David suggested I write about charter schools. The best I can offer right now is an ambivalent primer. While I defend charter schools from attack on principle, I don’t promote them as any kind of one-size-fits-all fix for public education. Rather, the value of charter schools lies in their diversity and flexibility to address the needs of different kinds of students. However, charter schools are not alone in having such flexibility in public education.
Moreover, be forewarned: the charter school debate is another red herring in the way of substantive change in American public education. So long as traditional public schools, their employees, and their employees’ unions fight charter schools, they play along with the politicos in seeming staid by comparison. The way to compete with charters isn’t to stand in stark contrast as the obsolete, but to out-innovate charter schools and/or move on to new kinds of learning and measures of it. That’s hard to do without funding, but surely partnerships can be found.
To the primer:
Charter schools pursue specific missions to achieve specific visions.
Charter schools are a school-choice tactic.
Charter schools serve the strategy of reaching all learners.
Not all charter schools target all students, but in combination with traditional public schools, magnet schools, specialty centers, schools-within-schools, virtual schools, and other niche programs, they can be useful in helping all students learn as part of a portfolio school system.
Charter schools are public schools, although, like the entire Newark public school system and any school with a fundraising PTO, they may benefit from private donations.
Many public schools approved to run special instructional programs are not called charter schools, but are doing the same work of curriculum, instruction, and assessment development in pursuit of serving specific missions and/or populations of students drawn from surrounding schools.
Charter schools are typically freed of curricular constraints so that they can develop and pursue their own content, instruction, and benchmark assessments on the way to state-mandated end-of-year testing.
Each charter school or charter management organization typically has a student-profile aligned with its mission and vision with which it recruits kids and families.
Test-prep charter schools and their supporting cast are most often in the news as they compete with test-prep traditional schools in urban centers and major news outlets like Los Angeles, New York City, and Washington, DC. They are also in the news because we are obsessed with test scores and they compete with traditional public schools for “good” scores in ways that traditional public schools are unable to compete with one another. It’s worth noting that many public schools set up their own test-prep poaching programs using grouping strategies like tracking and AP which impact the performance of teachers inside and outside such programs.
That being said, there exists great diversity in the charter school movement. States enforce their own charter school codes. Some states disallow charter schools. Some states use their codes, state boards of education, and political organizations to limit the number or type of charters schools that can operate in such states.
Some states allow multiple charter school authorizers, including the state, so that those states can override local objections to charters. Other states put sole authority for authorizing charter schools into the hands of local school boards, limiting and localizing school-choice options state-wide.
Some charter management organizations and charter schools contract with school divisions and/or states for a certain amount of per-pupil dollars. Some charter schools receive the same amount of per-pupil funding as do traditional schools in the same district, by the same formula.
Some charter schools compete with local schools for students. Some complement local schools by providing niche services or specialized programs for students under-served in traditional schools.
Charter schools produce some change in enrollment in local schools. How the financial and personnel ramifications of such changes are handled at the local level can cause upset. Some charter schools bring grant money and private donations into their school divisions.
In terms of advancing educational transformation, charter schools, depending on which state they are in, can more easily experiment with reform measures such as multi-age classrooms, project-based learning, and student-diected learning.
I’ve posted and commented frequently about my school, its work, and its contributions to my growth as a teacher and person. To summarize: we work to help make visible the kids who typically become invisible in traditional public schools. We work to make their learning visible apart from their test scores.
Other charter schools focus on test scores.
Some charter schools are closed because they don’t meet the same expectations traditional public schools – passing and failing – are asked to meet. Some meet those expectations and stay open. Others find alternative accountability measures and work to meet them.
I’m happy to work through any specific questions via the comments below or on Edutopia’s Charter Schools Group.
Sunday, on Meet the Press, Randi Weingarten spoke frequently about supporting teachers in their work.
I work at a school that takes advantage of my skill set and vision in the classroom. It’s a small charter school. I don’t need to be a department chair or on the technology committee to make a daily difference in what happens in my classroom or school. I’ve stood alone, the past two years, at the end of school with our testing data in reading and history in my hands, and that’s a trade-off I remain willing to make for the freedom to teach and assess in ways that reach our students.
Arts teachers, why not work in a school geared to teach everything through the performance and production?
Math and science teachers, why not work at a school geared to tap in to all of the incredible STEM work and grants going on in our country right now?
History teachers, why not work at a school that asks students to work on issues of social justice through their reading, math, science, and elective classes?
PE teachers, why not work at a school that works to nourish the mind and body of each student and fights childhood obseity?
Foreign language and ELL teachers, why not work at a bilingual school geared to assimilate all learners to one another’s cultures?
Reading teachers, why not work at a school geared to deliver – without compromise – the time-on-quality-text struggling readers need?
Teachers, why not work at a school that can do whatever it takes to make a difference?
Look at those schools. Look at those kids. Look at the biodiversity of learning on display in the American charter school scene. This is the surface of #edreform. If we don’t need charters, fine. Help get us there another way, but start right now. Commit to making something new without worrying so damn much about the old. I’m sorry for your pain, charter opponents. I completely acknowledge it. I get anxious and second-guess my work all the time.
A wise friend often tells me to feel what I feel and then to let it go, to let the next feeling arrive, and to get back to the work I love.
I do feel optimistic about our chances to cause real change working together.
Call them whatever you want; start them however you can; schools that serve their students and teachers’ needs will always be more joyful and full of learning than schools full of people being told to do things they don’t believe in – full of people paying daily the price all such compromises toll.