Charter Schools: The Emerging Lessons

Summary: A review of lessons from charter schools so far unfortunately boils down to more money for staffing to reach at risk kids, and creative changes in the context through which kids approach school, also likely to require more funding.

My own state, Washington, is going through a third round of initiative voting in November to determine if the voters will approve a version of charter schools in the state. Currently Washington is among a minority of states who have yet to wade into charter school waters. The previous citizen initiatives have done poorly, though I am unclear why, other than to acknowledge that the state teachers’ union, the Washington Education Association (WEA) has opposed them, and for their stance the organization has been vilified from some of the usual quarters. It has seemed to me that the WEA could be more proactive in this area, more in front of the curve, more creative, rather than play mere naysayer, which invites criticism as simply a defender of a less than satisfactory status quo.

Frankly, however, the more I wade into these waters, the less simple the issue seems, the more laden with ideological positioning, and the less blessed with carefully wrought rational discourse. I admit, in the current political climate, I am careful not to buy uncritically the arguments of even my ideological soul mates, for fear the facts they cite and the arguments they propound sit on shifting sands.

As a recent retiree from public high school, and before that thoroughly immersed in the day to day striving and survival of such a setting, I have not previously made it my business to bring myself up to desirable speed on charter schools.

I enter the realm having read assorted articles about charter schools, from local argument to more nationally based scribes, reported from various locales. I’ve noticed, and been perplexed, that seemingly conscientious reporters will conflict even on matters of fact, and cite the same august research to back up their point of view. Yes, it seems minority students achieve better at charter school X, but then the claim arrives that same charter school, or category of charter school, dis-invites those students that don’t comply with expectations, and so are essentially cherry picking. Public schools do not have this luxury, though wags might argue with justice that standard public schools “dis-invite” minority students by their failure to engage them.

I enter the realm favorably disposed toward charter schools, nonetheless. Schools too often are uncreative, in the sense that creativity is not fostered because too many bureaucrats at too many levels think they know better than the teacher in the classroom. The teacher is relegated to labor at the behest of what others tell them to do. Certainly teachers need support, and otherwise welcome fresh ideas, but I will look to charter schools that unleash teachers to become professionals within a goal oriented framework.

It seems obvious to me that when in trouble, and unsure of direction, before committing huge sums of money, one should engage in experiment, try different solutions, tweak the results, measure carefully, with reference to student progress rather than ideology. Isn’t it obvious that charter schools might fulfill – in fact are fulfilling in some cases – this pressing need?

In truth, there are charter schools that plausibly report progress with the same low income, often children of color, who standard public schools so floridly fail. Research out of Stanford, and other universities, for example, seems to vet hard won progress by the KIPP Charter School network, and by localized efforts such as those coming out of the Harlem Children’s Zone.

Standard research, hard research, which has too often been on the softer side in education, requires that findings in one area be replicated by other researchers. Through networks of charter schools, I have to assume there is communication and borrowings of successful methods, but have yet to encounter studies that specifically try to replicate reported successes elsewhere, perhaps in part because doing so rigorously encounters the same difficulties educational research has always encountered, namely that the multiplicity of variables endemic with human subjects, let alone communities of subjects, makes it challenging to create anything approaching the relatively hermetic conditions of hard research.

We are advised, I think, to be wary of “proofs” rooted more in the enthusiasms and passion of those soulfully engaged in the field than in hard nosed, replicable research.

With all this preamble (perhaps warnings to myself), I nonetheless think I see two strong variables present when I read of charter school whose efforts have been identified as successful by current research.

The first is the confluence of enhanced funding and a higher ratio of staff to students than is the general norm in public schools. Charter schools by definition receive the same funding per student as do associated regular public schools, but frequently – at least in the more successful versions – charters obtain additional foundation funding, which is in turn ploughed back into human resources.

Educational research has long found that relationship with adult mentors is essential to the gradual repair of the damage wrought in at risk student psyches by family dysfunction, community turmoil, the toll of racial and ethnic diminishment, and the multiple subtle ravages of low income existence. It ain’t easy, baby, and it takes more time, and a long time, commitment in the face of struggle, more than the normal measure of human adults willing to the commitment, and hence money to pay the salaries of enhanced staffing. Normal public school staff-to-student ratios are simply not up to the multiplicity of task, from my experience.

Successful charter schools seem to recognize this reality, and structure and fund themselves accordingly.

A thoughtful restructure of context seems to be a second major variable of successful charter schools. By context I mean the nexus of expectation, student self image, staff commitment or otherwise to creative solution, belief, and school and community culture.

For example, some charters I have read about have instituted uniforms. More generally a strict dress code removes the subtle comparisons of costume that can blight sense of self in poor students, and also sends a subtle message that somehow we are doing something different here, that the game as usual has changed. New rules.

The Harlem Childrens’ Zone is worth citing at this point in the argument. Pregnant mothers are actively sought out in order to bring the early months of the child in womb into the protective zone of the community. From there, adults with different roles follow the child throughout his life. Family assistance is provided, along with Head Start, and health care services. At the other end of the continuum, the student is monitored well into college once high school is completed. Such a full service outfit sends a compelling message to those enveloped in its reality that the game has changed, and now the game is success, and one has no choice but to get on board.

I assume much effort in the Harlem Childrens’ Zone has been to coordinate the various public agencies charged with the well being of the poor, but I suspect even these services have been beefed up by – what else – additional funding.

Regardless, the lesson of charter schools thus far comes into focus. Though the apparent success of such efforts needs to be sustained and broadened – in the research sense, replicated — the outlines of an argument for greater and more funding for public schools can be discerned: money to create and sustain a richer context of relationships with kids, and money to drastically restructure the context in which learning is created.

We need more adults teaching fewer kids, and resources, often human, to peel back the toll of poverty, racial and ethnic difference, and family and community dysfunction. To these horsemen I would add the sense of entitlement and waywardness of too many kids of all socioeconomic levels, liabilities of a current culture that holds them accountable too poorly.

It will take considerably more political will and consensus than exists in the present, and evidence beyond the still heuristic picture charters now present. I am an easy sell on this one; for those not so immediately in the school game, the general voter, it will take some political and social vision to see one’s own benefit in support of growth and change in others distant from one’s own immediate life. For now, we need more evidence, and I need to deepen my understanding of how and in what format charter schools can serve us.

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