Tucson is to schools what the Galapagos Islands were to Darwin’s finches, according to one finding in a recent study on charter schools. When freed from rules governing traditional education and set loose in a region with a thriving culture of arts and education, the charter schools in this arid Arizona city blossomed in myriad ways.

Public, state-funded charter schools—otherwise known as schools of choice—diversified in patterns exposed in a study by Brayden King, an assistant professor of management and organizations at Kellogg School of Management, Elisabeth Clemens, a professor at the University of Chicago, and Melissa Fry, a research associate at the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development in Kentucky. By examining the early years of Arizona’s charter schools, the team sought to understand how the identities of schools, businesses, and other organizations develop.

In 1994 the Arizona legislature authorized funding for charter schools and mandated that they provide education differently from traditional public schools. Yet with no model to follow, skeptics feared that charter schools would either mimic the past or flounder in ambiguity. But diversify they did—specializing in everything from integrating classroom learning with music training or lessons on investing money. And King’s team defines the method in the madness—the patterns of diversification the schools followed. Their conclusions shed light on the development of organizational identity beyond classroom walls. Just as the existing diversity of public magnet schools in Tucson has provided a background for innovation, communities with a history of experimentation in cuisine, for example, will likely breed unique restaurants. King’s focus on education, however, is highly relevant today.

Dare to Be Different
Although charter schools have been around for nearly twenty years, interest in the schools has been revived among politicians and educators searching for ways to deal with what many call a crisis in U.S. education. Proponents of charter schools argue that competition will improve education in the same way that it drives innovation by companies competing for customers. Like private businesses, charter schools operate nearly autonomously, free from many state regulations like teacher certification requirements. According to the Arizona Department of Education website: “Charter schools are part of the educational marketplace in Arizona. Charter schools provide parents and students with many educational choices.” As of now, 510 schools spanning grades 5 though 12 operate in the state, accounting for about a quarter of Arizona’s public schools.

“From the onset, these schools were required to state how they would be different from the public schools of the past,” King says, explaining why Arizona’s schools provide a perfect model for studying early organizational identity. Each school strove to be distinct from its competitors, yet similar enough to maintain legitimacy as a place for solid education.

New businesses face similar challenges as they struggle to find the sweet spot between novel and traditional. Where that spot lies and how to find it remain questions for study by organizational sociologists like King and his colleagues. “We wanted to get in at the ground level and see what happens when there are fewer constraints on what schools or organizations should be,” King recalls. “It allows us to put a closer lens on the entrepreneurial process of creating a new organization.”

Assessing the success of these schools was not King’s or his colleagues’ intent. Instead, the team focused on understanding what led the schools to diversify or converge. After all, innovation is what makes charter schools special.

King’s team examined charter school identities by analyzing online “report cards” issued by each school between 1996 and 2001. Mandated by lawmakers, these report cards required the schools to summarize their missions, distinctive qualities, and performance based on standardized tests. The team also took into account what resources the schools had at their disposal, what other types of schools were in the area, and who helped guide school identity. Organizers of charter schools ranged from teachers formerly at public or private schools to people from the child-care and vocational training industries, social workers, and parents committed to specialized curricula. The context in which the schools arose mattered tremendously, concludes the team.

Where Charters Bloom
Although most schools created identities distinct from traditional public schools, they often diversified in similar ways. They broadly fell into two categories—those emphasizing alternative learning processes, such as using curricula integrating art, music, or sports with classwork, for example, and those providing extra social services for students and their families, such as assistance in finding housing.

The NFL YET (for “youth education town”) Academy in Phoenix, which integrated classwork with football, fell into the alternative learning category alongside the Future Investment Middle School in Tucson, which encouraged kids to plot their future finances in math and science classes.  In the other cluster lay the Alternative Computerized Education (ACE) Charter High School in Tucson, which helped high school dropouts get through school with a computer-assisted, self-paced program, and a school in Yuma with a trade-school component.

“We found that schools tended to converge on similar models in each area—except for areas with prior experience in diversifying,” King says.

In hotspots of diversity, schools ran the gamut. Public magnet schools had been established earlier that encouraged parental involvement in creative approaches to education.  “Certain districts had magnet school mandates in order to attract kids from other districts to go to these schools, and that experience of creating new alternatives in the past seemed to help educators in that area to be more capable of bringing about real diversity and creativity in their charter school identity,” King says. “In other districts with similar demographics but no magnet schools in the past, we saw more homogeneity.”

Another surprising finding was that schools tended to stick to their original plan. Although their goals became more focused over time, the schools rarely dropped core parts of their identity. In other words, identities didn’t gradually emerge, as some organizational sociologists have suggested. “I actually expected that more schools would have no clue what they were doing,” King admits, “but that tended not to be the case.”

In an interview with the Washington Post in July 2009, President Obama said, “I think charters, which are within the public school system, force the kind of experimentation and innovation that helps to drive excellence in every other aspect of life.”

However, if King’s team is right, the degree of innovation expected at charter schools has much to do with their surroundings. “I think Arizona is proof that organizations can differentiate and offer alternatives,” King says. “However, it also suggests that you need to foster a culture of creativity before you can expect to get creative results in the education system—money alone won’t lead to new ways of educating students.”


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