Hopes, Fears, & Reality: A Balanced Look at American Charter Schools in 2008

Charlotte Underwood

Robin J. Lake, Ed.,
National Charter School Research Project
Center on Reinventing Public Education, University of Washington at Bothell
December 2008

Now in its fourth year, this edition of Hopes, Fears, & Reality, a product of the National Charter School Research Project, addresses one fundamental question: "Should charter schools be more different than alike?" Recent debate has focused on the idea that "charter" as a category does not adequately describe the variegated models included within it. To illumine these different charter versions, the report examines how charters address five areas: academic performance, teaching and learning, college preparation, special education, and self-evaluation and implementation of reforms. Five findings follow: most of the charter achievement research to date has been sub-par, although some studies show gains versus traditional schools; charters are more likely than traditional schools to customize support for struggling students; more college-prep charters are emerging to prep students for the campus culture (much as David Whitman found in Sweating the Small Stuff); charters are a good fit for many special-needs students; and charters need to "unbundle" K-12 services--i.e. move away from "whole school" solutions to a "demand" based approach, which would better match services to needs of specific students. All of which is to say that yes, charter schools should be more different than alike. And in so doing, the charter movement can find stronger models while scrapping those that prove ineffective. You can find this report here.