You Haven’t Heard Of This Word. But It’s Strangling Charter Schools in America

We need to resist demands for greater uniformity — and embrace the vision that originally inspired charter reforms.

A specter is haunting America — the specter of isomorphism. Isomorphism is the process that forces one unit in a population to resemble others who face similar environmental conditions. Isomorphism describes what’s taken hold of charter schools today.

Charters are independent public schools of choice, accountable for results on a performance contract and free from most of the red tape that chokes traditional public schools.

When charters were conceived about 25 years ago, this freedom was intended to foster innovations in teaching and learning, and to elicit competitive responses from other public schools. However, the charter sector is now influenced by coercive, mimetic, and, to a lesser extent, normative isomorphism. Despite seeking to differentiate, its schools and structures have become similar and the system bureaucratized.

Bureaucratization happens because organizations strive to be the same even if such sameness doesn’t make them more efficient. In the national charter sector, charter schools and the groups that support them originally came together to advocate for differentiated and innovative pathways to education.

Today, they operate collectively, similarly, and with less impact. These isomorphic tendencies are more likely to occur in state charter school sectors that have controlled and centralized chartering processes. The result is that states with independent authorizing practices have more diverse participants who keep one another in check in competitive ways. Diverse actors recognize that homogeneity decreases opportunity and creates the rising tide of isomorphism that undermines the core purpose of charter schools — to provide educational excellence for kids.

Despite coming to life as a grassroots revolution, the charter school field is now far from its roots. This nascent sector faces the perils of isomorphism before it even occupies six percent of the total school-age population of the U.S. As a result, the potential for greater impact is all but lost unless these conditions change.

The quest for legitimacy is pernicious. Efforts by the charter sector to protect itself from bad actors are well-intentioned, but have resulted in the imposition of policies that restrict autonomy — the very element that provides the conditions for innovation.

Risk-averse leaders demand evidence of accountability in exchange for support. They convince legislators to enact laws that codify “investigations” and procedures for violations of law. Of course, this is the exact same regulatory language that created a public-school system more focused on compliance than outcomes. Indeed, it’s the antithesis of charter raison d’être: that freedom breeds more accountability for results, while compliance driven Hobbesian oversight breeds mediocrity at best.

The charter sector is made up of thousands of people who were not at the proverbial table where the first laws and schools were created. These folk don’t seem to know or appreciate the genesis of how districts came to be bureaucratically focused on accounting for inputs and behaviors, versus parental demands and student outcomes.

Thus, without context, the sector is conditioned to accept the mimetic pressure to own its own failures and accept more government regulation masquerading as accountability as a result. An independent-minded sector might look more deeply into the data, and thus question the variable results. It might foster further deliberation about the real effects of various kinds of laws and governing structures.

If it could do these things, it might resist the isomorphic demands for greater uniformity. And it might embrace the vision that originally inspired charter reforms.

Jeanne Allen (@JeanneAllen) is the founder and CEO of the Center for Education Reform in Washington, DC. The above essay is excerpted from the book, Charting a New Course: The Case for Freedom, Flexibility, and Opportunity Through Charter Schools, which she co-edited.

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