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Charter schools build on a decade of experimentation

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In suburban and more affluent areas, some newly opened charters have made less of a dent in standardized test scores, but they have still achieved major gains in terms of parental satisfaction.

Yet, at the same time, the movement's failures have been making plenty of headlines of their own. Some schools have been poorly run, while others have been denounced as out-and-out frauds. There have been tales of charters that abruptly shut midterm after breaking every promise they had made.

Equally discouraging have been reports such as the one released this September by the Brookings Institution's Brown Center on American Education in Washington. A survey of 376 charter schools in 10 states looked at standardized test scores and found that the charters in four states were performing worse than the traditional public schools surrounding them. In the remaining six states, their performance was "indistinguishable" from the average.

The real truth, say some observers, is that as yet there are no absolute truths about the charter-school movement.

"I've been in tens of charters that have clear instructional intention, that communicate wonderfully with parents, and that have a real sense of what they're about," says Paul Hill, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington in Seattle. "And I've been in some that are absolutely clueless."

Some charter schools are conservative, back-to-basics academies, heavy on discipline, character education, and learning by drill. Others are arts- focused instructional centers designed to appeal to creative teens who prefer a potter's wheel to an algebra textbook. Still others adopt a theme curriculum, such as an Afrocentric blend of Swahili and drumming alongside spelling and multiplication.

Bronx Prep (which started off in 2000 in a church rectory) relies heavily on spending more time on academics and on raising expectations. Students there attend school from 7:15 a.m. to 5:15 p.m. 200 days a year, which means they receive 50 percent more instructional time than children in traditional public schools in New York.

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