An Inside Look at the Challenges Facing Charter Schools

The Strategic Management of Charter Schools: Frameworks and Tools for Educational Entrepreneurs
by Peter Frumkin, Bruno Manno, and Nell Edgington
(Harvard Education Press, 304 pp. $29.95)

I have always considered it a privilege to have known Albert Shanker, formerly head of the American Federation of Teachers.  Mirabile dictu, he was a strenuous advocate of charter schools.  He envisaged schools distinguished by their innovative practice, their structural differences, and by their academic excellence.  Far from being carbon copies of existing institutions, he hoped they would be truly revolutionary.  Had he lived long enough, he would have seen a rather different picture emerge, as the charter school movement evolved.  By contrast, for the most part charter schools are remarkably like their regular school counterparts.  Some of the better-known and more successful, like KIPP, are vastly more efficient and singularly focused on raising academic achievement even in the most unpropitious socio-economic environment.

I mention all of this to validate the importance of the book, The Strategic Management of Charter Schools.  As Rick Hess points out in the foreword, the last thing we need is another primer of best practices.  What we have here is an insightful analysis of what is really involved in developing and sustaining charter schools.  In the first place, the co-authors are uniquely qualified to write this book in terms of their professional backgrounds.  Second, for those readers who are inexperienced in what it takes to found a successful charter school, this book will be invaluable because it takes the reader through every phase, from the arduous process of obtaining the charter to the more subtle and infinitely more important business of assessing consistency in the quality of instruction and in the assessment of academic results.

Ultimately, of course, no matter how resourceful the tool-box of ideas and practices at the school’s disposal is, it is personnel who make or break the system. How committed are the teachers and administrators to the mission of the school?  How single-minded are the lay boards who, in the absence of the local educational authority, play such an important role in governance?  How genuinely entrepreneurial are charter schools (of particular relevance in this era of scarce resources)?  How creative is the school’s leadership in forging relationships with the private sector?  How willing are the various stakeholders in a particular school really to use the relative freedom of the charter school to liberate themselves from traditional classroom instruction and the traditional academic year?

Lest the reader of this review underestimate the importance of the charter school movement, since its inception in 1991, approximately 38% of students enrolled in the District of Columbia and Denver school are enrolled in charter schools.  In New Orleans, the figure is even higher (60%).  While the results of some of the charter schools have disappointed their advocates, many urban charter schools have significantly outperformed their traditional counterparts.  All of which makes it all the more important to read The Strategic Management of Charter Schools if one is genuinely committed to educational improvement.

-A. Graham Down

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