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Could Charters Really Be the Answer?

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In the Teacher Leaders Network discussion group, “Southeast Teacher” wrote:

The past few years have seen something of a sea-change in my thinking towards charter schools. In my state, charters have been around awhile and are often hotly debated. I've always been opposed to them, primarily because I saw them as a not-so-subtle attempt to embarrass the public school system. Combine that with envy over the lack of red-tape, and it was enough to make me think that charters were the enemy.

But after reading through the book Disrupting Class this summer, I started to think of charters differently. The authors argue that charters can be hothouses for experimentation, identifying instructional practices that work which could then be tailored to traditional schools. They could also serve as customized learning centers for those students who haven't succeeded in traditional schools.

Why couldn't there be charters that served the kinesthetic kid, or the musical kid, or the techie, or the jock? And instead of being competitors to the public school system, why couldn't charters be partners and extensions of the public school systems? Places that counselors could guide children towards when they had troubles?

I wonder: What's preventing experimentation and innovation in the types of schools offered in a district or a state?

Maybe I'm being a bit naïve—I’ll admit I don't know much about how things work beyond the classroom —but it just seems to make sense. The kind of flexibility charters seem to offer seems a long overdue change that might just improve education for our kids.

California Teacher replied:

I’ve completely shifted my thinking about charters since leaving an utterly stymied inner-city public school (where I taught for eight years) and becoming a charter school teacher. I think the charter concept is a wonderful complement to the existing public school system. As in the traditional public system, quality varies from school to school. All charters are not equal. I am very clear that my charter is superior, while others I see are doing more of the same-old and failing miserably for a hundred different reasons.

Here are some interesting charter trends my principal and I have noticed:

1. Charters tend to attract kids/families from the two extreme ends of the spectrum: We get super gifted kids and super struggling kids; super well-behaved kids and super-challenging kids. Average kids are definitely in the minority. Both of the extremes bring their own interesting quirks and challenges.

2. Charters often get parents who are school shoppers. They run from school to school, trying to get their own way, to gain power, or to avoid consequences. The only way to deal with this situation is to hold to your charter standards and have clear, strong written policies about how to deal with various situations, with consistent follow-through.

Other facts about charters that are important to know:

1. Red tape is more easily cut through. I get to purchase what I want within my budget with no approvals, and then I can be reimbursed. Or, I can turn in a request for a larger item and use our school's credit card to order. Policy can be written and adopted within a month. If we really need something changed, it can literally happen overnight.

2. The opportunities for teacher leadership are endless. Our teachers hire the new teachers, not the principal. (She is welcome to be a voting member of the hiring committee if she wishes.) Teachers wrote the teacher-evaluation policy. Teachers choose the materials they use. Two teachers are consulting members to our board, another two are our representatives to the parent-student association. We organize assemblies, special events and social activities. Our teachers interviewed and hired our current principal. We write policy and actually have people willing to look at our contracts, employee handbook and other legal matters and ask tough questions.

3. We have to adhere to the same testing requirements and admissions policies as regular public schools. We can set up hoops to jump through (requiring a tour, an essay, an interview, etc.), but we cannot deny any student a slot if they do those things (however poorly) and are selected through a blind admissions lottery.

4. We wrote our charter, so we determined what we valued. In our case, it’s small class sizes (20 in K-5, 25 in 6-8); parent involvement (families must volunteer for 54 hours a year) and constructivist teaching (we have gardens the kids create and tend; my co-teacher has the kids build roller-coasters and catapults; I spend my two hours with each class doing reading-writing workshop). We also have field experiences (K-5 averages of 4-5 trips/month with parent volunteers to drive and chaperone, and 4-8 has extended field trips out of town). We emphasize the whole child. It is an acceptable goal and outcome for kids to become self-advocates and be able to problem solve around social-emotional issues. We even have a K-8 curriculum for that purpose.

We do have to jump through some school district hoops at times; but mostly, we are free of the shackles put upon our regular public school colleagues due to ill will or lack of trust. At my school, we are trusted to be professionals, to put kids first, and to be leaders. I don't believe this level of professionalism can be created as easily or freely in a regular public school structure.

