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Building a Plane While Flying It: Early Lessons from Developing Charter Schools

by Noelle C. Griffin & Priscilla Wohlstetter - 2001

There has been a rapid increase over the past nine years in both the number of charter schools in the United States and the enthusiasm for the concept among legislators, educators, and the general public. Although high quality teaching and learning have always been key goals of those who have designed and supported charter schools, most research about charter schools has not addressed the instructional and organizational issues associated with creating high quality educational programs. For this article, the authors investigated 17 charter schools focusing on key instructional and organizational practices that charter schools established in their start-up years. The authors identified three major categories of issues the schools dealt with that cut across all sample charter schools: developing curricular and instructional programs, developing a meaningful accountability system, and developing management/leadership systems. In each of these areas, charter schools displayed both strengths that supported their development and challenges that seemed to impede their progress. The authors conclude with recommendations for further research.

There has been a rapid increase in past years in both the number of charter schools in the United States and the enthusiasm for the concept among legislators, educators, and the general public. Although high quality teaching and learning have always been key goals of those who have designed and supported charter schools, most research about charter schools has not addressed the instructional and organizational issues associated with creating high quality educational programs. For this article, the authors investigated 17 charter schools focusing on key instructional and organizational practices that charter schools established in their start-up years. The authors identified three major categories of issues the schools dealt with that cut across all sample charter schools: developing curricular and instructional programs, developing a meaningful accountability system, and developing management/ leadership systems. In each of these areas, charter schools displayed both strengths that supported their development and challenges that seemed to impede their progress. The authors conclude with recommendations for further research.

There has been a rapid revolution. In the years since Minnesota passed the first charter school law, over 40 states and the District of Columbia have passed some form of charter school legislation. As of the 1999-2000 school year, there were almost 1,700 charter schools in operation (Center for Educational Reform, 2000).

There also is evidence of strong bipartisan support for charter schools. At the federal level, successive administrations, Republican and Democratic alike, have stepped up their commitments to charter schools. In 1991, the Bush administration recommended funding for thousands of break-the-mold schools; and, since then, the Clinton administration has endorsed charter schools. In 1995, Congress allocated $6 million to charter schools. This amount tripled to $18 million in 1996 and to $51 million in 1997 (Hoff, 1997). For fiscal year 2001, the President's budget included $175 million for the U.S. Department of Education's Public, Charter Schools Programa $30 million increase over last year's level (Office of the Press Secretary, 2000). Indeed, the Clinton administration's goal was to stimulate the creation of 3,000 charter schools by the end of his term.

The extent of autonomy given to charter schools <varies considerably across state charter school laws, prompting some observers to distinguish between faux or quasi-charter schools and the genuine article (Vanourek, Manno, and Finn, 1997, p. 60). Some state legislation grants charter schools full power over budget, organizational structure, personnel, and curriculum, while in other states the control over such issues resides either partially or fully outside of the schools (Bierlein and Mulholland, 1995; Buechler, 1996; Education Commission of the States, 1995; Wohlstetter, Wenning, and Briggs, 1995). This exploratory study of chapter schools investigated instructional and organizational issues faced in me start-up years of 17 charter schools, located in three areas across the United StatesBoston, Los Angeles, and Minneapolis/St. Paul. Specifically, we were interested in the experiences of these schools in facing governance/management issues and designing their instructional programs. This included both the difficulties that the schools faced in these areas and the successful approaches they implemented. To set the stage, we first provide some background on the charter school concept and its implications for developing a high quality educational program.


Charter schools are publicly funded schools that may be developed by individuals or a group of individuals including teachers, administrators or other school staff, parents, or other members of the local community in which the charter school is located. Developers of charter schools are given flexibility to decide their own educational objectives and how to organize and manage the school. The extent of the flexibility these schools are given varies from state to state based on the strength of the state's charter school law (Center for Educational Reform, 2000). Strong laws facilitate the opening of charter schools. The charter school concept is intended to free schools from most of the administrative constraints that other public schools face in exchange for accountability for results: charter schools must have their charters renewed, typically every five years.

In addition to offering a new governance structure within the public education system, charter school advocates argue that the innovation has the potential to improve student performance through the development of high quality teaching and learning. As autonomous entities, charter schools not only serve the function of increasing consumer choice in public education, but also aim to implement effective teaching and learning practices in classrooms. Specifically, advocates posit that the increased autonomy granted to charter schools will both draw those with cutting-edge, innovative educational ideas into starting charter schools and allow such innovators to fully and effectively implement their ideas (Nathan, 1996). The intended result is an expanded variety of educational communities within the public school system with one common characteristic: high quality teaching and learning. The freedom of parents and studentsthe education consumersto choose is thought to further buttress the quality of charter schools, as high quality schools will be in demand and flourish, while poorly functioning schools will be rejected by consumers and fail.

Research on charter schools has focused predominantly on fiscal, legal, and bureaucratic issues in the charter school development and approval process. Although such issues are emphasized in state charter school laws, the legislation also addresses to varying degrees issues of teaching and learning; in fact, all three of the states in our study mentioned high-quality teaching and learning as goals in their charter laws (for a detailed analysis of these laws, see Wohlstetter et al., 1995). In one survey Nathan and Powers (1996) found that for state legislators who supported the charter school process, issues of improved teaching and learning were among the most frequent reasons given for introducing charter school legislation. The development of innovative approaches to teaching and learning is clearly one of the perceived benefits to states permitting charter schools, with the assumption that such innovations will produce identifiable improvements in student achievement.

The importance of teaching and learning in the development of charter schools is also evident in the attitudes of charter school founders. In a 1995 survey by the Education Commission of the States, the top three reasons listed for starting a charter school included: (a) Better teaching and learning for all kids; (b) Run a school according to certain principles and/or philosophy; and (c) Innovation (Education Commission of the States, 1995, p. 15). The recent national study of charter schools (RPP International, 2000) reported that 58% of charter schools were formed to realize an alternative vision of schooling. Founders of charter schools thus appear to view their schools primarily as opportunities for building high performing educational communities, with the assumption that this will result in higher student achievement in addition to other positive student outcomes (for example, positive attitudes towards learning) (Nathan, 1996).

