Hill, Paul T.; Lake, Robin J. with Celio, Mary Beth. (2002).
Charter schools and accountability in public education.
Washington, DC: Brookings Institution.
Pp. xi + 125 $17 ISBN 0815702671
Reviewed by Dick M. Carpenter II
University of Colorado, Colorado Springs
January 12, 2008
In the present era of accountability in education, one more
work on the subject seems, at first consideration, redundant. A
search on accountability and education in a typical journal
article database produces thousands of sources, and the same
search in the Books in Print database yields approximately
a thousand titles. But narrowing the search to accountability and
charter schools generates surprisingly few—surprising
because, as Hill, Lake, and Celio describe in this book, the
definition of accountability for charter schools is arguably one
of the most important characteristics of the very idea of charter
schools. For this reason, the book represents, primarily for the
uninitiated, a useful introduction to the issue of accountability
and charter schools, particularly since the latter are, as the
authors note, one of the “least understood phenomena in
American education” (p. 1). This is not to say that
accountability enjoys widespread understanding and consensus. In
fact, defining accountability and applying such definitions to
charter schools remain among the most debated issues in charter
Accountability and Charter School
In the broadest sense, accountability involves holding
individuals and organizations responsible for agreed-upon
promises to perform. Typically, the accountability relationship
between two or more parties includes structures that track
results to determine if the parties involved live up to their
agreement (Manno, 2004). In education, accountability has
traditionally followed a compliance approach where bureaucrats
and/or elected officials create rules and regulations according
to which schools are micromanaged by various levels of
administrators (Manno, Finn, & Vanourek, 2000), such as
deputy superintendents, assistant superintendents, curriculum
directors, assessment directors, executive directors, principals,
assistant principals, and the like. This model has been referred
to as bureaucratic accountability (Darling-Hammond, 1988).
With the first charter law in the early 1990s, charter school
accountability took a different approach. Manno, Finn, and
Vanourek (2000) refer to it as a horse trade: Public charter
schools were given operational, financial, and program autonomy
in exchange for being held accountable for specified results, a
model similar to what Levin (1974) called performance
accountability. This approach is primarily results-driven, not
resource, input, or rule driven. An additional initial idea of
charter accountability focused on marketplaces (Kirst, 1990): A
school’s clients and stakeholders reward its successes,
punish its failures, and send signals about what needs to change.
A vernacular description of such accountability is “voting
with their feet” (Stillings, 2005).
By the late 1990s and early 2000s, the performance and market
accountability models began to receive increasing criticism due
to a lack of clear standards or dependable performance data (May,
2006). First, charter schools often designed their own assessment
systems customized to their specific contours (Petrilli, 2005)or
lacked the capacity to create such systems (Crawford, 2001),
which led some to complain of standards that were
“vague” or “ill defined” (Olson, 2000).
Second, the performance accountability model appeared to fail in
its ability to weed out unsuccessful charter schools. By 2000,
less than five percent of charter schools had closed and only a
few of those due to poor student achievement (Manno et al.,
Paul T. Hill
Third, the market model appeared ineffective. While charter
parents overwhelmingly felt charter schools provided a more
positive experience than the public schools from which they
withdrew, May (2006) noted a “perception gap” between
the poor or moderate student academic achievement in charter
schools and positive reports by parents. Fourth, the rapid
expansion of nonclassroom-based charters (see Carpenter, 2005 and
Carpenter, 2006 for a description of such schools) raised concern
about the ability of any accountability models to provide
necessary oversight (Huerta, González, &
d’Entremont, 2006). Finally, Rhim (2001) and McLaughlin
(2007) highlighted the fundamental philosophical gap between the
performance and market accountability models of charter schools
and the highly regulated bureaucratic models inherent in
educating children with special needs (i.e., those with an
Also during the 1990s and early 2000s, the state standards
movement gained strength, and elected representatives decided it
was appropriate to expect all public school students, including
those in charters, to be held to standards via statewide
assessments. Then came No Child Left Behind (NCLB), which
further defined charter accountability consistent with mainstream
public schools (May, 2006; Petrilli, 2005). Taken together,
accountability for charter schools appeared to shift away from
the more flexible performance and accountability models of the
early 1990s and align more with bureaucratic and stricter
performance accountability models.
Yet, some have expressed concern that this shift undermines
one of the central ideas of charter schools (Stillings, 2005)and
may produce a dynamic where standards and choice work at
cross-purposes (Shober, Manna, & Witte, 2006). The original
philosophy of charter school accountability sought to take
bureaucracy out of education via more flexible performance and
market models, thereby spurring innovation. Indeed, in the first
11 states to pass charter school legislation, the most common
motivation or purpose was to facilitate innovation (Crawford,
2001). But Opfer (2001) and others (Finnigan, 2007; Lipman &
Haines, 2007; Stillings, 2005)opine that bureaucratic
accountability models only make charter schools more like
conventional public schools, crippling their potential for
innovation and effectiveness.
