DC schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee provides an excellent example of this phenomenon. Rhee was featured on the cover of the magazine in a classroom, with broom in hand, seemingly ready to “clean up” the failing D.C. school system (Ripley, 2008).

4. In 2000 there were 1,542 charter schools in the United States, comprising 1.7% of all public schools. By 2006 the number of charter schools in the United States was 3,682, comprising 3.8% of all public schools. By 2010 there were 4,936 charter schools in operation in the United States and charters comprised 5.1% of all public schools in the United States (National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, n.d.).

5. For example, 80 percent of KIPP students are from low-income families and eligible for the federal free and reduced price meals program and 90 percent are African American or Latino (Knowledge is Power Program, n.d.). 85 percent of Green Dot students are from low-income families and eligible for the free and reduced lunch program. 82 percent of Green Dot students are Latino, and 17 percent are African American (Green Dot Public Schools, n.d.).

6. Technically, when we describe the class composition of the student population of each school, we are describing the class composition of their families. We use the phrase “class composition of the student population” in order to streamline the prose in the paper.

7. Research on “the achievement gap” in the United States focuses on the performance gaps between African American and Latino students and their white peers, and between low-income students and their middle and upper-middle class peers (Hemphill & Vanneman, 2011; Vanneman et al., 2009). As a group, Asian students tend to perform at or above the level of white students, although there are notable exceptions to this rule. In accordance with this trend, we assigned the “people of color” code to articles in our dataset that described schools with majority Latino and/or African American student populations. This is not to say that other groups, such as Asian, Asian American or Native American students, do not have experiences in traditional public schools that are distinct from those of white students. There is ample evidence that they do (Lee, 2009; Lei, 2003; Zhou & Bankston, 1999).

8. When creating this appendix, we drew heavily on Anfara, Brown, and Mangione’s (2002) excellent article about tabular strategies in the presentation of qualitative research findings.

9. One alternative school that serves low-income students of color in this subset was an exception, the El Puente Academy for Peace and Justice in Brooklyn New York. The resources and support that this school provides its students closely resembled those found in alternative schools that serve middle-income and/or white students. The same is true of its institutional culture and pedagogical strategies.

10. One charter school that serves middle-income majority white students in this subset was an exception, the Princeton Charter School in New Jersey. Its pedagogical strategies closely resembled those found in charter schools that serve low-income students of color. Unfortunately the article about this school did not provide enough information about this school for us to determine whether its institutional culture resembled those in charter or alternative schools.

11. Perhaps the best example of this is a chant that is used widely by teachers at KIPP charter schools to motivate their students: “You gotta read, baby, read. You gotta read, baby read. The more you read, the more you know, ‘cause knowledge is power, power is money, and I want it.”


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 117 Number 8, 2015, p. 1-48
http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 18016, Date Accessed: 6/23/2017 6:20:32 PM

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About the Author
  • Daisy Rooks
    University of Montana
    E-mail Author
    DAISY ROOKS is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Montana. Her research focuses on the career trajectories of union organizers, leadership in union recognition campaigns, labor-environmental coalitions in rural areas, and rural homelessness. She recently completed a book manuscript about activism in the 1990s entitled Venture Activism: Incubating Agents of Change inside American Public Education and Organized Labor.
  • Carolina Bank Muñoz
    Brooklyn College-CUNY
    E-mail Author
    CAROLINA BANK MUÑOZ is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Brooklyn College. Her research focuses on immigration, globalization, labor and work, and race, class and gender. Her book, Transnational Tortillas: Race, Gender and Shop Floor Politics in Mexico and the United States, is the winner of the Terry Book Award. She is currently working on a book manuscript about Wal-Mart in Chile.
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