Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Moving Into a New House: Framing the Case for Charter Schools Part 3

This post is cross-posted at
<---Go to Part 2--

Governance Issues:

Charter law differs in every state. Opponents of the charter movement often frame the argument that schools created by charter are simply public private schools and breeding grounds for ideas thrust on the public by billionaire interests. However, this does not have to be so. While charter law in many states allows for this kind of relinquishment of local control to happen it does not follow suit in every state in the union. Minnesota, the first state in the union to have a charter law, does not allow for this kind of governance. Minnesota charter law requires that schools created by charter be founded by and run by a majority of teachers who serve in that school. The other board members must consist of elected positions from the community and seats for parents of students who attend the school. This arrangement has made for some very nice schools. Lets not throw the baby out with the basket.

Student Performance & "Cherry Picking":

Another argument that has been made about Charters is that they don't perform any better than their traditional counterparts. When taken in average this may be true. However, to quote the Minnesota Department of Education, "If you have seen one charter school, you have seen one charter school." Charter law opens the door for a plethora of types of learning environments for kids. Some are successful and some are not. Some attract a student body that likely will under perform on assessment measures due to other external factors. As for the claim that charter schools only want the best students, the following is an excerpt from the charter school application form for the state of Minnesota:

Minnesota Statewide CSP Goals: The following state-level goals are approved for Minnesota’s Federal CSP Grant Project; applicants are expected to meet one or more of these goals: · At least 50% of new charter schools approved each year will target educationally disadvantaged populations, including economically disadvantaged students, English Language Learners, students with disabilities, and students who are most at risk of not meeting state academic standards. · The development of new charter schools in areas where: ­
  • Parents show a high demand for additional school choice options (such as areas where existing charter schools have large waiting lists);
  • ­
  • A large proportion or number of public schools have been identified for improvement, corrective action, or restructuring under Title I;
  • ­
  • A large proportion of students have difficulty meeting Minnesota academic standards;
  • ­
  • A high concentration of families live in poverty; and/or
  • ­
  • Public education options are limited, such as rural areas

Innovations & Opportunities:

Charter schools have also opened the door for a wide variety of innovations and opportunities that would likely never have seen the light of day in traditional settings. Schools centered around academic interests such as the arts or technology, schools specifically for English language learners, language immersion schools, college preparatory schools, schools specifically addressing the needs of economically disadvantaged students, innovative online schools, project-based learning, and teacher partnerships have all been allowed to flourish and grow because of charter law. Just like my new house these new schools are still going through a settling process. There are things they still need and there are changes in the design that should be made before builders build more just like them but for many these new designs fit current needs better than the old structures we used to live in.

Future topics in this series:
Disruptive Innovation: Why Traditional Ed Is Ill-Suited For Change
The War On Teacher Unions: How Charter Schools Can Offer A Better Alternative For Teachers
Charters vs. Other Education Alternatives
Burning Down The House: How School Choice Will Force Traditional Education to Change

Moving Into a New House: Framing the Case for Charter Schools Part 2

This post is cross-posted at

<---Go to Part 1---

Identifying Need:

In 2006 Civic Enterprises in Association with Peter D. Hart Research Associates for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation released a study, The Silent Epidemic: Perspectives of High School Dropouts. This was a comprehensive look at high school dropouts in all 50 states in the U.S. that included statistical analysis and interviews with students who had dropped out of school. The findings identify a clear need for some kind of change in public education. According to this report, 33% of students in the United States do not complete high school. The numbers are disproportionate when looking these statistics within demographic subsections of the population. These findings are supported by and are nearly identical to the findings that standardized tests administered under the dreaded No Child Left Behind program. There clearly is something that needs to change. The questions are what and how. The following is a sampling of data the report obtained through interviews:

  • Nearly half (47 percent) said a major reason for dropping out was that classes were not interesting.
  • Thirty-five percent said that “failing in school” was a major factor for dropping out.
  • Forty-five percent said they started high school poorly prepared by their earlier schooling.
  • Fifty-nine percent of parents or guardians of respondents were involved in their child’s schooling.
  • Sixty-eight percent of respondents said their parents became more involved only when they were aware that their child was on the verge of dropping out.
  • Four out of five (81 percent) said there should be more opportunities for real-world learning and some in the focus groups called for more experiential learning.
  • Four out of five (81 percent) wanted better teachers and three fourths wanted smaller classes with more individualized instruction.
  • While two-thirds (65 percent) said there was a staff member or teacher who cared about their success, only 56 percent said they could go to a staff person for school problems and just two-fifths (41 percent) had someone in school to talk to about personal problems. More than three out of five (62 percent) said their school needed to do more to help students with problems outside of class. Seven in ten favored more parental involvement.

