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Charter schools build on a decade of experimentation

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Bronx Prep students are held to high standards both in academics and behavior. And they are constantly reminded of the goal of admission to one of the country's top colleges.

Many of the faculty at Bronx Prep attended prestigious colleges themselves. The classes are named after these schools (one seventh-grade class, for instance, is known as MIT), and students take field trips to view college campuses.

But the vast majority of charter schools more closely mirror traditional public schools.

The key difference in these cases is that they enjoy more flexibility to adopt certain innovations, such as merit pay for teachers and better use of technology. Typically they can do more professional development and can more easily hire and fire staff.

The academic results these schools achieve range from the electrifying to the abysmal. Regulations vary greatly from state to state, making it difficult to take stock of the charter movement as a whole.

The movement began with a burst of energetic growth, with the number of charter schools jumping from zero to almost 3,000 in just 10 years. But growth appears to be slowing now, and many say the number is still hardly noticeable among the 92,000 traditional public schools in the United States.

"There just aren't enough charter schools right now to make a difference," says Terry Moe, professor of political science and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University in California. Most districts that have them, he points out, have just one.

And yet, despite small numbers and wide swings in quality, other experts who follow charters say the contribution they are making to US education should not be overlooked.

What sets charters apart

For one thing, charter schools and their hiring practices are benefiting the teaching profession, says Caroline Hoxby, an economics professor at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.

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