The development and maintenance of a charter school can be a complex and challenging process balancing various curricular, financial, organizational, and public relations issues (Nathan, 1996). What we learned from our research is what those working in charter schools already know: it is very hard work to both design and operate a charter school and keep the focus oil teaching and learning. In this article, we discuss common issues in the areas of organization and instruction that a sample of charter schools faced in their first years of operation. Results are from an exploratory study on charter schools in three cities. Our aim, based on these preliminary results, was to identify key commonalities and differences in the start-up experiences of the schools we studied, and raise some issues and questions for further consideration beyond this study.


To begin to understand the strategies that charter schools utilize and the problems they face in their start-up process, we held three focus groups with a combination of charter school founders/directors, administrators and teachersone each in Boston, Los Angeles, and Minneapolis. Although some schools in our sample had been open previously as traditional public schools, all of them had only recently begun operating as charter schools.

Focus groups were particularly suited to this exploratory study of charter schools because the approach allowed us to generate descriptive information and ideas against the day-to-day experiences of people involved in charter schools (Vaughn, Schumm, and Sinagub, 1996). We viewed this study as an opportunity to investigate areas where relatively little was known, as a first step preceding more ambitious efforts. The focus group methodology allowed us to explore in a broad way issues that previous researchers had not. However, focus groups present some limitations in terms of generalizing results. That is, the charter schools and participants in this study were not randomly sampled, and thus the information gathered cannot be assumed to be representative of charter schools in the three states or nationally. A further limitation of the focus group methodology in this study is that it relies on the point of view of one or two individuals from each school site to gain a picture of the school. Any information gathered is thus influenced by that individual's subjective interpretation.

The 17 charter schools represented in our study were spread fairly evenly across the three cities (six schools, each, in Boston and Los Angeles; and five schools in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area). Participants included a combination of teachers, directors/founders, and other administrators. There was one representative from each school in each focus group, except in Boston where one school sent both the director and a teacher. Each of the participants received a $50 stipend for their participation in the focus group. Table 1 presents additional information about the types of focus group participants in each city.

The schools in our sample were all part of the first generation of charter schools, developed in the earliest states to have charter school laws. We invited only schools that had been operating as charter schools for at least a year (and were within driving distance of each city), so that participants had been through some building and learning experiences. Nearly all of the invited schools sent representatives. Most of the schools had been open for at least two years.


The schools were sampled based on diversitywe wanted to get a sample including schools of various sizes serving a variety of grades. The schools were a mix of conversion sites (schools that had been previously managed by school districts) and new start-ups (newly created schools). In Los Angeles, nearly all the participating schools were three years old and had converted to charter status from district-run, site-based managed schools. The charter schools in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area were a mix of conversions and new start-ups. The charter school that had been open the longestfive yearswas in Minnesota, the first state to enact charter school legislation. Likewise, the participating schools in the Boston area tended to be the youngest and all but one were new start-ups. Table 2 provides background information about participating schools.

Charter schools participating in this study spanned different levels of schooling and reflected a broad spectrum of sizes and student body compositions. The majority of charter schools in the United States are elementary schools (Buechler, 1996; RPP, 1998), and this was reflected in the high percentage of participants from elementary schools in our focus groups. In terms of size, elementary schools tended to be the largest with student populations over 1,000; at the other extreme, many of the new start-ups were smaller than traditional schools and had 200 or fewer students.


Most participating charter schools had ethnically diverse student populations; however, some schools in Boston and Minneapolis/St. Paul served predominantly white student populations. Statewide reports of charter schools in Massachusetts (Pioneer Institute, 1996) and Minnesota (Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement, 1996) reflected a similar pattern. California's charter school law requires that schools in their applications explain their methods for achieving an ethnic balance of students that reflects the general population of the school district in which the charter school resides (California Education Code Section 47600). Most recent data from the three states in our study show the statewide average percentages for minority enrollments in charter schools at 52%, 53% and 47% for California, Massachusetts, and Minnesota, respectively. Compared to other public schools in the state, Massachusetts (53% versus 14%) and Minnesota (47% versus 22%) have significantly higher rates of minority enrollments in their charter schools; while in California, non-charter public schools enroll a higher percentage of minority students60% versus 52% (RPP International, 1999).

Student populations also were varied in terms of their educational backgrounds. Some charter schools focused on students who had hot been Successful in traditional schoolsfor example, a prep school for drop-outs while some others catered to parents and students looking for more rigorous academic programsfor example, an elementary school that offered a classically-based, challenging curriculum for motivated students. The Minneapolis/St. Paul charter schools that participated in our focus group tended to serve high risk students more than charter schools from the other two cities, which served more varied student populations. Based on a national study of charter schools, this appears to be characteristic of Minnesota charter schools as a whole (RPP International, 1998).

The focus groups lasted between two and two and a-half hours. Each session was led by a professional facilitator. A member of the research team also was present at each focus group meeting to serve as an observer/ recorder.1Discussions were structured by a topic guide focused on the charter schools' experiences with teaching and learning(see the appendix for the full topic guide).

All of the focus group sessions were taped, and observers took notes during the meetings. After all focus groups were completed and the researchers reviewed their tapes and notes, the research team and the focus group facilitator were brought together for a debriefing session. In this session the team members shared their findings with each other and analyzed, across the three cities, the commonalities across schools in their start-up processes and the features within the charter schools that were likely to affect teaching and learning. Since the study design did not include a comparison group of non-charter public schools, we viewed our findings in the context of previous research with non-charter public schools, particularly studies of restructured, site-based managed schools (Elmore, Peterson, and McCarthy, 1996; Odden and Wohlstetter, 1995; Robertson, Wohlstetter, and Mohrman, 1995).


In our analysis, several common issues emerged in the participants' discussions of the charter school experiences. These are issues that participants felt that their schools had to address in some fashion in the start-up and development of their educational programs. These issues centered around three general areas: developing an instructional/curricular program, developing a meaningful accountability system, and developing school management/leadership processes.


In a best case scenario, a school's instructional program should include both clear curricula and pedagogy, detailing how teachers will get all students to achieve at high levels. Similar to district-operated schools, charter schools in our study found it difficult to develop coherent instructional programs. Other research (Gusky & Peterson, 1996; Slavin et al., 1996) has highlighted the challenges of developing instructional programs. With the charter schools in our sample, the difficulty was exacerbated by rather vague school missions and the press to create something quickly within a short time frame. In this section, we review the content of the instructional programs adopted by the charter schools, how the programs were developed, and teacher professional development that was used to support instruction.

