Are Charter Schools Joining the Long Slog to Mediocrity?
Recently I’ve become disappointed at how the charter school movement, which was supposed to champion innovation in public education, is becoming a victim of the forced march to mediocrity—an inevitable outcome of our obsession with “academic outcomes.” If this trend continues it will signal the loss of a real opportunity to revitalize public education so that the lessons of the classroom are truly relevant to the skills and attitudes kids need to thrive in the 21st century.
I became involved with charter schools, as did many of my friends, because we believed in public education. We also believed that the existing school systems were so resistant to change that starting new public models would be less frustrating than trying to work from within the exiting ones. Presented with an opportunity to put our progressive ideals and entrepreneurial energies into something as valuable as public education, we jumped. We were not looking to privatize education and we were not looking to stick a thumb into the eye of the UFT. We were looking for a way to do things differently within the public sphere, and the promise was that charter schools, self-governing and freed from many of the constraints that put straightjackets on regular public schools, could be laboratories of change and excellence, and that lessons learned in those laboratories would be shared with all schools for the greater good.
Some of this has happened, but mostly it has not. There has recently been a drumbeat in the charter movement for “scaling and replicating success.” But “success” measured purely by the metrics of test scores is a fairly shallow one, and the “scaling” that is being promoted looks very much like franchising, which in fact is inimical to real innovation. Nothing innovative happens in a franchise. The latte you get at the Starbucks in St. Louis tastes exactly like the latte at the Starbucks in Atlanta—and woe be to the barista who tries to innovate. Innovation in education will only and always come from the idealistic teachers who haven’t yet been beaten down by the system. The schools that give rein to these teachers and encourage them to try new things and take risks are the ones that may actually succeed in making the classroom experience relevant to children. Those schools that make teachers teach “to and only to” the test, read from a script and find every way to keep them from exercising creativity, will replicate only the old industrial model we have had for the last 150-plus years.
A closing anecdote: at my grandson’s birthday party a few weeks ago I was talking with a fabulously gifted and energetic special education teacher from a public middle school in Queens, and he asked me: “Is it true that your charter says you actually have to outperform the schools in our district?”
“Yes,” I said. That’s part of the contract with our authorizer.
“Then, we’re being manipulated into being adversaries and we’ll always hate you,” he said.
He may have overstated the case but, at heart, he’s right. We want to create great public schools, but don’t want to do so by showing up our friends who are fighting the good fight under absurdly difficult conditions in the public schools. I’m tired of the enmity between regular public schools and charter schools. This doesn’t have to be. There are, in fact, some great lessons that DOE schools could pick up from charter schools, especially on the operational and governance end. But no lessons will be learned if we are pitted against each other in our silly data-driven races and no lessons will be learned if charter schools are forced to become test prep factories. There are enough of those already.
Steve Zimmerman is the founder of SchoolSmarts, the Open School Project and, most recently, OpenSchool ePortfolio. Steve has a lifelong involvement with educational issues and believes in social entrepreneurship and good coffee.