On the Origin of Schools
Skip to content
Policy Entrepreneurship Leadership Social Impact Dec 1, 2010

On the Origin of Schools

The diversity of Arizona’s charter schools

Based on the research of

Brayden King

Elisabeth S. Clemens

Melissa Fry

Tucson is to schools what the Galapagos Islands were to Darwin’s finches, according to one finding in a recent study on charter schools.

Add Insight
to your inbox.

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.

“Charter schools are part of the educational marketplace in Arizona. Charter schools provide parents and students with many educational choices.” 

“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.”


Related reading on Kellogg Insight.

Matriculation Matters: Refining the college admissions guessing game

Principal Performance: What if school principals’ pay was tied to job performance? Turns out, it already is

Featured Faculty

Max McGraw Chair in Management and the Environment; Professor of Management & Organizations

About the Writer
Amy Maxmen is a freelance science writer based in Brooklyn, NY.
About the Research

King, Brayden G., Elisabeth S. Clemens, Melissa Fry. 2011. Identity Realization and Organizational Forms: Differentiation and Consolidation of Identities Among Arizona’s Charter Schools. Organization Science, May/June, 22(3): 554-572.

Read the original

Most Popular This Week
  1. Will AI Eventually Replace Doctors?
    Maybe not entirely. But the doctor–patient relationship is likely to change dramatically.
    doctors offices in small nodules
  2. 3 Tips for Reinventing Your Career After a Layoff
    It’s crucial to reassess what you want to be doing instead of jumping at the first opportunity.
    woman standing confidently
  3. What Happens to Worker Productivity after a Minimum Wage Increase?
    A pay raise boosts productivity for some—but the impact on the bottom line is more complicated.
    employees unload pallets from a truck using hand carts
  4. 6 Takeaways on Inflation and the Economy Right Now
    Are we headed into a recession? Kellogg’s Sergio Rebelo breaks down the latest trends.
    inflatable dollar sign tied down with mountains in background
  5. What Is the Purpose of a Corporation Today?
    Has anything changed in the three years since the Business Roundtable declared firms should prioritize more than shareholders?
    A city's skyscrapers interspersed with trees and rooftop gardens
  6. How to Get the Ear of Your CEO—And What to Say When You Have It
    Every interaction with the top boss is an audition for senior leadership.
    employee presents to CEO in elevator
  7. Why We Can’t All Get Away with Wearing Designer Clothes
    In certain professions, luxury goods can send the wrong signal.​
    Man wearing luxury-brand clothes walks with a cold wind behind him, chilling three people he passes.
  8. Why You Should Skip the Easy Wins and Tackle the Hard Task First
    New research shows that you and your organization lose out when you procrastinate on the difficult stuff.
    A to-do list with easy and hard tasks
  9. How Are Black–White Biracial People Perceived in Terms of Race?
    Understanding the answer—and why black and white Americans may percieve biracial people differently—is increasingly important in a multiracial society.
    How are biracial people perceived in terms of race
  10. Which Form of Government Is Best?
    Democracies may not outlast dictatorships, but they adapt better.
    Is democracy the best form of government?
  11. When Do Open Borders Make Economic Sense?
    A new study provides a window into the logic behind various immigration policies.
    How immigration affects the economy depends on taxation and worker skills.
  12. Why Do Some People Succeed after Failing, While Others Continue to Flounder?
    A new study dispels some of the mystery behind success after failure.
    Scientists build a staircase from paper
  13. How Has Marketing Changed over the Past Half-Century?
    Phil Kotler’s groundbreaking textbook came out 55 years ago. Sixteen editions later, he and coauthor Alexander Chernev discuss how big data, social media, and purpose-driven branding are moving the field forward.
    people in 1967 and 2022 react to advertising
  14. How Old Are Successful Tech Entrepreneurs?
    A definitive new study dispels the myth of the Silicon Valley wunderkind.
    successful entrepreneurs are most often middle aged
  15. How Offering a Product for Free Can Backfire
    It seems counterintuitive, but there are times customers would rather pay a small amount than get something for free.
    people in grocery store aisle choosing cheap over free option of same product.
  16. Immigrants to the U.S. Create More Jobs than They Take
    A new study finds that immigrants are far more likely to found companies—both large and small—than native-born Americans.
    Immigrant CEO welcomes new hires
  17. College Campuses Are Becoming More Diverse. But How Much Do Students from Different Backgrounds Actually Interact?
    Increasing diversity has been a key goal, “but far less attention is paid to what happens after we get people in the door.”
    College quad with students walking away from the center
  18. How Peer Pressure Can Lead Teens to Underachieve—Even in Schools Where It’s “Cool to Be Smart”
    New research offers lessons for administrators hoping to improve student performance.
    Eager student raises hand while other student hesitates.
More in Policy