Initial Program Design

As charter schools went about developing their instructional programs, educators were often faced with the challenge of developing curriculum and instructional strategies within a short time frame. This was a particular problem for new start-up schools, as the conversion sites often already had many instructional components in place prior to attaining charter status. The search for a quick fix sometimes led to tension between those who wanted to create their own instructional program and those who advocated buying an instructional package that could be implemented quickly. The make versus buy dilemma, although not endemic only to charter schools, was frequently present in the sample schools, and particularly among start-up schools. Charter school participants in our three focus groups tended to have a pioneer ethos and this feeling often led to a strong desire to create their own instructional programa time consuming task that flew in the face of getting the charter school up and running quickly.

Given these conflicting demands, what we observed were instructional programs that often featured curricula developed by educators outside the school. Some charter schools adopted whole design packages and connected the school with experts and resources to help them implement their designs. Within our sample of charter schools, slightly less than one-third of the schools (5/17) were connected with national reform efforts and had instructional programs, or at least guides, that were developed outside the school by education reformers (half of the charter schools participating in the Boston focus group fell into this category). Two of the participating schools were members of the Coalition of Essential Schools. Another school was run by the Edison Project, another was part of the Accelerated Schools Network; and another followed E. D. Hirsch's core classical education curriculum.

Other charter schools developed their instructional programs by putting together pieces from different sourcessome bought and some made. The Los Angeles schools tended to fall into this category. They assembled different pieces of their instructional programs from published curricula (for example, at one school Writing to Read [an early literacy program], a program for bilingual education, and several math packages [Math Land and Math Their Way]) and also designed their own unique approach to, for example, integrating technology across the curriculum.

In the many cases where at least some part of the instructional program f was bought, educators faced the challenge of how to integrate their unique educational missions and ideas about education with already-existing materials. For example, one middle school, whose mission emphasized an integrated, holistic curriculum and real world applicability, adopted University of Chicago Math and Montana Math early on when the school felt the pressure to have a program in place, in spite of the fact that the curricula collided with the school's philosophy not to teach math formally as a separate subject.

A third group of charter schools created their instructional programs from scratch, often doing it as we go, a process another participant likened to building a plane while we're flying it. This approach was most characteristic of the charter schools in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area, where the schools tended to be smaller and served student populations the public schools have traditionally not been successful in educatingat-risk students and students who have dropped out.

Similarities Across Instructional Programs

Although our sample included a diverse group of schools, we observed some commonalities in their approaches to instruction. Regardless of the educational level or the size of the charter school (our sample ranged from 80 students to 1,300 students), instruction generally was characterized by low student-faculty ratios, small class size, and personalized learning. For example, in the three largest charter schools that we studied, with student populations over 1,000, the student-staff ratios allowed for class sizes of between 10 and 20 students. Among the smaller charter schools with fewer than 100 students, class sizes were often held to 10 students or fewer.

There also was a major push in many of our sample charter schools to emphasize personalized learning. Several of the schools featured individualized learning plans for all students. As an administrator from a charter high school described: Each teacher is responsible for creating an individual learning environment. Teachers seek to bring out the best in each kid. ... Kids are measured against themselves and against their goal. Computer technology, both as an instructional tool and as an instructional goal, was also a common theme across the schools' instructional programs. In Los Angeles, this was at least partially due to the California charter school legislation, which requires that charter schools address preparing students for the 21st century.

Instructional programs within charter schools tended to be interdisciplinary and focused on integrating the school with the community, often through applied, real world projects. Curricular requirements in one K12 charter school included math and science action projects that involved students in developing and implementing projects that solved real world practical problems. At one charter middle school, the entire afternoon was devoted to research projects in all curricular areas. Other charter schools had students use their math skills to plan field trips, design family vacations, and manage household finances.

Across our sample of charter schools, there was a strong push to integrate teaching and learning with the school's surrounding community. Many charter high schools created partnerships with community businesses and educational institutions, and students participated in internships and training activities focused on preparing them for college or careers In addition, some of the charter high schools had community service requirements for graduation. Other links with the community brought community members into the instructional program at the school. An elementary school, for example, implemented a tutoring program for at-risk students that brought parents and other community members (mostly retirees) into the school to tutor students.

Decision-Making Structure Around Curriculum

There were different levels of involvement of stakeholders in curricular decisions reported among the charter schools in our focus groups. However, across most schools there was a push for broader involvement in the decision-making process, and there appeared to be tension between various factions of the school community when this did not occur. In one K-12 charter school that started about two years ago, curricular decisions were made by the six core staff who founded the school. Parents and other teachers often complained about curricular issues at various staff and board meetings, but there was no formal structure for their involvement in or feedback about the curricular decisions made by the core group.

Decision-making structures in many other charter schools tended to be more decentralized with committees, families, task forces, or teams usually organized by subject areas or grade levels taking on decision-making responsibility related to the curriculum. What was surprising was that several schools opened their doors with no formal decision-making structure in place, in spite of the research findings suggesting the importance of formal structure (Elmore, 1995; David, 1996; Wohlstetter, Mohrman, and Robertson, 1997). In our sample, smaller schools were particularly unlikely to have a well-developed structure. As an administrator at one new charter elementary school explained:

We limped through the first year in our approach to mathwe had no textbook, no formal curriculum, and no one in charge of making those decisions. In the second year, we set up a formal math task force that included teachers, parents, and board members to address the issue of a math curriculum for the school. This group looked around arid identified several different math approaches, and this year we're piloting several of them.

Within our sample of charter schools, the Los Angeles schools were far more likely at the outset to have formal structures in place for involving various groups in decisions related to teaching and learning. The schools5 experience with school-based management (SBM)all Los Angeles conversion schools converted from SBM to chartermay help explain why the Los Angeles schools in our study created formal decision-making structures, while many new start-up charter schools did not. As noted earlier, the literature, particularly research in site-based managed schools, has emphasized the importance of a network of decision-making structures organized around the business of schoolingcurriculum and assessment, in addition to budgeting and personnel (David, 1996; Newmann and Wehlage, 1995; Wohlstetter et al., 1997). Thus, the prevalence of formal decision-making structures among our Los Angeles charter schools may reflect their history as SBM schools. This is, however, confounded by the fact most of the Los Angeles schools were fairly large; and, as noted above, the larger schools in the sample tended to have more formal structures in place.

