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Leadership and Activism, Learning at its Best, Philosophical Meanderings

The toll

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.

Other charter schools focus on other missions entirely, such as training students in the performing arts, engaging them in Expeditionary Learning, or supporting them as scholar-athletes and leaders.

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.


About Chad Sansing

I teach for the users. Opinions are mine; content is ours.


16 thoughts on “The toll

  1. I rarely mention my thoughts on charter schools, because it angers people, but here are my thoughts:

    1. They are part, but not all, of the solution. My favorite school in all of Arizona is a charter school geared toward the arts. It’s an amazing place that actually provides more teacher autonomy.

    2. Charter schools need equal funding and teachers at charter schools need to have the same shot at equal pay. That’s the hardest thing I see right now. When charter schools can’t pay teachers enough, if they “are the solution” then we end up with a vastly underpaid staffing.

    3. Teachers need more opportunities to start their own charter schools. In our state, it takes such a business and legal team to start one that often teachers lose their voice. Not true in other states, but certainly the case in our state.

    4. Charter schools are public schools. Both are publicly funded. More charters doesn’t mean the death of public schools.

    5. We need to quit pitting district schools against charter schools. Both systems have pros and cons and both types of schools have their good and bad examples.

    Ultimately, the real enemy is a bad educational philosophy that leads to bad teaching . That’s the part no one is talking about.

    Posted by johntspencer | September 28, 2010, 7:59 am
    • Thanks for contributing these points, John – I am with you. I also think that charters, and all public schools, should look for revenue-generating innovations, as well, to help maintain the funding necessary for schools’ missions. Smaller schools with deans of student life and business managers might be better suited to discover new fiscal relationships than schools with the traditional principal/assistant principal administrative structure.


      Posted by Chad Sansing | September 28, 2010, 8:23 am
  2. Chad, this is a really helpful, comprehensive, even-handed view of charter schools, from my vantage point. As I’ve said, my consulting practice works with many charter schools, schools of the type you teach in especially, where kids who are lost, dispossessed and otherwise disengaged are supported, cajoled and encouraged to give school a try. One more time.

    Here’s one I especially love, and have been a part of since the beginning.

    Not a glammy school at all, they long for rich donors but mostly push on without them. This school exists because many of the local sending schools just simply don’t want the kids who are there. To your point.

    Charters were envisioned as “innovation incubators,” as ways to try to help lead change in a sector that wrestles with the old. In my little corner of the world, the trouble is that they often end up replicating the dysfunctions of the larger system they are trying to innovate in–they often aren’t innovative enough–and that is a real problem for them. The ones that have so captivated the media (“No Excuses” schools) are only a small portion of the charter school picture.

    Your point about antagonism between charters and public schools is exactly right. As long as school folks are fighting with each other and in oppositional discourse about who has a “right” to the per pupil dollars each kid represents, we lose energy for the Big Show. Which is about transforming the whole enterprise.

    Posted by Kirsten Olson | September 28, 2010, 12:48 pm
  3. I think it would be great if we could do a post of some of the best schools in each of our regions and communicate why they are the worth highlighting…. what traits do they share, what makes them unique, what is messy about them?

    All I know is there are 5000 charter school in the country but I only end up hearing about select hand full. Beyond Charter schools there are Millions of Public, Private and Independent schools in this country, yet we only know a few by name….. and then who are the parents, students, teachers who are part of those communities.

    What makes a good teacher? and better yet What is the protype for this “Bad Teacher” we keep talking about? Even better if we got rid of Test Scores, what makes a good or bad school? We need to start humanizing and personalizing the conversation, and remove the generalizations if we truly want change!

    Posted by dloitz | September 28, 2010, 2:15 pm
  4. Chad,

    This is possibly the best explanation of charter schools I’ve ever read. No joke. I will be sharing it with anyone I feel needs to be ‘schooled’ in what a charter school truly is.

    I also agree with John that teacher should be able to turn their schools into charter schools. I don’t understand why ALL public schools don’t have some kind of charter. ALL successful schools have a vision and mission of some kind.

    Posted by marybethhertz | September 29, 2010, 10:20 pm
    • Thank you very much, Mary Beth! What would you add or clarify? I’m curious about how the transition has been for you into charterland.

      I would add that it’s important for teachers to learn what’s possible through whatever state code governs their work so they can see the pros, as well as the cons, of school choice for them, their careers, and their professional fulfillment. School starter is a job title open to educators at all levels who are willing to take the plunge. States like Connecticut have a long history of school choice by bussing and magnet schools. Massachusetts has a pretty happening charter and virtual scene for New England. Florida and Virginia and some midwestern states with widely distributed populations have interesting virtual schools work going. Colorado and Arizona have vibrant charter scenes. And it’s only fair to say that it’s not all test-prep and take-overs in LA, NYC, and DC, though certainly there are political fights being played out in their schools with charters and traditional schools playing proxies.

