One thought on “Friday TV Part I

  1. Steve Peha

    Charter schools are the chimera of education reform: “a fire-breathing monster with a lion’s head, a goat’s body, and a serpent’s tail.” Or, in another definitional context: “a grotesque product of the imagination.”

    Charters are chimerical. Or, rather, the notion that charter schools are a powerful weapon in the arsenal of reform is a myth. To date, the only unequivocally successful charter model is KIPP. And while I would never disparage their success, they represent a completely different way of educating kids, one best associated with private school than public. The fact that a charter school mechanism makes them easier to fund is handy but hardly necessary. In fact, they’d probably do better with private funding anyway.

    But let’s talk about all the non-KIPP charters for a second. Just how good have these thousands of experiments been? Well, the best studies I’ve seen seem to indicate that they are, at best, on average, only slightly better than their public school counterparts – and there are just as many studies which seem to show no statistically significant differences at all. And this does not take into account perhaps the three most important elements in the “charter school revolution”: parental choice, the ease with which charters can dump tough kids (no one will acknowledge this but I see it all the time), and the fact that many charters close shortly after opening.

    I’m not a big defender of traditional public schools by any means. But I am far from convinced that charters are changing the game in any significant way. Even KIPP schools can’t easily be replicated – even, these days, by KIPP. So the original notion that charters would serve as a living laboratory for better school models really hasn’t materialized. Nor has the notion that charters create more competition in the marketplace which somehow drives innovation and change in surrounding schools.

    Want a good school model? Check out Nancie Atwell’s Center for Teaching and Learning in Edgecomb, ME. Or talk to Jerry Harste at the University of Indiana-Bloomington about how his Center For Inquiry model works. There’s plenty of innovation all over the country, and most of the best “laboratory” models did not begin as charters.

    My experience working in charters has been a mixed bag – brown paper variety. Some have been OK at best. Most have been outright disasters. Why? Because charters are often started by people with big egos and little in the way of real life school experience. Interestingly, to charter a school, one need have no proof of ability to run a school or teach a child. It would be harder for me to get a teaching position in my own home district than it would to get my own charter school. At least I’d probably have to teach a lesson successfully in front of someone to get hired as a teacher here.

    When one considers that public schools simply can’t fail to operate (like charters can). Or that parents can’t often choose to send their kids where they want (like they do with charters). Or that the toughest kids often have to be kept in class regardless of how they behave (whereas every charter school knows they can send any kid to the local public school), one wonders how traditional schools can compete at all. And yet they do. Not very well, mind you. But at least as well as most charters. Why, for example, isn’t every charter better than its local public school? I mean, if I had all that freedom, the chance to hire my own staff, and the ability to design programs from scratch, I could certainly whip up a far superior experience for kids. But most charter schools don’t. And that’s always been the touchstone for me. Given unprecedented freedom, most charters make bad choices about teachers, curriculum, and methodology.

    The other persistent myth is that we simply need more time and more charters to really see the concept take flight. Yet states like Arizona, with the most charters and the most liberal charter rules, also tend to have the most malfeasance and the highest number of school failures.

    In the end, charter schools will be shown to be exactly what they are: perhaps just slightly better on average than the public schools we aren’t happy with and are working so hard to change. And here’s the kicker: at least I can get in and try to change a public school. Test score pressures and Title I budgets give me plenty of access to reform traditional schools whereas charters are usually self-styled closed shops.

    Perhaps worst of all, charter schools are a red herring remedy, and a distraction from the real work of fixing our schools which – as people are finally beginning to acknowledge (thank you Bill Gates; better late than never!) must begin and end with the quality of teaching in individual classrooms. Until someone figures out a way to “charter” great teaching, the myth of a nation full of publicly funded independent educational experiments will remain like the curious chimera it resembles.

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