A noteworthy distinction between district-run SBM schools and charter schools was the involvement of parents in decisions about teaching and learning. Charter schools in our sample tended to formally include parents in such decisions; by contrast, district-run SBM schools typically leave such decisions to professional educators, involving parents in more oversight or advisory roles with respect to curriculum and instruction decisions (Newmann and Wehlage, 1995: Wohlstetter et al., 1997).

Teacher Professional Development

Professional developmentthe process by which teachers acquire new knowledge and skillswas not described as being present at levels typically observed in high performing schools (Louis, Marks, and Kruse, 1996; Newmann and Wehlage, 1995; Wohlstetter et al., 1997). Several focus group participants described how their schools seemed to assume that teachers had the expertise to implement the instructional program and made decisions on faith. This was often without the presence of on-going, integrated professional development to ensure effective implementation. At a charter middle school, during the initial start-up teachers picked out several math curricula packages. However, there was little training and on-going planning time for teachers to gain the knowledge and skills for using these approaches. Similarly, at another charter middle school, after math manipulatives and math games were chosen, it was assumed that teachers would know what was expected of them without organized, on-going training. A K-8 charter school adopted a multi-age group approach to reading. However, the change was not accompanied by organized professional development; instead the change evolved slowly without formal teacher preparation or follow-up. The charter elementary school that purchased Hirsch's core classical curriculum rejected the training that was recommended with it. Underlying these decisions is the assumption of expertise: teachers have the expertise; all they need is a good curriculum.

The counterpoint to these examples was reported for some of the charter schools that had converted from existing schools. The conversion schools, particularly the ones that had been SBM schools, were described by participants as mailing more attempts to consider or integrate the professional knowledge base into their curriculum decisions One charter elementary school created a specific curriculum committee that researches and investigates curricular changes. At another charter elementary school, a standards consultant was hired to keep teachers informed of national and district-level standards so that professional standards/expertise could be used to develop their own curriculum. Indeed, the only charter school among our sample described as having a formalized school-wide professional development program was a school that converted from an SBM school. This charter elementary school had a highly structured, focused professional development program. All staff members were required to attend professional development retreats each semester that were organized around specific curricular changes scheduled for implementation. The professional development program also featured follow-up evaluations with teachers to determine the extent to which changes were implemented in classrooms. The charter school's fiscal and decision-making autonomy, in concert with the educators' prior experience, seemed to facilitate the adoption of this programthere was control over how much money would be spent on professional development, and what professional development requirements would be implemented at the school, as well as an understanding of what was needed to effectively implement a professional development program.

At many other charter schools where collective time was set aside for professional development, focus group participants reported that the time was used more for planning and school culture-building than for helping teachers master new skills related to curriculum and instruction. Consequently, we heard about forums that facilitated on-going dialogue among teachers but surprisingly little formal, topic-focused professional development. Another characteristic common across several of the charter schools was a reported emphasis in professional development on personal mastery rather than whole-school learning. Such an approach tended to surface in schools that used an individualized/personalized approach to teaching and learning. As the administrator of a charter high school argued: Teachers in our school are responsible for creating an 'individual learning environment' for each student and so professional development is individualized/ personalized as well. In this charter school as well as in others with similar instructional approaches, there was no professional development curriculum or professional standards common across the whole school.


In policy talk about charter schools, an integral part of the conversation is about high-stakes accountability with significant consequences for charter schoolsrenewing charters or closing schools. But, as the reform was being implemented, we found that accountability requirements from authorizing agencies, including the state, district, university, or other groups, tended to be weak or unstable, and charter schools in all three cities generally were charged with creating their own accountability systems. We found, moreover, that for our sample of first generation charter schools, the myth of greater accountability for charter schools exceeded the reality. While some charter schools received intense scrutiny through authorizer-sponsored evaluations, accountability in terms of consequences for under-performance generally was not present.

Defining and Assessing Accountability

Consistent with the research on accountability (Abelmann et al., 1999; Kirst, 1990; Newmann, King, and Rigdon, 1997; Wohlstetter, Smyer, and Mohrman, 1994), we defined accountability as the process by which authorizers of charter schools and other stakeholders, such as parents and students, ensure that charter schools meet their goals. Accordingly, accountability systems for charter schools require:

1. Performance standards for judging whether or not charter schools are meeting their goals.

2. Assessment information for evaluating student performance at charter schools.

3. Rewards/sanctions for the success or failure of charter schools in meeting their goals.

In general, we found that authorizing agencies in our sample states required assessment information on performance from charter schools (sometimes via standardized tests and sometimes via internally generated assessments), but often failed to specify any clear performance standards or consequences. Typically, state charter school laws prescribe three general criteria:

1.Reasonable progress on meeting each school's own goals for its students.

2.Standards of fiscal management concerning the proper use of funds.

3.General probity and avoidance of scandal (Finn, Manno, and Bierlein, 1996, p. 64).

Judging from early implementation experience, the focus of authorizing agencies has been on the second criterion and, to a lesser extent, the third. At the time this research was conducted, there had been school closures mostly due to fiscal, administrative, or ethical violations, and a few charter schools had been sanctioned due to under-performance.

Given the unique missions of charter schools, it is not surprising that state legislatures vested the schools themselves with the authority to set their own performance goals. State charter school laws generally require that schools discuss goals, performance standards and assessment measures in their charter school applications but most offer little guidance to schools. Many focus group participants reported feeling that the external accountability system was weak in that the state did not provide solid performance standards or goals for the schools to work toward. It is important to note that among the three states in our sampleCalifornia, Massachusetts, and Minnesotanone had statewide assessments in place at the time the charter school law was enacted, although the three states' laws required charter school students to take the tests that other public school students take. What has emerged is a continuing dispute over standards for student performanceshould the performance of charter schools be judged by the relative improvement of their students based on the unique goals and mission of the charter school, or by state performance standards, like other public schools?

