WMU News

Research team charged with charter school evaluations

Dec. 23, 1997

KALAMAZOO -- The performance, operation and impact of charter schools in both Michigan and Connecticut will be the focus of two new statewide studies conducted by Western Michigan University researchers.

With $149,493 in funding from the Michigan Department of Education, the team from WMU's Evaluation Center will evaluate approximately half of Michigan's 105 public school academies, which are popularly known as charter schools. A private firm, Public Sector Consultants Inc. of Lansing, will evaluate the other half of Michigan charter schools, focusing its efforts in the southeastern corner of the state.

In a separate grant project, the WMU researchers also have received $250,000 to study 12 charter schools that opened this year in Connecticut. In that project, the team will spend the next five years helping the schools and state officials build evaluation practices into the Connecticut charter initiative.

Both studies are designed to determine if charter school initiatives are meeting the needs of the families and communities they serve. They also will address specific issues of concern in each state.

"In Michigan, we will be evaluating schools, the authorizing agencies' roles in the schools, the role of private service providers in the schools, the role of the Department of Education and the schools' impact on their communities," says Dr. Jerry G. Horn, principal research associate at the Evaluation Center and director of the WMU efforts in both Michigan and Connecticut. He will be assisted by Evaluation Center staffers Dr. Gary Miron on the Michigan project and Marina Gorton in Connecticut.

"Our work with the two projects provides an opportunity to evaluate a popular educational reform movement and to build capacity for conducting and using evaluation in local schools," Horn says.

Evaluating the two states' charter school programs should provide information of great interest to state and education leaders across the country, Horn notes. About 28 states are involved in charter school development and several of those states have only a handful of charter schools in operation. With more than 100 schools, Michigan's public school academy program boasts an estimated 12 to 14 percent of the nation's charter schools.

Horn directed a preliminary study of Michigan's charter schools earlier this year and developed a long-term plan for the state to use in evaluating such schools. The earlier project, which also was funded by the Department of Education, produced a self-study kit for schools to develop data for their own use as well as for the comprehensive state study.

Horn's team will use that self-study kit to begin the evaluation process of the schools in the new effort. They will be asking each school to develop a portfolio that will include files on such areas as curriculum, innovative teaching methods, technology use and physical plant records. They also will ask the schools to complete a number of surveys covering school climate and the perceptions and attitudes of teachers, students and parents. Site visits, interviews and focus groups also will be utilized.

Student performance will be measured by analyzing every type of data available to the researchers. That will include student performance on the Michigan Educational Assessment Program or MEAP tests, which charter school students must take, as well as any standardized assessment tests the schools voluntarily administer.

The WMU and Public Sector Consultants efforts are the first attempt at a statewide assessment of the schools, which first began accepting students in 1995. The evaluation is mandated by the Michigan Legislature as part of the legislation that allowed the development of charter schools.

"We are the only study in which the schools must legally participate," notes Horn, who also says the performance of charter schools may be a difficult area to measure since traditional achievement tests focus on skills that may not be part of the mission of a particular school. Other school performance areas to be examined will include the use and success of innovative teaching techniques.

The Michigan study also will feature an evaluation of such broad questions as whether the charter school legislation has worked as legislators intended, whether the Michigan Department of Education staff has provided appropriate support for charter schools, why more eligible authorizing agencies have not taken advantage of the charter school opportunities and how charter schools address the special education needs of students.

Public school academies in Michigan may be chartered by such authorizing agencies as public state universities, community colleges, intermediate school districts and local public K-12 school districts. The schools are operated with the same per pupil funding as traditional public schools, and services may be provided by for-profit organizations.

Nearly half of the state's public school academies are chartered by Central Michigan University and several schools are run by such private organizations as the Edison Project and the Educational Development Corp. Michigan charter schools range in size from about 30 students to nearly 700 students.

In Connecticut, 12 charter schools opened for the first time this fall and the state expects to add three or four more schools soon. The mission of Horn and his team in that state is to build evaluation practices into the schools and to address many of the same questions being addressed in Michigan.

"We have a mandate in Connecticut to help build evaluation into the charter school initiative and to help schools develop their required annual report materials," Horn says. "Our initial meeting with charter school administrators there was a great success. All of them said the evaluation information would be very helpful to them."

WMU's Evaluation Center has an international reputation in the fields of school, program and personnel evaluation. The center has attracted a $5.2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education to improve the performance and evaluation of teachers and administrators in America's schools. Center researchers also have been involved in personnel evaluation for the U.S. Marine Corps, the examination of a low-income housing project in the Philippines, a study of the entry year teaching program in Ohio, an evaluation of a nationwide environmental education project sponsored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and work for the World Bank.

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