Another report that clearly identifies a need for schools to change is the 2004 report, A Nation Deceived: How Schools Hold Back America's Brightest Students, by the University of Iowa. Here are a few quotes from that document:
  • "America’s school system keeps bright students in line by forcing them to learn in a lock-step manner with their classmates. Teachers and principals disregard students’ desires to learn more—much more—than they are being taught." (Assouline et. al. 2004)
  • "Study after study tells us what so many bright but bored students already know—challenge is lacking in the regular classroom." (Assouline et. al. 2004)
  • "When educators confuse equity with sameness, they want all students to have the same curriculum at the same time. This is a violation of equal opportunity." (Assouline et. al. 2004)
  • "Before major corporations and large school systems became the norm in our nation, individualized education was standard practice. The one-room schoolhouse let students learn at their own pace. Teachers knew their students well, and nothing held back a student’s progress." (Assouline et. al. 2004)
  • "This was not an educational decision. It was an organizational decision based upon a narrow understanding of child and adolescent development that supported the goal of keeping kids with their age-mates. This represented important progress in acknowledging and responding to group similarities. It also paralleled the American belief in the efficiency of the industrial model of organization.

    What was lost was an appreciation for individual differences. Individual differences in educational needs are most pronounced at the extremes. Students lost the right to direct their own education based on how fast they were able to learn new and complex material." (Assouline et. al. 2004)
Both of these studies clearly identify just two of many types of students who are undeserved by our traditional public schools. One answer to these problems was a practice that came in vogue in the 1980s of modifying curriculum to address a wide variety of cognitive styles. Influenced greatly by Howard Gardner's work on multiple intelligences this arguably improved instruction but it still did nothing to address the individual needs of learners. Rather than a student receiving instruction 100% of the time in a manner that worked for them they were lucky enough to receive a portion of the instruction delivered in a manner that fit their cognitive learning style. What these two studies show is that this clearly is not enough for many kids. What is needed are new schools and new programs where differentiation and individualized instruction can truly take hold. Charter schools are one option. This does not mean that there is no place for traditional schools, on the contrary. Traditional schools provide a learning environment necessary for some learners. Should they go away entirely I am sure a similar or identical model would spring up in their place.

---Go to Part 3--->

Moving Into a New House: Framing the Case for Charter Schools Part 1

This post is cross-posted at


In the past ten years I have moved three times and owned three different homes. One of these houses was old and had over the years gone through numerous renovations and had a few additions. The various owners over the years did not agree with each other on wall color and thus the walls had many different layers of paint and quite a few scratches that revealed multicolored undercoatings. The home was also built in a time when there were different building codes and many health hazards we now know associated with certain building materials and design were not known. That home had many issues. Some we could deal with. We dug up the basement flooring and replaced the sewer pipes that run under the house. We repainted the home, though we could not strip or sand the old paint because of the dangers of releasing lead into our air. We removed artificial walls that did not make functional sense to us in the basement. We pulled up carpet and tile to reveal a beautiful hardwood floor that probably had gone years unknown to who knows how many previous owners. The home was beautiful and quaint but did not really fit our lifestyles nor our needs. It was perhaps more suitable for the lifestyles of my grandparents or even an older generation. As much as we tried to make changes to that structure to fit our tastes, needs, and lifestyle it was not possible to convert that space into the ideal living environment.

Our current home was built in 2007, just a year before we moved into it. While we have had some growing pains with this new place it's structure and design are far more suited to how my family lives. Sure, the basement is not yet finished and the trees on our lot are not mature. We don't yet have gutters or much landscaping. Our new home did not come with a washer and dryer, we had to purchase those ourselves. It does, however make us sleep a bit easier at night knowing that the home does not contain a speck of lead paint, that the home was built with energy efficiency in mind, and the air handling system actually works to control air quality in the home. These things were not possible with our old house. It is much easier to start from scratch and build a new home than to try and reform an old home to fit today's needs.

I think schools are a lot like homes in this regard. Like my old house, our traditional school system was built to serve the needs of a different era. Yes, there are beautiful and irreplaceable things in old homes but the changes that are needed to modernize an old home need to be weighed against the cost and practicality of those changes. Sometimes it is better to build new.

So, how do we address this issue? One answer is to create new schools to address today's students and prepare them for the world we live in today. This is largely how charter law came into existence. When the old house cannot be renovated to fit new needs it is often better to build a new one. Schools created by charter basically serve two purposes: 1. They attempt to better reach the needs of certain populations of students than their traditional counterparts; and 2. They can serve as testing grounds for new and innovative ideas in education.

---Go to Part 2----->