Current practice in charter schools tended to be a combination of both. If states had statewide assessments, then charter school students typically were expected to take those tests. This requirement sometimes led to outright hostility and derision, partly related to charter schools feeling that standardized tests were inappropriate for their special student populations and their unique missions: We buck the accountability plan. I simply say I don't know state regulations. It is worth noting that the charter schools in our sample, which were first generation, were in states (California, Massachusetts, and Minnesota) whose accountability systems were rated weak at the time of the study (Education Week, 1998).

Aside from standardized tests, charter schools also were encouraged by authorizers to develop their own evaluation measures to document progress in their own terms (for example, a charter high school preparing students who formerly had been drop-outs for college or a career adopted testing out of college entrance exams as one of their outcome measures). The make-versus-buy dilemma, discussed earlier with respect to instructional programs, also surfaced with assessment. Many charter schools in our study elected to buy standardized testing materials mainly because staff members did not have the experience, the expertise, or the time to develop their own performance-based assessment systems. At the same time, focus group participants expressed strong concern about the accuracy of the results, since the bought assessments were not tailored to the charter school's instructional programCan the tests adequately measure changes in student achievement stemming from our instructional focus on the real world?nor were the assessments integrated into the charter school's curriculum. But, for the reasons listed abovelack of experience, expertise, and timestandardized tests continued to be used in many of the charter schools.

Some state charter school laws allow schools to submit applications that leave open the specific standards and measures schools plan to use, deferring to some future time when the charter school would actually develop or decide on what it would use. The charter school application of one K-8 school promised that the school would implement a plan to evaluate students after the 8th grade to determine the effectiveness of [the] . . . School. However, at the time of the focus group (two years after the school had opened), the administrator reported a continued lack of clear, specific assessment methods and indicators, even though he felt this was a critical task for the school to accomplish. The administrator further posited that the absence of an accountability plan was largely due to weak organizational capacity, as Newmann et al. (1997) also argued: Everyone is a bit afraid of evaluation. No one is really sure how to go about it, and teachers just don't have time to commit to making decisions about which tests are suitable for our students and the performance levels they should achieve.

Although none of the charter schools participating in this study were described as having a strong formal internal accountability system in place, many of the schools appreciated the need for such a system and were working towards developing one. However, a major problem facing the schools was the scope of student outcomescontent-based, rather than strictly academic. Many of the charter schools in our sample emphasized in their applications a focus on outcomes related to students' social and emotional development: the ability to function as a citizen, to demonstrate the appropriate control and release of emotions, identify and implement ways to develop better self, and having an ethic of giving! Such learning processes, moreover, were often difficult to define and measure, even by those with specific expertise in the area. Beyond the application itself, many focus group participants personally defined success based on vague, social/emotional criteria, such as not letting kids fall through the cracks or making a place where kids feel they belong. In sum, with the charter schools in our sample, performance standardsboth in terms of academic achievement and emotional developmentwere unclear. There also was a general lack of understanding about how to assess resultswe know there is change, we just don't know how to show it.

Although formal accountability systems were often lacking, there was oftentimes an orientation toward continuous improvement and reflection on what they were doing with students in classrooms. Focus group participants, including both teachers and administrators, generally recognized the need for an assessment system to provide feedback on what was working and what was not. One of the elementary charter schools initially implemented a process oriented real-world approach to math, consistent with the school mission. When student math scores declined, the faculty experimented with more traditional approaches to math instruction, and now the charter school incorporates a blend of both traditional and non-traditional approaches. There also was evidence that problem solving was an open, ongoing, collective process. For example, in one charter school, problems were identified and posted on the wall in the main office to solicit suggestions and ideas from the whole school community; in another charter school, teachers had daily communication group meetings for sharing problems and ideas.

Among the higher capacity charter schools (where participants described stronger and more cohesive organizational and teaching/learning structures), teachers and administrators were focused on establishing comparison groups for their students; as one charter school administrator reported, It took us three years to get our act together, and we still don't have a system of how to compare our students to other students in the state. We're working on this now. Another charter school administrator agreed:

One of our goals is to develop an assessment tool for comparing students. We chose one [assessment instrument] the first year but that didn't work out. We eventually abandoned that and developed our own portfolio system. Now we're in the process of trying to develop a more comparison-based assessment instrument.

Although difficulties regarding outcome accountability were prominent in each of our three focus groups, we also heard about the importance of professional accountability at the charter schoolsthat is, feelings of collective responsibility among administrators and teachers for school performance. A complex of charter schools that form a feeder system set aside time every Friday for cross-campus dialogue and coordination.2 As one of the principals reported, There is a feeling of teacher-to-teacher accountability in all our schools and across the complex. We all know that the kids from one teacher at one school will eventually end up in another teachers class at one of the other schools in the complex, and that teacher will know who was responsible for the child's prior instruction.

Market/Client Accountability

Across all charter schools in our study, the strongest feelings of accountability were to the local school community, especially to parents and students. We know we are being watched and evaluated by the parents on an on-going basis, and there is the pressure to live up to the standards and goals of the parents. An elementary charter school created a three-page contract that parents were asked to sign, requiring them to volunteer thirty hours each year at the school. Called the Home-School Contract, one page of the document outlines the school's responsibilities to each child and another details what is expected of parents. The school will provide a safe environment, monthly reports to parents regarding their children's performance, and translators for parent-teacher conferences; and parents are bound to return all necessary forms and documents to the school on time, obtain a library card for their children, and ensure that homework is done daily and reviewed. On a more basic level, the clearest measure of accountability for some participants was student enrollment; if the charter school did not attract enough customers, it would close.

There also were strong feelings of accountability to students reported by teachers, administrators, and founders. One of the charter high schools in our study held daily discussion groups with students to get feedback about students' experiences and evaluations of the school. Another charter school that served grades K-8 summed it up this way, Our decisions are based on what kids need. A number of the schools we studied had both parents and upper grade students read and sign off on the school charter, and they also conducted annual satisfaction surveys of parents and students.

Across the charter schools in our sample, teachers were described by focus group participants as feeling a strong sense of collective responsibility for their schools. This was true regardless of the size of the school faculty. An administrator at an elementary charter school with 1,300 students remarked about the collective responsibility among all 60 faculty members: There is a sense of teamwork ... you are all on the line. A student can't come to your classroom and not make any progress. A founder at a smaller charter high school offered a similar comment:

Each person is totally responsible for making the school successful. When evaluators visited our school, they commented that all the students were inclusive with each otherfew cliques, and a feeling of collaboration and community. The teachers try hard to model for the students. The teachers also are inclusive and interdependent in their relationships with each other.

