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Comparing Teaching Conditions in Charter vs. Regular Schools

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This post, by Stephen Sawchuk, originally appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.

Teachers working in charters in an unnamed poor, rural Texas charter school district reported holding higher expectations of students and enjoying a more supportive teaching environment than colleagues who were working in traditional schools in the neighboring district.

But the charter teachers had fewer opportunities for professional development and generally felt that the evaluation process was less fair, according to a new study that attempts to correct some of the problems with the existing research on differences between teachers in charters and traditional schools. 

The study was published Jan. 20 in Education Policy Analysis Archives, an online, peer-reviewed research journal. It draws on a sample of nearly 2,300 teachers.

While working conditions in charter schools have long been a matter of debate, much of the research has been anecdotal or based on case studies, according to authors Xin Wei, Deepa Patel, and Viki M. Young, all of SRI International, a nonprofit research and evaluation firm. 

In addition, many comparisons don't control for differences in teachers' background characteristics, which might influence the results: Prior studies have found that teachers in charters differ significantly in key ways from their colleagues in traditional schools. For instance, they are younger, less experienced, less often certified, and have higher turnover rates.

So the authors employed a method known as propensity-score matching to control for selection bias, alleviating some of the problems with the current literature on teachers in charters. This approach uses a statistical method to match each charter school teacher  to a teacher with similar characteristics in a traditional public school. Then researchers compared teachers' survey results and looked for differences that stood out.

Here are the findings, in a nutshell: 

  • Charter teachers reported a more supportive teaching environment, higher expectations for student learning, and higher levels of student engagement than their traditional school colleagues.
  • But charter school teachers reported less frequent collaboration with their colleagues, fewer chances to participate in instructionally focused professional development, lower levels of instructional support, and they reported less fairness in how they were evaluated.
  • There were no differences in the teachers' perceptions of school leadership, access to professional development, use of data, or feelings of self-efficacy.

The authors caution that the results represent just one Texas district, so it's not clear whether these results would apply to other districts or charter arrangements. Texas is one of five states that prohibits teachers from collective bargaining, for instance, and only recently took steps to update teacher evaluation. Those factors could change the picture somewhat.

Still, it's a start in getting a handle on what the authors call the "black box" of organizational differences between charters and traditional public schools. 

Follow along on Twitter at @Stephen_Sawchuk and @TeacherBeat.

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