The Two Headed Being in American Education

Summary: Successful charters have extended research based in public schools to construct more pure versions of practice effective with at risk kids.

Reaching and teaching kids is hard to do. What have charter schools contributed to the learning curve?

Ironically, charters have brought to scale and intensity ideas that arose out of research and inconsistent implementation in those nasty public schools. It’s a complex relationship, that between publics and charters.control-785555_1280

Verbal combat aside and in the spirit of common ground, the review of charters proffered in Charter Schools at the Crossroads, by conservative thinkers Chester Finn, Bruno Manno, and Brandon Wright gives a reasonably objective view of strengths and weaknesses in the charter movement at this stage of the game. This public school adherent has found a conversation with the book useful.

The Knowledge is Power (KIPP) network is among the more successful of the charters that promote a “no excuses”/ high expectations/strict discipline/robustly academic model in the urban school landscape. Modest but significant outcomes in test scores and college attendance by inner city kids have established KIPP and similarly textured charters as worthy players. While not all inner city kids seem ready for the rigor and commitment of the model, there seems little question that it provides an academic elevator for those who are ready for the level of support offered.

The thinking crucial to the model did not originate with the charter movement; it originally arose out of research conducted in public schools and with at risk populations. Public practitioners knew perhaps twenty years ago that one leg of a successful push to academic improvement for at risk youth was to maintain the expectation that they could achieve at the very same level as their more lucky middle class school mates.

The real achievement of the current charter advocates has been to bring the high expectations philosophy to scale and to fully embed it within an entire school culture. Here the charters’ ability to create system from a fresh start, without the trappings of an embedded school bureaucracy, has made the experiment possible in a relatively pure form.

In regular public schools, by contrast, responsibility for every student regardless of level of readiness has made it difficult to ratchet up the level of expectation without failing too high a number of students for community consumption.

Which brings us to a second ingredient culled from notable charters. At risk students need extensive adult support in their rise to meet higher standards of achievement.  Here again this is not news. The same research gradient that established the constructive role of high expectations also tagged the role of the relationships fostered by school personnel, teachers and others, as pivotal in supporting at risk students toward academic gain.

Successful charters have made conscious use of the power of mentorship by school staff. While charter schools chronically have had to scrounge for resources, some have captured the imagination of potential donors, often via promising results but also by a shared belief in market thinking, and so have been able to leverage monies from foundations toward stronger staffing levels.

Such schools have also harnessed the idealism of Teach for America young types who commit long hours to their students, and have been criticized for burning out those teachers just as they start reaching a level of professional maturity. No mind, other type A recent college graduates continue to line up to serve.

While public school advocates might be inclined to call foul, and complain of a stacked deck, it is reasonable to ask why such inspiration tends not to be generated as imaginatively by the public sector.

One wonders about the role of class conflict in this; after all, the teachers’ unions, citadel of middle class expertise and perspective, are often excoriated as the source of all evil by self-appointed wealthy reformers. In turn, teachers’ unions have resisted the charter movement that the reformers champion.

As with the “no excuse” model, much of the curricular innovation that charters have adopted arrived in public schools before charters expanded to their present population. Blended learning, formative assessment to guide instruction, personalized instruction, the flipping of class rooms in which lecture is presented on line at home with teacher guided application/homework in the classroom – all were present in the public high school in which I worked some years back.

The difference may be that individual teachers adopted these practices sometimes with district encouragement; however, when administrators required the spread of a technique school wide, acceptance could be grudging. Versions of these dynamics are likely present in charters, as well, but the presence of a high percentage of malleable young teachers would make conformity to a prescribed instructional technique more likely in charters.

Moreover, the newness and relative freedom from bureaucratic constraints of charters in theory may enable a more nimble response to the changing conditions of the schoolhouse and to fresh ideas than is true of publics. As I say, in theory.

Most notably the “no excuses” charter schools have lengthened the school day, as well as the school year. The relationship of time on task, or engaged learning, to learning outcomes was well established in the research in the years before implementation by the charter movement. Some public schools strived to be more efficient in use of the school day, or engaged kids in reading programs over the summer, but budget considerations and resistance from the community to the extra cost typically stymied any lengthening of the actual school day or year.

By contrast some charter schools, relatively new, by definition freed of engrained practices, and subsidized by foundation money have been able to stretch the school day and year. The willingness of motivated young teachers to work long hours in the cause has also aided the extension of time on task.

Lastly, the statutory clout of the authorizers of charters – the state or the local school district typically – that oversee charter schools determines if the contract is adhered to and responsibility toward students is carried out. Poorly performing charters may be terminated, while promising charters are still given time to right their ship if drifting. The irony is that this educational child of free market thinking works best when wisely regulated.

Charters in Massachusetts, for example, have had notable success under a watchful but not unduly meddlesome state board. By contrast, the charter environment in Detroit and Michigan, home to Betsy DeVos’ misguided Wild West lack of regulation, appears to even casual observers to have hosted a travesty.

The composite picture is that charters, where successful, seem to have channeled educational research into a more pure form than that in public schools; the long history of pedagogy has birthed a new format somewhat in its own image, a two headed being, as it were, charter and public. Will charters evolve more clearly into their original intent, as centers of experimentation that alter practice in the broader network of public schools, or fulfill the clear intent of some charter advocates to repeal and replace public schools with a vision that still appears poorly defined?

Ironically, it should be conservatism that sees the foundational interest of democracy in public education. Reformers in their zeal must surely acknowledge charters have evolved out of a public school idea that, for all its warts, has been the creative cradle of much that drives high profile charters today, including heightened academic expectations, curricular innovations, strong relationships with at risk kids, and the extended school day.

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