In sum, self-generated accountability systems in the charter schools we studied tended to emphasize internal accountability to the local school communityboth parents and students. The systems also tended to rely more on informal reports of progress, rather than formal documentation through standardized test scores.

Performance Rewards

Consistent with recent studies of restructuring schools (Newmann et al., 1997; Wohlstetter et al., 1997), we found that neither the charter schools nor their teachers received significant monetary rewards based on the performance of their students. Thus, although most charter schools, through their control over budgets, had the autonomy to create an incentive system, almost none of the schools did. The one exception was a charter elementary school that designed a performance-based reward system, based on best ideas from research in schools and private sector organizations (Kelley, 1997; Kelley and Odden, 1995). Pioneered by strong leadership from the principal (who learned about the ideas from one of her professional network connections), the charter school rewarded all teachers with bonuses if test scores across the school were raised to a pre-set level. Additional bonuses were given to individual teachers if they set and met performance standards for their own classrooms that used standardized test scores.

Some focus group participants also mentioned soft extrinsic rewards, including parent-sponsored faculty appreciation luncheons, recognition in school newsletters, thank-you assemblies, staff appreciation days, and showcase displays on campus. More often, however, administrators and teachers talked about the intrinsic rewards of working at the charter school collaboration among professionals, advanced technology resources, additional staff development, and control over what went on in the school, from hiring colleagues to shaping classroom practices. Thus, educators in charter schools viewed their working conditions as high quality and professional, and such conditions clearly offered powerful rewards to the people working in the schools (for similar findings, see Newmann et al., 1997; Wohlstetter et al., 1997).


Effective school leadership and management plays a critical role in fostering effective teaching and learning (Lindle, 1996; Murphy and Beck, 1995; Robertson et al., 1995). The charter schools in our study varied in their approaches to leadership and management. We also heard from many charter schools about their struggles to design an organizational structure that distributed leadership responsibilities in ways that worked best for the individual school community. The varying levels of experience of the staff in leadership positions further complicated this process.

Characteristics of School Leadership

Although the experience of the leaders in our sample of charter schools varied, several common traits emerged. Many charter school leaders exhibited an outlaw mentality. They usually came from outside of the public school system or had worked within that system but had a history of challenging the status quo. These outlaws saw themselves as fighting what they perceived as wrong with American public education by starting a charter school. One high school administrator at a charter school for student dropouts had worked in prison education. She commented that before charter schools, she had shunned the public school system because I could not do the things I wanted to do without getting into a lot of trouble. Another leader who founded a K-12 charter school described how the school was started by teachers with a common bonda dissatisfaction with public school education. The outlaw mentality appeared to play an important role in generating and maintaining commitment to the charter school, since through their involvement, leaders were able to address what they saw as serious flaws in the public education system.

A second common characteristic among charter school leaders reported in the focus groups was a sense of entrepreneurship. Such leaders worked to establish linkages with resources often outside of the district, including professional networks and service providers, to bring new ideas about teaching and learning into the schools. The fiscal autonomy granted to charter schools provided teachers the freedom to seek out and utilize alternative resources and various types of support.

Charter school leaders also worked with municipalities to secure school buildings, teacher training opportunities, support for curriculum development, and social and health services for students. One elementary conversion charter school offered its school site for various community meetings and continuing education courses. The principal, moreover, bargained with service providers, so that her faculty and staff could attend these activities at free or reduced rates. Another charter school rented space from the citya recreation centerat the low-cost, community nonprofit rate. The charter schools in our sample with a strong school-to-career focus worked to develop relationships with local businesses and colleges to provide hands-on training and internships for students. One charter school developed an on-going relationship with a business collaborative for this purpose. Several charter schools also served as teacher training sites for local colleges or universities. Participants in the focus group meetings pointed out that such partnerships contributed resources (for example, use of student teachers) and new ideas about teaching and learning as well.

Finally, members of the focus groups characterized school leadership in charter schools by a sense of collaboration between administrators and teachers. Sometimes collaboration occurred through formal structures (teacher committees or families working with the principal); often times collaboration was more informal (discussion groups, posting problems in the main office for teachers to write-in solutions). Regardless of the forum, charter school participants at the three focus groups talked frequently about teams of people working toward a common goal. An administrator from one of the elementary charter schools summed it up this way: We're all here for a purpose . . . we're all here together because we chose to be.

Tensions Between Centralized and Decentralized Management

An ongoing tension mentioned by many of the charter schools in our study was, on the one hand, a desire for total inclusiveness among staff in decision-making and, on the other, a concern for more efficiency, which often led to demands for a centralized organizational structure. In general, we found that individuals involved in the initial design and development of charter schools tended to reject hierarchical structures typical of the public school system and to value a more even distribution of power within the school community. Such an approach sought equal contributions from all participants in school decision-making, with the goal of building consensus. However, once charter schools opened and continued to add faculty and staff, participants began to feel the press for a more centralized system of decision-making that could help lessen the time teachers spent on issues not related to teaching and learning. In addition, focus group participants reported that radically decentralized decision-making made it difficult for decisions and follow-up actions to be made in a timely manner. As one participant noted, When push comes to shove, someone has to make a decision. Thus, at many charter schools, designing an organizational structure was an evolving, dynamic process that focused on balancing a desire for inclusive-ness with the more practical needs for some centralized structures. However, the ability of charter school leaders to create an effective balance oftentimes appeared to be hampered by their lack of professional knowledge and experience in the management area. Few charter school leaders had a strong professional understanding of participative management or high-involvement organizations, further complicating attempts to establish a decentralized system that also was efficient.

