On Charter Schools

I’ve been wanting to write this post for awhile, and with the recent Washington State Supreme Court ruling that charters may be unconstitutional, now seemed like a perfect time.

All too often, charter schools are a tool used by education reformers to take power away from unions, and to put public money in private hands. Many charters are run by for-profit corporations with little or no educational experience. All across the country, charters under-perform when compared to their public school counterparts, despite cries to the contrary from supporters of privatization.

In my home state of Michigan, charters have been established in some areas in place of “failing” public schools, despite the fact that the failure of those schools has largely been manufactured by the government. Some charters have mysteriously closed overnight, leaving students and parents in a bind. In Ohio, the charter system is filled with corruption, mismanagement, and failure.

The failures of the charter system are readily apparent, and yet I can’t bring myself to completely condemn these schools. If you know where to look, you can find absolute brilliance among all of the failures and embarrassments. How do I know?

I’m a product of a charter, myself.

There are however a few key differences between my alma mater, and many of the disasters you read about in the press. For one, our charter is held by a public university and not a for-profit company. The school also holds true to Albert Shanker’s original vision of what a charter should be – an educational laboratory whose charter should only be renewed if the school remains successful.

If more charter operators embraced these characteristics instead of merely praying that the magic of privatization and competition improves their school, you’d see better results. Allow me to highlight a few key principles that my alma mater got right, things that set them apart from many other charters.

Teacher autonomy. The administrators trust the people they hire to do their job, it’s that simple. There was never really any micromanagement of teachers, which in turn meant the staff felt empowered to try new things.

An emphasis on the arts. By the time I graduated from high school, over two-thirds of our student body was involved in a music ensemble. The rest of the school was involved in a visual art of some kind. Even kids who needed some extra help in another core class would not be pulled out of the arts. Engagement in the arts was part of the school philosophy from day one.

Small class sizes. I think the average class size when I was a student was roughly 17-19 students. This meant each student received a lot of direct instruction, and each teacher was able to really understand the strengths and weaknesses of each student. Even today, 11 years after my high school graduation, I feel strong bonds to many of my teachers as result of the high level of interaction each day.

Embracing the Socratic method. Very few classes are ever simple lectures. I don’t recall any fully teacher-centric classrooms. At least a portion of every class revolved around discussion. Research shows that if a student has to explain their point of view, they gain a deeper understanding of the material.

Student autonomy. The end of each school year brought about something called “Project Term”, where students could pick their own educational direction for four weeks. Gone were the traditional core classes, replaced by opportunities to travel, perform plays, cook, learn photography, and many other things. For four weeks, students had the chance to practice their language skills in foreign countries, put their musical skills to the test by writing and performing a musical, and exercise their writing skills by creating short stories and novellas. It was project-based learning at its very finest.

Here’s the thing though. Many of the things that made my alma mater wonderful and unique should not be unique. Simple things like teacher and student autonomy are good ideas for any school environment, but in many cases they’ve been replaced by an emphasis on standardized testing.

If the reformers truly want to “fix” public schools, the answer is not to open more charters, to create competition between schools. The answer is to find a school that is already doing things well like mine was, and to spread those ideas around to already existing public schools.

Even though I have a deep love for my own charter school experience, one of the most important things to me is seeing each community have a strong public school district. I’d be thrilled to see the large amount of failing charters that don’t fit Shanker’s vision close down, keeping only those that are successful and willing to collaborate with other schools. Washington’s supreme court ruling is a step in the right direction, I just hope it doesn’t end up closing the door on some very high quality schools like mine.