Me, I'll never go back. I've had a taste of freedom and the good life, I've seen the amazing benefits for kids, and I cannot imagine inserting myself back into a typical broken urban school system.

Southeast Teacher then asked:

You've confirmed most everything I thought was possible in a charter school. One thing, though: Do you think most charter schools are like yours, or is this just another case of an outlier—a great faculty working with a great principal for a while, but a school that will collapse when key members leave the classroom or the front office?

I'm starting to think that excellence in schools is possible on a small scale, because we've got small quantities of top-quality leaders and teachers, but that it's not possible across entire states (or the nation) because we just can't replicate what you have on a large scale. Does anyone else feel this way?

Mark commented:

I have often wondered the same thing. Even within my school, I have seen excellent programs rise and fall because the teacher who conceived the project left or couldn't do it any more and someone else took over. I have always thought that teaching is a social process -- people interact with each other in the process of learning in schools. Yet no one ever really addresses this issue head-on. Rather than trying to replicate small-scale success on a large scale, maybe the focus should be on trying to foster small-scale successes in more places.

Southeast Teacher replied:

This is a brilliant idea, Mark. Maybe large-scale change is pointless after all. If we can foster positive changes on a small scale successfully, why ruin them by trying to drive those same changes to larger scales?

In one of our discussions someone said: People have to embrace a change completely before it matters to them—and the further you get from actually having experienced that change, the less likely you are to embrace it or to “replicate” it.

Translation: Small-scale changes are not only infinitely more doable, but might just be more productive too.

California Teacher reflected on the staying power of charters:

I think charter schools vary as much as other schools, but I think the opportunity and potential for more teacher voice and more progressive practices are greater at charter schools.

Since my school was started, there's been a bunch of turnover. Yes, we still have some founding members, but many of us are newer. The principal is not even the same. We have a very strong school culture though, and as we add new people we sort of adopt them into that culture. In fact, it really starts with our hiring process.

Any teacher who wishes may serve on the hiring committee. The interview consists of a Q&A session and two demonstrations: a lesson about a philosophical concept (which we provide), and a lesson about some subject (math or reading usually). We had no turnover last year, but the year before we chose Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle as the philosophical concept we wanted to see taught. This kind of demonstration requirement provides a real challenge for candidates and a natural screening process. Can the applicant adapt a very complex principle to a younger grade in a constructivist manner? Are they creative? Did they enjoy the challenge, or did they think it was just dumb?

We’ve had people choose not show up for interviews when they learned of our interview requirements. We didn’t mind. The point is, we have the freedom to use this hiring process. Even if our principal doesn't quite "get" why we do it this way, the policy we wrote places teacher hiring squarely in our domain. This method works for us, and it is sacred.

I love the opportunity for dreaming that I’ve found in my charter school. I love the lack of uniformity. While we are required to test our students like everybody else, we have the freedom to act and teach as we think best for the kids in our classrooms. And our scores are fine.

Southeast Teacher replied:

PBS education reporter John Merrow wrote recently that “the charter movement has never come close to achieving its original vision of being 'laboratories of innovation' for the rest of the system. Too many charters are revved-up versions of the existing system, public schools on steroids, instead of breaking the mold."

Why is this? Why have schools designed to foster innovation fallen into the same trap that they were designed to outsmart?

Is it because funding levels make charters struggle for resources? Because those people staffing charters tend to come from the traditional system and lack the ability for extreme innovation?

Is it because charters have to stick with testing as a form of assessment—limiting their ability to innovate far beyond the simplistic practices that produce results on multiple-choice exams? Is it because parents still place great value on tests as a form of measuring the accomplishment of a school, binding charters to practices that are likely to produce the same old results?

Is it because we still don't have one clear vision of what "success" means for a student or a school?

I'd like to think that every charter would be like the one California Teacher describes. If they were, what exciting things we could do. But from the looks of it, they're not. What does that say about the potential for true reform in education?

—Edited by John Norton, TLN moderator

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