Charter Schools and Accountability in Public
It is dynamics like these that Hill, Lake and Celio seek to
describe in Charter Schools and Accountability in Public
Education, and few are better equipped to write about this
topic. Paul Hill is the John and Marie Corbally Professor at the
University of Washington’s Daniel J. Evans School of Public
Affairs, directs the Center on Reinventing Public Education, and
boasts a long list of publications germane to this topic. Robin
Lake serves as associate director of the Center on Reinventing
Public Education and has been involved in national charter school
research and policy development since 1994, also producing
numerous works on charter schools. And Mary Celio is a
statistical consultant to the Center on Re-Inventing Public
In this particular project, they used funds from the U.S.
Department of Education and several foundations to “explain
how charter school accountability works in practice” (p.
11). They did so by focusing on six states—Arizona,
California, Colorado, Georgia, Massachusetts, and Michigan.
According to the authors, these states contained the most active
charters at the time, represented major differences in state
charter school laws, and came from major regions of the country.
The study involved 150 schools and 60 authorizing agencies, and
the methods included interviews of those involved in charter
schools (from parents to legislators and governors’ staff
members), extensive case studies of 17 schools, and a nationally
representative survey of charter schools. Results from their work
encompass four of seven chapters of the book (chapters two
through five), followed by a chapter of recommendations and a
final chapter on “Learning from Charter School
Their results begin with a look at charter laws
and the politics that make them, focusing primarily on four
theories about the charter school movement that “provide a
starting point for understanding the implied accountability
methods” (p. 19):
- The Innovative/Experimentation Strategy: Create new schools
to serve as laboratories for successful teaching strategies.
- The Standards-Based Reform Strategy: Free schools from rules
so they can meet higher expectations.
- The New Supply of Public Schools Strategy: Open the system up
to a set of new school providers.
- The competition/Market Strategy: Let parent choice drive the
entire system to improve.
The authors develop the theories from a review of the various
state charter laws, the latter of which actually contain an
amalgam of these different theories. Because of the compromises
inherent in politics, charter laws across the states do not
necessarily subscribe to one theory exclusively. Table 2-1 in the
book outlines the different purposes articulated in the various
charter laws, how those purposes align with the four theories,
and which state laws contain which purposes and theories.
Predictably, such incoherency of purpose makes for disjointed
accountability policies. As the authors conclude, “The
political process churns out more than mixed signals about the
purpose of the law. Accountability provisions of the law are
often similarly vague or misaligned within a particular piece of
legislation” (p. 21).
Chapter Three then begins the focus on three broad domains of
accountability identified from the authors’ research by
discussing “internal accountability.” They define
this as, “the set of processes whereby teachers apply
shared expectations to their own work and to that of their
colleagues” (p. 25). In other words, it is a model wherein
those working within a school (teachers, administrators, board
members) hold each other accountable for the agreed upon vision
and expectations that define that school—a social contract
of sorts. Of the different types of charter school accountability
discussed in the literature, this is one that tends to receive
comparably little attention, making Hill et al.’s
discussion an important contribution to the larger debate.
As idealistic as this type of accountability may sound, it is
not without difficulties. The authors rightly note that internal
and external accountability can and often are incompatible. As
charter accountability evolves from more flexible performance and
market models to structures that parallel those of traditional
public schools, this incompatibility likely grows even more
A second issue involves building and maintaining the shared
vision and expectations inherent in internal accountability. Due
to the daily pressures of opening and running a school,
establishing a coherent vision can be difficult. In addition, not
everyone who works in the school necessarily begins in the same
place in the visioning process. The authors note that it takes
approximately three years to establish and regularize internal
relationships and structures such that internal accountability
Hill et al. also note that internal accountability includes
families. Because their funding comes directly from student
enrollment, charters must attract parents by making, or at least
implying some promises. The authors’ research finds that
charter principals think often about parents’ aspirations
and try to deliver on them. But Hill et al. also acknowledge that
this is not always possible, creating its own share of
difficulties. Because new charters take a few years to establish
coherency, parents can be disappointed in initially unfulfilled
promises. Moreover, parents attracted to choice but uninformed
about a school’s guiding principles also may hold certain
expectations for the school, only to be frustrated and
Despite such difficulties, however, the authors believe this
relationship between schools and parents created by choice leads
to a new form of accountability—“reciprocal
accountability”—as parents and schools each attempt
to meet the other’s expectations. Hill et al. conclude,
“…it is one of the charter school movement’s
greatest contributions to public education” (p. 36).
