Summary: Institutional leadership in the charter era, the fate of a deep student underclass, and the teaching of civics are three topics which mistakenly get short shrift in the current conversation around schools.
Adept political leadership on the part of Denver’s superintendent of schools and its school board has made possible Denver’s apparently successful voyage into charter schools while preserving intact the rest of the public school system. Similarly, Massachusetts and Boston embody additional examples of school leadership in the age of charters from which Seattle and other cities could learn. By contrast, a recent ham handed vote by the Seattle School Board to oppose a construction waiver for a new charter high school in Seattle is leadership of the-stick-one’s-head- in-the-sand-and-hope-it goes-away variety.
While the complex politics of charter schools play out in Seattle and across Washington State, there are at least three substantial issues that do not get enough attention in the general melee, locally as well as in some areas on the national scene.
The first of those issues centers on the above mentioned importance of institutional leadership.
Invigoration of Seattle and Washington schools begs a bully pulpit exercised by leaders with a transformative message that includes an energetic marketing of best practices, and which pointedly accepts the responsibility for all public schools, whether traditional or charter, and in which charters are viewed as centers of experiment and innovation. (Charters are publicly funded.)
Locally, and despite the dysfunction of the Seattle School Board around charters, persistent calls for pre-K school for low income kids and the growing conversation in leadership circles about supplementary staffing in low income schools, which arise from both a research base and charter experience, give me hope that reform progresses nonetheless.
The Washington State Charter School Commission has published a “Performance Framework” that is reminiscent of the expectations for all schools; as with public school results presumably they are to be published on a regular basis and should be part of a directed conversation led by whom? The state Superintendent of Public Instruction? The Charter School Commission chair? The Seattle School Superintendent? All the above?
For now, with political winds whipping about, the pols seem to have their heads on the down low about potential integration of charter and public school public discourse. In the wings awaits the Washington Institute for Public Policy, a creature of the Washington Legislature designed to pursue research on matters of public policy, including charter/traditional public school comparisons, at the behest of the legislature.
A second topic too often missed has to do with a rock bottom student underclass. The ugly underbelly of many of the successful charters, despite their urgent denial, is that they do tend to attract and maintain a population of the more upwardly bound low income families and kids of color — that is, those who have the wherewithal not only to apply to a charter but the personal resources to sustain themselves in what is appropriately a highly demanding if often supportive environment. Such kids arguably may get a better education from their choice of an aptly selected charter (although there are many charters who are not a better choice). But that still leaves charter dropouts or non-applicants behind in an underachieving and demoralized public school, an underclass left to suffer further in classrooms where funding has been cut by an unregulated exodus to charters on the part of more ambitious students.
Moreover, the research is clear that lower performing kids do better in heterogeneous classroom where they tend to rise closer to the level of stronger students. With the stronger students gone the whammy is doubled.
How will charters and public schools handle this challenge? Perhaps a robust district and state framework might find a way to compel both charter and public to meet the needs of this underclass. For example, a beefed up staffing level in prominent charters has made possible the deeper personal connections with students that have bridged the gap between academic success and personal fragility. Arguably an even lower student/teacher ratio may prove necessary to sustain progress for the more heavily trauma impacted kids currently left behind.
A third issue currently on quiet stems from the crush to reform schools. Test scores have become the Holy Grail while the erstwhile companion purpose of public schools, to prepare youth for citizenship, has taken a back seat to high stakes test preparation.
An original vector for the rise of charter schools has been the growing need for workers ready for the scientific and technical jobs the economy requires to operate. Corporate types recognized that too many students, disproportionately low income and kids of color, emerged from our schools not even remedially ready for the demands of a tech labor force; many of these captains of industry morphed into philanthropists to a growing charter movement as a solution to the problem.
Civics has been a casualty in the ensuing hyper focus on skills, in both the charter and public school world. While policy types evaluate charges leveled at public schools for stagnation, or charters for a pressured atmosphere and cherry picking of students, they might also ask what is the long term consequence of a voting public that can read and write and do arithmetic but does not know enough to resist the blandishments of a demagogue, or appreciate the necessary complexities of a democratic process?
Might market oriented financial angels and public school leaders alike, in thrall of the quest for the perfect teaching of academic skills, be able to incorporate a larger picture which includes the preparation of a citizen? Can corporate stars take responsibility for the good of the national order? Can educational leaders carve a path back to some of the old public school civic reason for being?
Dunno. There might still be too much stormy weather.