As Charter Schools Expand, Research and Evidence-Based Practices Are Critical

What Is a Charter School?

A charter school is “a publicly funded school that is typically governed by a group or organization under a legislative contract—a charter—with the state, district, or other entity. The charter exempts the school from certain state or local rules and regulations. In return for flexibility and autonomy, the charter school must meet the accountability standards outlined in its charter.” — U.S. Department of Education

The charter school movement has grown exponentially since the early 1990s, when Minnesota passed the first state law allowing the establishment of public charter schools. Across 43 states and the District of Columbia, 7,000 charter schools now enroll more than 3 million students, according to a National Center for Education Statistics report co-authored by AIR.

Megan Austin leads AIR’s research and evaluation on school choice. In this Q&A, she highlights how research and evidence-based practices can help charter management organizations and charter school leaders build capacity, develop effective teachers and leaders, and meet the needs of their students.

Q. What are some of the major challenges and opportunities that charter schools face?

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AppleTree received a federal Charter School Program grant and will add nine new preschools in the next five years. The nonprofit’s mission is to close the achievement gap before students get to kindergarten by providing preschoolers with the social, emotional, and cognitive founds that enable them to thrive in school.

IDEA Public Schools received a federal Education Innovation Research grant to implement three programs designed to expand students’ access to and participation in advanced science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) opportunities and prepare students for success in college and beyond. These include a whole curriculum redesign to incorporate computer science topics, implementation of the AP Computer Science Principles course, and a work-study high school model that places students in paid STEM and computer science internships in the community.

Austin: The U.S. Department of Education’s Charter Schools Program has provided considerable financial resources to states and charter management organizations to help open charter schools and expand charter networks. In this climate, charter schools, networks, and authorizers are continuing to serve the schools they already have and working to provide high-quality education in those schools. But they’re also opening new schools, getting to know the student population in those schools, hiring new teachers and leaders, training them in the charter management organization’s expectations and norms, expanding their central office resources to serve a larger set of schools, and pursuing federal and foundation funding to support their efforts.

AIR is the federally funded evaluator of two different charter management organization efforts: the expansion of AppleTree in Washington, D.C., and the implementation of new computer science initiatives in IDEA Public Schools, a Texas-based charter management organization that’s expanding to Louisiana and Florida. Both organizations are perfect examples of the rapid expansion happening now.

As charter management organizations embrace these new challenges and opportunities, we’re hearing about needs for professional development for teachers and leaders, assistance for central offices scaling up, and strategies to address the needs of new populations of students, especially English learners and other special populations.

One point I want to emphasize: While there are important differences between charter schools and traditional public schools in terms of governance and operations, there are also many similarities. They’re all trying to cultivate effective teachers, support good leaders, and serve students to a high level of excellence.

Q: Are there any emerging trends in charter school research?

Austin: The conversation is changing, from comparing achievement in charter and traditional public schools to closing achievement and opportunity gaps for students in both types of schools. For a long time, especially with research but more broadly with policy as well, the thinking was, “Let’s look at test scores and see who has the higher achievement, students in charter schools or students in traditional public schools?” It’s important to know how both types of schools are performing, but it’s also important to understand why they’re performing the way they are.

Often, charter schools have more flexibility than traditional public schools to implement new, innovative practices, and there’s been a shift toward studying what policies and practices may be producing results. Charter schools can inform traditional public schools, and vice versa. Identifying and adapting best practices doesn’t have to be siloed.

Infographic: Charter school enrollment has increased 571% since 2000

Q: Which research-based approaches does AIR offer that could address charter schools' needs?

Learn more about AIR’s latest work on charter schools and school choice.

Austin: There are many evidence-based approaches, resources, and services in education that AIR provides to schools and districts, including charter schools and charter management organizations.

AIR has considerable expertise and experience helping educators connect research to practice to effect real excellence. Here are five examples:

  • Our District and School Improvement Framework is a continuous improvement process that builds systemic effectiveness around equity and improvement for all students. The framework is customizable, so it’s readily adaptable for charter schools and networks.
  • Our teacher professional development, growth, and learning, teacher leadership and career pathways, and principal preparation and performance services are all built on research and evidence-based practices.
  • Our Attaining Core Content for English Language Learners (ACCELL) approach offers evidence-based resources, tools, and job-embedded professional development to teachers.
  • Our Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) Solutions at AIR team works closely with district and school staff to create the conditions—vision, leadership, engagement, skills, measurement, and coaching and support—that promote the skills students need to master academic content and enhance their well-being.
  • Our school finance experts evaluate the cost of educational programs, services, and interventions. They also conduct evaluations of school spending to understand how resource levels vary according to student needs and school type, in order to help improve the equity of resource distribution and ensure schools have sufficient resources to meet students’ needs.

AIR also has experience around STEM education and, increasingly, computer science programs—which are big areas of focus for many charter organizations.