Moving outside of the confines of the school
building, Chapter Four considers accountability relationships
between charter schools and authorizing agencies, such as state
and local departments of education, other state agencies, and
universities. The official accountability mechanism in these
relationships is the charter itself. The authors note, “At
their most basic level, school charters are agreements between
authorizing agencies and individual schools about goals, basic
modes of operation, and performance requirements. In theory, a
well-drafted charter could be the quintessential accountability
mechanism” (p. 47).
Yet, as Hill et al. note, “The reality…is much
different than the theory” (p. 48). Whether it be local
school boards, universities, or state agencies, most authorizers
are “learning on the job” in how to fulfill their
accountability responsibilities. Moreover, the authorizers are
assuming these accountability duties on top of their routine
operations, which means they often lack the staff, time, or
resources to devote to systematic oversight of a charter (or
In our survey, only 27 percent of the chartering agencies
surveyed reported having written accountability standards, and an
additional 4 percent said they were under development. Similarly,
only 38 percent of the agencies surveyed had a formal renewal
process. Another 6 percent were developing such a process at the
time of our survey. (p. 50).
The more typical accountability mechanism for authorizers
included a formal report of progress toward goals, a summary
report from the school, and a financial audit, particularly the
latter. Actual site visits were infrequent, and student
achievement data appeared to play only a minor role. Hill et al.
conclude the chapter with a typology of authorizers. “The
vast majority of authorizers fit into one of four categories: (1)
overeager approvers, (2) reluctant authorizers and suspicious
auditors, (3) ambivalent approvers and indifferent managers, or
(4) professional authorizers and competent stewards” (p.
Accountability to Others
An additional external accountability audience for charter
schools includes organizations not typically present in the
public school accountability equation, such as vendors, political
interest groups, non-profit agencies, and/or governmental bodies
other than the authorizer. These accountability relationships are
created as schools seek additional funding and other resources,
political support, or goods and services for daily operations of
the school. Hill et al. note the following types of voluntary
associations charters routinely enter into:
- Partner organizations (community non-profits such as youth
- Space and facility providers
- Groups that donate goods and services
- Sources of private or government grants
- Educational management organizations
- Providers of legal advice and insurance
- Charter school associations and technical assistance
- Accreditation agencies
The authors note that in addition to the goods, services, or
resources provided by these organizations, the relationships can
also create constructive pressure for continuous improvement and
additional oversight in fiscal and resource management, areas
that contribute most to charter school closure (Manno et al.,
2000). Yet, while such voluntary associations can strengthen a
school’s performance, they also threaten a school’s
ability to remain focused on its core mission (teaching and
learning), its distinctive principles, and its other
relationships (parents, teachers, and authorizers).
As Chapters Two through Five demonstrate, charter schools
operate in a situation of mixed accountability, with multiple
audiences, influences, and expectations. While this inevitably
creates some amount of confusion and incoherency, Hill et al.
conclude that multidirectional accountability can work. For it to
function most effectively schools must develop a strong system of
internal accountability in order to respond to the needs of
students, teachers, and families, and also to respond to the
demands and pressures from outside audiences.
Beyond that, the authors also draw a series of
more specific recommendations for the various parties involved in
charter school accountability. First, charter school boards need
to steer, not row. Second, charter school leaders need to
establish and maintain good communications with authorizers and
others, articulate clear expectations with parents, teachers, and
the board, and accept if not embrace various forms of measurement
of progress and process. Third, teachers should actively hold
leaders and boards accountable but expect to be challenged and
work under performance expectations. Fourth, authorizers should
establish routine monitoring systems rather than waiting for a
school to fall into trouble before paying attention. Fifth, state
agencies should hold authorizers accountable for their
responsibilities. Sixth, the federal government is too intrusive
and needlessly disruptive in the operations of charter schools.
Finally, friends of the charter movement should continue to
provide resources, tools, and expertise for schools to succeed,
but they also should expect schools to measure progress toward
Such recommendations align with others who have written about
charter accountability. For example, Garn and Cobb (2001) discuss
the multidirectional approach and assert bureaucratic,
performance, and market models can complement one another and
better inform all constituents about the performance of publicly
funded schools without sacrificing autonomy or innovation. Manno
et al. (2000) and Stillings (2005) also stress that although the
standards and assessment movement may exert some level of
standardization on charter schools, assessments are an
unavoidable part of the accountability picture.
