A Big Tent for Charter Schools
Deborah Meier recently lamented that the charter school movement has been co-opted by people she terms “Reformer/Deformers”—folks who favor high-stakes testing, merit pay, and overly strict “no-excuses” school models and undervalue socioeconomic integration. While Ms. Meier and I come from somewhat different philosophical perspectives (she is a Socialist and I am, well, not), I must confess sympathy for an aspect of her critique: Our focus on test scores is alienating many educators and parents with more progressive educational philosophies. Her message is one that school-choice advocates should heed, lest we wind up shooting ourselves in the foot.
The charter school concept is about the organization of our school system. It’s about providing families with a wealth of choices and creating schools that can be more innovative and responsive to families because they are independent. It’s not—or ought not to be—about a particular method or philosophy of education. There shouldn’t be an official charter school pedagogy any more than there should be an official state religion.
However, many parents feel that charter schools only provide a no-excuses option—an ironic twist, as charters are intended to enhance choice. Irrespective of whether no-excuses schools are good or bad, charter schools should not be so heavily associated with one particular pedagogical approach.
Our game plan seems to be that we’ll authorize schools with models proven to produce high test scores and thereby prove to skeptics that charters work. There’s just one problem with this theory: The skeptics don’t care. They don’t like high-stakes testing to begin with. We might even have more success in convincing them if we proved that charter schools did badly on high-stakes testing.
The charter movement’s emphasis on high-stakes testing and no-excuses schools is also unappealing to many education-minded middle-class families. That’s unfortunate because if more middle-class families started sending their children to charter schools, it would both make charter schools more diverse and strengthen our movement by broadening its base of support. Instead of focusing on testing, we need to encourage a greater variety of charter school models and do a better job of empowering educators and parents to create charter schools.
The Community Roots Charter School in Brooklyn is a good example of how chartering can empower educators and satisfy parents who want a more progressive education. This school, founded by two Bank Street graduates, was built to be progressive and diverse. It is a point of pride that every class at Community Roots has a co-teaching model with a special-education teacher to support students with special needs. The school is fantastically popular among families of all races and classes. Moreover, even with less of a focus on testing than many other charters, its students stack up well on the same standardized tests: More than 70 percent of them are proficient in both math and English, despite the school’s large special-needs population.
Another example is Brooklyn Prospect Charter School. This school was founded by Daniel Rubenstein, an educator who had experience both in charter schools and as a department head at the prestigious private Collegiate School. He founded Brooklyn Prospect to combine “the best practices of public and private school” and to serve Brooklyn’s diverse population. While the makeup of the student body reads like a diverse public school, the school otherwise has more of the feel of a progressive private school. As a result, it attracts many talented educators from independent schools and middle-class families who wouldn’t be interested in a no-excuses school.
People in the financial community fund a lot of charter schools, especially in New York. They like hard metrics, so they focus on test scores. That’s understandable. After all, they want to be sure that the schools they create are actually good. However, if our zeal for metrics means we end up supporting only a narrow range of school models, then we deprive parents of the ability to make choices—a problematic concept for a movement premised on choice.
To be sure, many families like no-excuses schools. But there is also demand for more progressive schools, and that demand is going largely unmet by the charter movement, at least in cities like New York. This hurts us not only with parents but also with educators. And yes, some teachers regard charter schools as privatization and will never like them. However, there are many less-ideological educators who would be attracted to charter schools if they truly felt that charters empowered them.
Charter schools have the potential to satisfy progressive-minded parents and educators precisely because they are independent. But we need to put more resources into creating diverse-school models. Doing so will build a broader base of support for school choice in the education and parent communities. Moreover, it’s the right thing to do. Real school choice means offering real choices.
Eric Grannis is the executive director of the Tapestry Project, an organization that opens and supports diverse charter schools in New York City. He is a former public school teacher and a leading expert on charter school law.
This blog entry first appeared in the Education Gadfly Weekly.