      All the best,

      Posted by Chad Sansing | September 30, 2010, 1:43 pm
  5. AMEN. Charters are a red herring. In fact, most of what we take for serious public policy discussion in education are red herrings. The fact is, classroom teachers are too far removed from the discussion. We need to hear from the classroom first, and make policy decisions for and from the vantage point of classroom teachers and their students. That’s why we started The VIVA Project 3 weeks ago. Teachers from all over the country are collaborating right now on a report that they will deliver directly to Secretary Arne Duncan, at his invitation. More teachers are welcome to join as the work continues for the next two weeks. Don’t wait, the chance to raise your voice will be gone.

    Posted by Elizabeth Evans | September 29, 2010, 10:25 pm
    • VIVA keeps coming up in conversations I’m glad to have had, so I will spend more time there. Thanks, Elizabeth –

      Did you see Kevin’s comment on Mary Beth’s post? Maybe something to do through VIVA would be to band together a group of educators publishing stories or scenarios that problematize education in accessible ways for public consumption and debate.

      All the best,

      Posted by Chad Sansing | September 30, 2010, 1:32 pm
    • Elizabeth – here’s a link to my VIVA voice:

      Thanks for sharing the opportunity with us here!

      Posted by Chad Sansing | September 30, 2010, 3:36 pm
      • Chad: THANKS! Your idea is excellent, and really detailed. Are you familiar with the Perry Preschool Project, which is a longitudinal study of the economic value of high quality early childhood education? I imagine your proposed study could have similar impact–quantifying the net societal value of high quality K-12 education (or high school only?) while also proving the delivery model.
        Follow up question–what do you think about costs? I’ve been surprised at how more effective assessment approaches are not, in fact, dramatically more expensive. What about the PBL model–will it increase costs dramatically? decrease costs? please come back to the site and tell us more. And, thanks for the conversation. It shall continue.

        Posted by Elizabeth Evans | September 30, 2010, 8:14 pm
        • Elizabeth, I left a comment under my proposal on VIVA addressing your questions – please do let me know what else I can clarify. I can also use help from researchers and fiscal policy-minded folk in suggesting more details, if that’s desirable at this point in the project and proposals.

          And I caught an “its” that should be an “it’s”, which will bug me forever. Any way to edit my comments?

          Thanks for your help!


          Posted by Chad Sansing | September 30, 2010, 9:04 pm
  6. Hi Chad: I asked the team to fix the typo–kudos to you for the attention to detail. I think that we can bring in some experts to the next phase of the work–writing a more detailed action plan to talk about costs. We’re going to keep new ideas, and comments on ideas going until next Tuesday. Then, the group as a whole can decide how to frame up their top recommendations and we can get some experts in to help. I’d appreciate it if you’d make sure any other teachers you know who might want to participate in this idea phase know they can still get on the site this week: Look forward to keeping in touch as this process moves along

    Posted by Elizabeth Evans | October 5, 2010, 9:10 pm
  7. nice post Chad. tons of good info. and great feed to super comments. thank you all.

    while i was in providence, Saul – founder of BIF and Len – president of Babson shared their plan of connected adjacencies – i’ve since requested to do that in our district next year. so – yay.

    i’m currently reading the mesh, by lisa gansky. (wow – guys – good read.) it has me reaffirming all the dreams in my head – of less competition, more sharing. – so imagine school that way.
    James Bach describes his vision of ed… buildings becoming resource centers. and when you spoke of teachers starting/joining their own charters per their passion… same idea. if we all could just decide to own ed/learning for ourselves – without managing it for others.

    and get past labels… like you said Chad – who cares – just do it.. just offer more choices..

    and then… keep questioning what we’re doing.. but also keep encouraging each other. the highs and lows can be daunting. scared people say mean things… we have to take it as info – use it if it helps… ignore it if it doesn’t … and carry on.

    what we’re about is too important to waste any energy.

    Posted by monika hardy | October 14, 2010, 12:03 am
    • Thanks for the rich comment, Monika –

      I love the idea of adjancencies – school divisions need them. Classrooms need them. Public education needs them. If school divisions could see alternative settings (under any label) as an R&D investment and set clear, non-testing, accountability and accreditation measures for them, we could innovate more often from within the sector than we do subscribe to private “innovations” in canned curriculum.

      I commented on the Utopia post about my hope for intertwined schools and communities; certainly, at the very least, schools should focus more on being open gateways rather than closed ones.

      Keep dreaming and acting –

      Posted by Chad Sansing | October 14, 2010, 6:01 am


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