Hill et al. also discuss the relationship between
standards-based reform and charter accountability, but their view
is not as resigned as others seem to be. They state, for example,
“Charter schools and standards-based education are
different faces of the same reform” (p. 98). Moreover,
“With respect to accountability, no conflict exists between
standards and chartering; in fact, the two reinforce each
other” (p. 100). Although the authors do not discuss
explicitly how charters reinforce standards, they state that
standards provide a necessary common metric against which
charters are judged, which is particularly salient given the
aforementioned criticisms of vague and ill-defined accountability
Although the authors’ positive portrayal of the
relationship between standards-based reform and charter schools
is debatable, there are a few other assertions made in the book
that are even more questionable. For example, in the final
chapter, “Learning from Charter School
Accountability,” Hill et al. state, “In general we
have shown that charter schools’ multi-directional
accountability can work, in the all-important sense of promoting
effective instruction for children” (p. 97). Unfortunately,
the data and discussion fall short of showing either the
effectiveness of multidirectional accountability or the promotion
of effective instruction. The authors may possess information
that show one or both of these things, but such data are not
presented in this treatment. In another example, the authors
begin the book by stating, “We think this book has
implications outside the charter school world for the national
debate about school reform” (p. 2). Perhaps, but other than
the final few paragraphs of the book, specific recommendations to
that end remain wanting.
For those already familiar with charters, accountability, and
the intersection of the two, Charter Schools and
Accountability in Public Education will not provide a
tremendous amount of new information. Moreover, as the authors
themselves acknowledge, the landscape is evolving such that this
book provides merely a snapshot look at accountability, a
snapshot that is already dated. For example, the work Hill et al.
completed for the writing of this book pre-dated NCLB, the
implications of which are briefly mentioned above.
Finally, this is not a detailed, comprehensive
examination of all the ins and outs of charter school
accountability. Instead, this book provides a primer to those
unfamiliar with accountability in the charter school context and
lays a foundation for those who might be interested in delving
further into the policy nuances and other research on this topic.
Those interested in doing so will want to consider books by Wells
(2002), Miron and Nelson (2002), and Finn, Bierlein, and Manno
(1997), and the various journal articles referenced in this
Carpenter, D. M. (2005). Playing to type. Washington,
DC: Thomas B. Fordham Institute.
Carpenter, D. M. (2006). Modeling the charter school
landscape. Journal of School Choice, 1(2), 47-82.
Crawford, J. R. (2001). Teacher autonomy and accountability in
charter schools. Education and Urban Society, 33(2),
Darling-Hammond, L. (1988, Winter). Accountability and teacher
professionalism. American Educator, 8-13, 38-43.
Finn, C. E., Bierlein, L. A., & Manno, B. V. (1997).
Charter school accountability: Findings and prospects
Bloomington, IN: Phi Delta Kappa Educational Foundation
Finnigan, K. S. (2007). Charter school autonomy: The mismatch
between theory and practice. Educational Policy, 21(3),
Garn, G., & Cobb, C. D. (2001). A framework for
understanding charter school accountability. Education and
Urban Society, 33(2), 113-128.
Huerta, L. A., González, M.-F., & d’Entremont,
C. (2006). Cyber and home school charter schools: Adopting policy
to new forms of public schooling. Peabody Journal of
Education, 81(1), 103-139.
Kirst, M. (1990). Accountability: Implications for state
and local policymakers. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of
Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement,
Levin, H. (1974). A conceptual framework for accountability in
education. School Review, 82, 363-391.
Lipman, P., & Haines, N. (2007). From accountability to
privatization and African American exclusion. Educational
Policy, 21(3), 471-502.
Manno, B. (2004). Chartering and the idea of accountability
consequences: Adding performance value to schooling. Journal
of Education, 185(3), 27-40.
Manno, B., Finn, C., & Vanourek, G. (2000). Charter school
accountability: Problems and prospects. Educational Policy,
May, J. J. (2006). The charter school allure: Can traditional
schools measure up? Education and Urban Society, 39(1),
McLaughlin, M. J., & Rhim, L. M. (2007). Accountability
frameworks and children with disabilities: A test of assumptions
about improving public education for all students.
International Journal of Disability, Development and
Education, 54(1), 25-49.
Miron, G., & Nelson, C. (2002). What's public about
charter schools: Lessons learned about choice and
accountability. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
Olson, L. (2000). Redefining public schools: Charter and
voucher programs bring lots of choices, little consensus.
Education Week, 19, 1-24.
Opfer, V. D. (2001). Charter schools and the panoptic effect
of accountability. Education and Urban Society, 33(2),
Petrilli, M. J. (2005). Charters as role models. Retrieved
June 11, 2005, from http://www.educationnext.org/20053/56.html
Rhim, L. M., & McLaughlin, M. J. (2001). Special education
in American charter schools: State level policy, practices and
tensions. Cambridge Journal of Education, 31(3),
Shober, A. E., Manna, P., & Witte, J. F. (2006).
Flexibility meets accountability: State charter school laws and
their influence on the formation of charter schools in the United
States. Policy Studies Journal, 34(4), 563-587.
Stillings, C. (2005). Charter schools and No Child Left
Behind: Sacrificing autonomy for accountability. Journal of
Education, 186(2), 51-70.
Wells, A. S. (Ed.). (2002). Where charter school
policy fails: The problems of accountability and equity. New
York: Teachers College Press.