April 01, 1998 2 min read

Reinventing The Wheel

“The sad fact is that almost everything about high school fails to work—yet the system itself, the very idea of high school, is rarely blamed,” writes the always provocative Sallie Tisdale in Salon Magazine. Tisdale spent three weeks teaching creative writing to high school science students, and the experience was not a good one. She writes: “I felt each day the same familiar mix of excitement and frustration, pleasure and aggravation, that I felt so many years ago as a student, torn between the dream and the reality of school.” Students, even at 8 o’clock in the morning, radiate “the intensity of youth.” But much of high school, Tisdale argues, “is designed specifically to disarm this intensity, which adults both envy and fear.” Tisdale, who dropped out of high school at age 16 and then entered college, would reinvent grades 6 through 10, eliminating junior high school all together and ending high school at age 16. Many of her ideas, she acknowledges, come from an essay titled “The Replacement of the American High School” in Leon Botstein’s 1997 book Jefferson’s Children: Education and the Promise of American Culture. During the last few days of Tisdale’s teaching stint, she dropped her regular plans and read from Botstein’s essay. “They were the two most spirited days we had,” she writes. “Almost every student spoke up with feeling and asked questions.” Tisdale realized that under Botstein’s plan, her students “would be gone from here, having slowly been brought to the point of being in charge of themselves, prepared in very different ways than they are now. It worked for me. It wouldn’t work for everyone. But neither does what we have.”

Charting Charter Schools

James Glassman has seen the future of public education, and it’s in the state of Arizona, home to more than 400 charter schools. The Washington Post columnist, who normally writes about business and economics from a free-market perspective, traveled to the Grand Canyon state three times to see how well its charter schools are doing. Very well, indeed, he reports in the April issue of the libertarian journal Reason. Not that he was surprised. “I’ve long suspected that one reason public schools fail is that, as government-protected near-monopolies, they lack the feedback mechanisms built into market systems,” he writes. “As a result, they can’t get the sort of information that would help them do a better job. Ultimately, they’re operated more for the benefit of administrators and teachers than for parents and students—for producers rather than consumers.” Even if you disagree with his premise, Glassman’s article is a fascinating look at what has happened since Arizona legislators passed the nation’s most liberal charter school law three years ago. The new schools, he reports, are thriving, and what’s more, they’re having a positive effect on the state’s regular public schools. “The evidence, I’ll admit, is anecdotal—and sparse—but all signs suggest that charter schools are having an important dual effect: Not only do charters provide their own students with a quality education, they are having a significant impact on non-charter public schools, too.” Glassman argues that charter schools have more political appeal than vouchers “and are probably just as effective” in opening schools up to “the salutary effects of competition.”

—David Hill