The experience described at one elementary charter school illustrates the changing nature of school organization. When the school first converted to charter status, the schools leadership attempted to involve all teachers and staff, and to some extent parents, in every important decision. After three years of total inclusiveness, the charter school participants wanted to rethink this process. They felt that the process was slowing down decision-making and implementation. They argued, furthermore, that some top-down structures were needed for the school to function more effectivelyeveryone cannot manage every aspect of the school. A new start-up charter high school, likewise, experienced dramatic changes in its organizational structure during its initial years of operation. When the charter school first opened, the staff attempted to make all decisions by full consensus, but in effect, we made no decisions. In the charter school's second year, the faculty made a shift towards wanting a school leader and more centralized decision-making structures. The process of balancing pulls for centralized and decentralized management appeared to be an endemic issue for nearly all charter schools. The evidence that we heard also suggested that a balance was more easily reached earlier in the life of a charter school, before structures became routinized or unwieldy. Furthermore, the autonomy over school governance, granted by the three state charter school laws, both created the need to address the issue of how to self-govern and helped the schools address and successfully work through the process.

Types of Leadership: Managerial and Instructional

Regardless of how charter schools were organized, two distinct areas of leadership were evidentmanagerial leadership and instructional leadership. Further, we found that charter schools that had greater autonomy from their districts were also more consumed by managerial decisions. These day-to-day issues of running charter schools included the budget, relevant district, state, and federal policies, insurance, meals, security, custodians, substitutes, psychological services, and bus companies. As one charter school administrator commented: The logistics can kill you. The smallest part of my time goes to teaching and learning issues. This is consistent with other research on self-managed schools (for example, Caldwell, 1996; Levacic, 1995; Odden and Odden, 1994).

The demands on school managers were often compounded by weak management experience: Although a few charter school administrators had experience in running schools as principals in private, public, or alternative schools, many charter school leaders had teaching experience only. Across the three focus groups, a number of charter school teacher specifically noted that expertise in managerial and fiscal issues was a major deficit at their schools. However, even for administrators with prior management experience, charter schools presented difficult, new demands. As one charter school administrator who had previously run an alternative school commented, We are building a ship that is heading out to sea and winter is approaching and we're in the North Atlantic.

The division of responsibility across the two types of leadership varied among charter schools in our study. In some schools, managerial and instructional leadership were integrated in that the same individual or groups of individuals held responsibilities in both leadership areas. However, when this occurred, charter school leaders were often overwhelmed with demands. As an administrator from a K-12 charter school described the situation: The old principal left because of the overwhelming responsibilities of running the school. It was a crushing weight for the guy to carry.

In other charter schools, managerial and instructional leadership responsibilities were divided so that there was a clear distinction between those involved in each type of activity. I do out-house, remarked one charter elementary school principal, and my staff does in-house. I'm responsible for management and money issues and my staff is responsible for day-today instructional issues. In several other charter schools, management responsibilities were contracted out to experts, so that staff were not distracted from instructional concerns. Finance consultants were often used to handle fiscal matters.

In our focus groups we did not probe whether dividing leadership responsibilities produced communication difficulties. However, in studies of leadership in SBM schools (see, for example, Louis and Kruse, 1995; Murphy and Louis, 1994; Wohlstetter and Briggs, 1994) some principals have been accused of being too preoccupied with out-house responsibilities. It is thus possible that, consistent with the research on SBM schools, even charter school leaders with an out-house focus need to have in place mechanisms for staying in touch with the in-house needs of the school.


In the charter schools we studied, we identified several key issues that all of the schools addressed in the start-up years of the chartering process. We found both problems encountered in these areas and ways that the charter schools addressed these problems to support success.

Few of the charter schools described a well-articulated and integrated instructional program, and even fewer reported any sort of consistent, content-based professional development system. Although many of the charter schools were struggling with the decision to make-versus-buy their instructional programs, simply buying or adopting an instructional system alone sometimes neglected professional development. There was commitment expressed to professional development for teachers, but time conflicts sometimes interfered with this process.

In terms of accountability systems, although there were strong feelings of informal accountability to parents, to students, and among teachers, formal accountability systems and standards were reported lacking at the charter schools we studied. In the absence of clear direction from the state, charter schools typically were left to draw on their own organizational capacities to generate accountability plans and few schools had a strong enough capacity to do so (see Newmann et al., 1997). Charter schools in this situation frequently went out and bought assessment materials, even though charter school educators often had doubts about whether the tests accurately measured what they were trying to teach.

The charter schools in our study clearly benefited from the passionate, committed attitudes of their leaders. However, the leaders were faced with negotiating some difficult tensions between centralized and decentralized decision-making and between management and instructional responsibilities. Charter school leaders with more experience in site-based managed schools were described as being better able to negotiate these tensions. Furthermore, we heard that while the autonomy given to charter schools helped facilitate the schools' abilities to address these issues; the autonomy, at the same time, created new, more complex governance concerns for school leaders.

Since this study was completed, both state* departments of education and independent technical assistance centers have taken steps to further support charter schools in the start-up process of developing instructional programs and organizational practices. This is similar to the support that was undertaken earlier with grant-maintained schools in England (Wohlstetter and Anderson, 1994). This support may assist subsequent generations of charter schools in addressing some of the problems that emerged in our sample. Some of the steps to support charter schools have included

" increased financial support for charter school start-ups at both the federal and state levels;

" the development of strong state accountability systems including clearer standards and assessment strategies (Education Week, 1999); and

" charter school authorizers demanding increased specificity from schools in their charter applications.

The focus group methodology used in this study limits the generalization of the findings. As noted earlier, the charter schools we studied are not representative of the charter school population generally. The focus groups also included only one or two participants from each charter school we studied. Finally, our study design did not include a comparison group of non-charter public schools, so we relied on previous research with site-based managed public schools.

Given the exploratory nature of this study and the limited number of schools involved, we offer these findings mainly to guide further in-depth research with charter schools throughout the United States. Previous research has not directly dealt with the instructional and governance issues that can be key to a charter school's success or failure. Although this article is a first step towards identifying some of these issues, clearly research with a broader sample is needed to draw implications for practitioners involved in the development of charter schools. Furthermore, as noted previously, the experiences of second generation charter schools may differ from charter schools at the outset of the charter school revolution.

In theory, charter schools accept increased accountability in exchange for decreased regulation and independence. Findings from this exploratory study suggest that individual charter schools are operating in environments that afford various mixes of autonomy, assistance, and accountability, and that the mix likely is a strong influence on charter schools' abilities to create and sustain themselves. The challenge for future research is to enhance our understanding about connections between charter school policies in states and school districts and existing practices in charter schools.



