Charter schools are developed to serve a wide range of parents’, children’s, and communities’ preferences. One popular charter idea is the creation of schools that are more child-centered than many conventional public schools. Advocates of this model, often called progressive or constructivist, are influenced by research that addresses such components of development as intrinsic motivation, sense of belonging, curiosity, and cooperation—traits that are important to parents, but often perceived as low-priority in public schools.
Parents interested in this kind of school hope it will be a more inviting, comfortable place, one where natural curiosity and self-direction foster a lifelong love of learning. With constant reports of school failure, racial tensions, the gap between rich and poor schools, and the appalling dropout rate, there is little wonder why they are concerned.
Often, the impression of a method or policy is so tainted by its misapplication that people come to believe these bad features were part of the original idea.
Implicit in the belief that more humanistic schools are better for children is an assumption that children can become just as smart there as they would in traditional schools. But since charter schools are compelled to demonstrate the same student “smartness” as regular public schools—that is, the same level of achievement on state tests—they have the overwhelming task of literally delivering two seemingly conflicting models of education simultaneously.
In attempting to reconcile these differences, it would benefit a school to examine which parts of the traditional model work against its objectives, while also identifying the elements that may contribute to the growth and learning the school desires. Let’s look first at a list of practices that are incongruent with progressive ideals.
• Inappropriate grading. Foremost on this list is the infamous practice of continually belittling children by marking up their writing efforts in red ink, grading the work, and then offering little or no chance for self-directed improvement. In math, again, work is collected, wrong answers are marked, and little opportunity is given for learners to find their own errors. Besides contributing to children’s negative self-image, this practice is a waste of precious instructional time, since no existing research correlates it to higher achievement. In fact, research clearly indicates that it may contribute to learned helplessness, and actually undermine performance.
• Punishment. Many classrooms are still rife with “Rules and Consequences” charts that reflect a rigid punishment code applied equally, but not fairly, to all kids regardless of circumstances. Again, there are few or no constructive opportunities for children’s reflection or self-regulation. When asked why they are sitting on the lunch bench and not playing, children being punished often answer “I was bad,” or “I was talking,” with little insight as to their circumstance. At many schools, children as young as 5 years old are benched for not bringing in their homework or completing their work, responsibilities that clearly rest also with parents and teachers.
• “De-constructive” competition. Many classrooms continue to publicly display and compare graded student work on bulletin boards. In a misguided effort to become more progressive, many teachers merely use a “1, 2, 3, 4” scoring method, which ideally should inform the learner of his or her progress, as a replacement for the old “A, B, C” system. Apparently there is often little or no progress, since the child’s effort clearly was ended when the score got posted. Many schools also start writing competitions and contests as early as 1st grade.
• Lack of student choice. Classroom learning centers and independent time are still highly prescriptive, with specific activities and explicit directions. Teachers often do not follow through on students’ self-initiated requests for materials or information, owing to fear of administrative reprisal for not continually teaching. A scarcity of paraprofessional educators, parent volunteers, and older or competent peer tutors contributes to this restrictive learning environment, and it is impossible for teachers to deeply know their individual students. Interests, abilities, and talents are mostly hidden in a school day that provides no independent-choice time for students to demonstrate these.
• “Sage on the stage.” Though constructivist methods are promoted in staff development, one would not know it by the preponderance of lecture-style direct instruction taking place in many classrooms. In staff development, teachers are often shown how to “do a constructivist lesson” (an apparent oxymoron), but the actual technique is little more than teacher-guided discovery, with the same learning objective for all students. Plus, of course, it all ends for students when the bell rings.
• Misinterpretation of standards and inappropriate testing. Simply, when a standard says “uses descriptive words” in writing and speaking, many teachers interpret this to mean “uses lots of adjectives.” So a student who skillfully describes the uses of a car, where it goes, who rides in it, and how it is operated gets a score of 2 because he or she didn’t use a lot of adjectives, while another who only describes a scooter’s many colors with simple adjectives gets a 4. This is a classic example of what is called dumbing down the curriculum. In math, unbelievably, one assessment item actually tries to test the standard “count the faces on a solid figure” by showing the child a two-dimensional picture of the three-dimensional shape. Ironically, teaching or testing from this distorted viewpoint wastes precious instructional time and diminishes children’s later performance on real standardized tests.
My list of well-intended and effective child-centered practices in public schools may surprise some progressive advocates. Often, the impression of a method or policy is so tainted by its misapplication that people come to believe these bad features were part of the original idea. A good analogy might be the game of telephone, in which one child whispers something to another, then that child whispers it to someone else, and on and on until the message, in the end, bears little resemblance to its original incarnation. If applied appropriately, the following practices are in line with progressive ideas:
• Standards. I am impressed with the developmental appropriateness and progression of cognitive and social skills through the grades and age ranges. Standards such as finding missing numbers, graphing favorite foods, blending through letter sounds, and promoting one’s own ideas through persuasive speaking and writing are all healthy child-centered activities. A “forensic” reading of standards, coupled with an equally deep understanding of individual children, allows us to help them toward greater knowledge of the world in a way that fits with how they think and what they think about.
• Authentic performance assessment and the elimination of some testing. Public school teachers are being strongly encouraged to use more authentic types of assessments, such as portfolios and student projects. Many early-reading programs discourage the use of weekly spelling tests and recommend a model in which children self-regulate and check their own skills by conferring with their classmates (peer editing). They also suggest using sound cards to pronounce words, with the teacher as a “guide on the side.” By knowing both the standards and their learners, teachers—not test results—can become the best judges of student achievement.
• Self-regulation. There is also a strong trend in public schools toward encouraging children to set their own learning goals. One way that standards inform us is by giving a developmental road map to where we haven’t yet been. It is often difficult for kids to see this and choose activities for themselves that always push toward greater understanding of a concept. Certainly, they can’t do it by reading the standards themselves. Teachers, however, can offer child-friendly statements and goals, helping children choose constructively what to “do next.”
• Early explicit and systematic instruction in reading. Progressive educators and parents are right in their belief that young children can learn to read in an environment offering good literature, the opportunity for practice, modeling, and direct instruction when needed. This has not been well explained, however, and many of our parents and teachers do not understand why there is such a big push in public schools for early literacy. In short, reading is an essential tool for self-directed learning. Much of the same research that supports constructivist practices also shows that children with the motivation and skills to pursue self-chosen topics are children who read and write at a young age.
So, is it possible to survive as a progressive charter school? The answer is yes. From a review of the practices that fit or do not fit with a progressive model, it is apparent that many of the curricula and standards are appropriate, while many classroom practices are not. In removing these “de-constructive” practices, we will find increased time and opportunity for children’s self-directed learning.
There is a balance possible here that is not a compromising of ideals. The small amounts of time needed for direct instruction should not consume an otherwise happy and caring place for children’s growth. We can do this in a noncoercive, supportive, and ever-increasing sphere of children’s knowledge of the world, their schools, and, most importantly, themselves.
A version of this article appeared in the March 07, 2007 edition of Education Week as Surviving as a Progressive Charter School—Is It Possible?