Similarities and Differences in the Organizational Characteristics of Charter Schools: A Test of Institutional Isomorphism and Strategy Positioning Theories

Sweet, Thomas, Curry School of Education, University of Virginia
Duke, Daniel, Curry School of Education, University of Virginia
Covert, Robert, Curry School of Education, University of Virginia
Driscoll, Daniel, Curry School of Education, University of Virginia

Charter schools, independent public schools which operate through a system of contracts with public agencies, are heavily promoted as a means of improving the nation‟s traditional public education system. Managed as private enterprises, these schools compete for students through the implementation of market-style practices. Popularly viewed as innovative learning environments where cutting edge instruction occurs under reduced levels of regulation and bureaucracy, these schools are increasingly finding support in both state legislatures and the federal government as a means of turning around failing schools and districts. This study asks if a sample of charter schools in the same city attempt to outperform one another for competitive advantage by sustaining different programs, instructional practices, policies, organizational processes, and personnel guidelines or, over time, do these schools tend to become similar to one another in these areas? To answer this question, the researcher examined a sample of five charter schools operating in Washington, D.C.. Chartering documents were reviewed to reveal how schools operated in these areas at their inception and interviews were conducted with school administrators to determine why changes to these original practices were either made or avoided. Findings are revealed through a deductive thematic analysis process which uses the conceptual frameworks of institutional isomorphism (DiMaggio and Powell, 1983) and strategy positioning (Porter, 1996) to determine how institutional and market forces influence the operational development of these schools. Results of the study suggest that the central programs of all five charter schools have been implemented in a competitive manner consistent with Porter‟s (1996) concept of strategy positioning, while the development of each schools‟ instructional practices, policies, and personnel guidelines appear to have been impacted by the homogenizing influence of institutional isomorphism (DiMaggio and Powell, 1983). Data related to the researcher‟s target area of „organizational processes‟ did not support indicators for either conceptual framework. These findings indicate that the charter school movement faces challenges to realizing its promise of providing improved educational options through competitive experimentation and innovation.

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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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