Translating the Charter From Mission to Classroom Instruction

1. Connection between mission and teaching/classroom practices.

a. To begin with, just in general how has the mission statement guided what you do in the classroom? What else guides what goes on in the classroom?

b. Now, lets talk specifically about two areas of instructionmath and reading skills. What has your school done to take the guidelines in the mission statement and use those guidelines to develop an educational approach for these two subjects?


" Who was involved initially in developing the teaching approaches? Were you personally involved? Who else?

" What processes were used within the school to make these decisions? Were there teams? Who were the leaders in the process? How was the final decision made about how these subjects would be taught? Were any external sources contacted or used for assistance?

" Did you encounter any problems? What were they? How were they resolved?

" Was there any type of assessment or accountability component built into the process? Is there a way you are measuring success/ failure of these educational approaches or classroom practices? How much, if at all, has your school's approach to teaching math or reading changed since the school opened? Why has it changed? How did you know teaching and instruction changed? Was it measured in any way? (ask for any anecdotes about how noticed change).


Now, I'd like to talk to you about the educational approaches in your schools that you think stand out as having worked particularly well in the classroom. That is, approaches or classroom practices where both the teachers and the students really feel that high performance learning is taking place. As you describe these educational approaches or strategies, please explain:

1. Why you think they are working so well?

2. How they were developed and if the way they were developed had any impact on why they are good classroom practices?

3. How these educational approaches are maintained?

4. Who took leadership in developing these practices?

5. What was the decision-making structure: Did groups/teams work on the problem?

6. How information about the educational approaches was communicated within the school?

7. Were best practices used in the planning and how did the best practices ideas flow into the school?

8. Any other factors you feel stand out as reasons why these are outstanding educational approaches?


1. Let's talk about educational approaches in your school that you feel have not been as successful or effective as you expected. That is, approaches or classroom practices where both the teachers and the students really feel that learning is not as effective as was expected. As you describe these educational approaches or strategies, please explain:

a. Why you think they aren't working well?

b. How they were developed and if that had any impact on why they are not good instructional practices?

c. How these educational approaches were identified as having problemsby individual teachers and students, as the result of standards or other types of testing, any other ways?

d. Once these educational approaches were identified as a problem, what if anything was done to improve them?

e. Who took leadership in identifying or suggesting changes in these approaches? Who do you go to when you see a problem?

f. What was the decision-making structure for diagnosing the problem and correcting it? Did groups/teams work on the problem?

g. How was the information about the problems with these educational approaches communicated within the school?

h. Were best practices used to diagnose and to change these educational approaches?

i. Any other factors you feel stand out as reasons why these classroom practices were not working?

2. We've talked about some specific challenges you've had at your schools. Is this generally the way most educational and learning problems are resolved or not?


" Identify if there is a standard process for problem solving.

" See if educational approaches targeted as problems get any special attention in the budget, in personnel time, or other resources assigned to the problem such as outside assistance, additional trainings, additional meetings, etc.


1. Overall, how much access do you feel you have to professional and skills development to support classroom teaching at your school?


" Is this because of the mission or some other reason?

" How much of this is a part of the culture of your school?

2. How do you know when professional and skills development is needed and what is needed? Are there any mechanisms or processes in place to assist you in identifying what is needed?

3. Is there someone or some group that takes responsibility for continuous learning at the school? Who is that/are they?

4. How does your school go about getting the professional and skills development that's needed? Where does this take place? Who provides the professional and skills development (teachers, administrators, outside professionals, others)?

5. Describe the typical professional and skills development process: Is it one day sessions? Multiple days? Summer institutes?

a. Is there coherence in the training?

b. Does it include coaching each individual in the classroom? How is classroom coaching done?

6. How much do you feel professional and skills development contributes to the overall learning that takes place in your school?


1. Do you have a formal process to assess if teaching and learning strategies are not working? If yes, briefly describe what that is. Is there a student testing program? If yes, what testing program is used? Does this measure the ultimate final impact?

2. As part of that assessment, are individuals who are contributing more or less identified in any way? Are there any performance rewards? If yes, what are they? Are there any sanctions or penalties? If yes, what are they?


If you had the opportunity to give advice to a group that was starting a charter school and was beginning to put instruction in place, what are the three recommendations that you would give them?

The research reported in this article received generous support from the Danforth Foundation. We have also received support from the Consortium for Policy Research in Education (CPRE), Grant No. OERI-R308A60003 from the National Institute on Educational Governance, Finance, Policy-Making and Management, Office of Educational Research and Improvement, U.S. Department of Education. We would like to thank the following individuals for their assistance with data collection and their useful comments on earlier drafts of this manuscript: Charles Abelmann and Richard Elmore of Harvard University; Janice Ballou of the Eagleton Institute of Politics, Rutgers University; and Allan Odden of the University of Wisconsin-Madison- We would also like to thank anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments. Opinions expressed in the article, however, are exclusively the authors.


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NOELLE C. GRIFFIN is associate director of the Center on Educational Governance at the University of Southern California, which conducts research on alternative ways of managing schools to improve school performance. She co-authored, with Priscilla Wohlstetter, Creating and Sustaining Learning Communities: Lessons from Charter Schools (1998).

PRISCILLA WOHLSTETTER is Professor of Education and Public Policy and director of the Center on Educational Governance in the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California. She is co-author, with Noelle Griffin and Derrick Chau, of Charter Schools in California: A Bruising Campaign for Public School Choice, in The Charter School Landscape: Politics, Policies, and Prospects (S. Vergari, ed.) (University of Pittsburgh Press, in press).

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 103 Number 2, 2001, p. 336-365
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 10722, Date Accessed: 10/24/2021 12:22:38 PM

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About the Author
  • Noelle Griffin
    University of Southern California
    E-mail Author
    Noelle C. Griffin is associate director of the Center on Educational Governance at the University of Southern California, which conducts research on alternative ways of managing schools to improve school performance. She co-authored, with Priscilla Wohlstetter, Creating and Sustaining Learning Communities: Lessons from Charter Schools (1998).
  • Priscilla Wohlstetter
    University of Southern California
    Priscilla Wohlstetter is Professor of Education and Public Policy and director of the Center on Educational Governance in the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California. She is co-author, with Kerri L. Briggs, of “Key Elements of Successful School-Based Management Strategies” (Journal of Education Finance, forthcoming).
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