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Don’t Throw The Baby Out With The Bath Water…


My old friend Dan Grego, a long-time educational activist and reformer in Milwaukee, has taken issue with my harsh assessment of the charter school movement in my inaugural post. So I thought I would challenge him to a good spirited debate.

Since it was my idea, I get to go first.

Chris: I recognize that truly innovative schools have sprung up in certain states with liberal charter policies, and that’s great for the lucky minority of students who get to attend them. But when the charter school concept was first conjured up, there was the promise that the movement would generate new and better models that would lead to system-wide change. Can you to point out a place where this has actually happened?

Dan: First of all I need to say that the only states I know much about are Wisconsin, Illinois, and Minnesota. But as I understand it, there were two stated goals for the charter movement in the beginning: autonomy and innovation. Many charter schools across the country are autonomous, but their only “innovation” is to be rid of the unions so the model can be what I call “traditional school on steroids.”  Wisconsin’s “instrumentality” charters, which the US Department of Education doesn’t consider to be true charters, are sometimes quite innovative. But the staffs are unionized, and the schools have little autonomy. It’s quite a mess to untangle.

The independent charter school that I helped start, Escuela Verde,  which is authorized by Milwaukee’s Common Council and not the local school district, is nothing like a traditional school. There are no classes. Students meet state standards by studying what they want individually or in self-organized groups. For example, a group of students just received a $99,935 grant from State Farm Insurance to “Make Sustainability Hip.” They’re working on videos, web stuff, etc. that will connect them with other teenagers in Milwaukee and around the world. It will be fascinating to see what they come up with. Walking into EV is like walking into the news room of a large newspaper. It’s a large open space with young people at work stations doing all kinds of projects. The place is always buzzing.

As for the dream that charters would lead to changes in the traditional system, I’d ask you to remember the sequence of Star Wars movies. The first film, released in 1977, was called “A New Hope.” But, the title of the next film was “The Empire Strikes Back.”

The traditional school model, especially for teenagers, has people’s imaginations in a vice-grip. Right now, I’m battling the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction about “Educator Effectiveness” so we can ensure we have “highly qualified teachers” under NCLB at EV. Their standardized policy calls for the principal (EV has no principal –  it’s run as a teachers’ cooperative, the most democratic model I know) to observe classroom practices (but there are NO classrooms!), review lesson plans (need I go on?) … How can this nonsense be blamed on those of us in the charter movement who are fighting for change?

I don’t intend any of this as a rebuttal in a debate. The issue of charter schools just doesn’t fall into neat black and white categories. 42 states and the District of Columbia have charter laws and they are all different. I just resent people tarring them all with one brush.

Chris: It doesn’t sound like there’s much for us to debate. With your Star Wars reference I hear you saying that the conventional education model isn’t about to let a relative handful of innovative schools loosen its grip on the wheel that’s steering the system. But at the same time the movement has given birth to some radically different schools. I agree with you on both counts.

Now the other bone I have to pick with the charter movement is that schools that stray too far convention eventually get shut down. Like the Village School in Minnesota, a freedom-based and democratic K-12 alternative. The school was a wonderful place and highly successful, but the school board revoked its charter after seven years for entirely trumped up reasons. This leads me to ask you how you would rate your school’s chances for survival in its present form?

Dan: You’re raising a difficult problem here that relates to the “battle” I mentioned above. When we were planning Escuela Verde, I joked with the staff and told them they were going to have to figure out how “to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” (They all laughed with me about who I ended up being in that analogy!) So far, they’ve done amazingly well at both.

The problem, as I see it, is the confusion that’s created by equating standardization with having standards. When a school accepts public money, it will be (and should be) held accountable by a public entity. But the standards a school has to meet should align with its model. You wouldn’t rate an NFL quarterback by his earned run average or strike-out to walk ratio or a major league pitcher by how many touchdown passes or interceptions he has thrown. The education bureaucracies, by their nature, tend toward standardization, toward applying the same set of standards to all schools. I’ll bet something like that happened to the Village School you mentioned.

Escuela Verde will continually have to fight for its autonomy and its right to be different. What else does “innovative” mean?  But, if what they’re doing at the school continues to attract attention and community support, they’ll have a good chance to survive. And maybe they will even be able to contribute to a conversation about whether or not the traditional school model is best for all students.

Chris: I’ll join with you in hoping this is exactly what happens.

11 Comments Post a comment
  1. Arnold Greenberg #

    Chris, as you know, I wrote an essay for Encounter titled, “Toward a Different Standard—Counting What Can’t be Counted.” It comes from something Einstein said, “Not everything that counts can be counted.” In response to both yours and Dan’s comments, it is not easy to make a paradigm shift in a culture that has been molded by the traditional views of what it means to be an educated person; that is, someone who has mastered certain skills deemed essential for participating in society and prepared to either go on to college and/or be able to function in society as we know it. Society wants students to be homogenized. Dan’s model and I know yours and mine is to get out of the way, support and facilitate to whatever degree is necessary in helping young people actualize who they are. Being funded by the public does indeed justify some scrutiny, but when a school states its philosophy and mission, ideally the evaluation of the school should be based on the question–is the school fulfilling its mission or purpose? Charter schools have a right to be whatever their founders and constituents want and state as its philosophy–even if it’s a traditional model. Until the powers that be give up control and allow real autonomy, innovative schools are in a quagmire and have to struggle to justify their existence. It takes time, courage and persistence, but as Dan says, if it is getting attention and community support because people see the results then that’s significant. Striving toward a different standard and finding ways to measure or demonstrate those “learning results” is, unfortunately, essential in a society that wants proof for its money. How to count what can’t be counted is the question.

    November 26, 2013
    • Chris Mercogliano #

      Agreed Arnold, except for your statement that “Society wants students to be homogenized.” I think powerful political and economic interests are the co-conspirators. Lest we forget, one of Horace Mann et al’s primary reasons for creating a national system of compulsory education was to engineer that homogenization. They knew that the emerging industrial economy depended on it, and also that an unassimilated immigrant population was a serious threat to the political order that provided them with their power.

      December 2, 2013
  2. Tim McClung #

    and therein lies the proverbial fly in the ointment. I supported charters because I wanted educators to have the autonomy to be held accountable. Foolish me, soon found out that it was more about getting the public out of education. Now I am pushing very hard to allow schools to become site-governed district schools like in Minn. or Innovation Schools in Mass. A really good read on this is Kim Farris-Berg’s book, Trusting Teachers with School Success. It highlights what I had always envisioned would happen if teachers were really given the autonomy and authority to design and implement a learning environment. They might not all turn out to be like Escuela Verde or the Village School but I know they would be so much democratic and engaging environments.

    So the real issue/question is how to get states and districts to give up “control” and re-imagine their role? I think we need much more progressive educator inclined folks on school boards. Currently, it seems that the choices are candidates that won’t try to take away anything from the unions or corporate reform advocates. Where are all the Lisa Cooley’s?

    November 26, 2013
    • Chris Mercogliano #

      Who is Lisa Cooley, Tim?

      December 2, 2013
      • Hi!

        November 9, 2014
        • Chris Mercogliano #

          Hey Lisa, write us a guest post sometime!

          November 19, 2014
  3. We live in an historical moment in which all of our Modernist institutions are falling apart because they don’t work very well. The response to this phenomenon in schooling is an intensification of the old Modernist regime by the powerful in our society.

    If it’s falling apart, we just need to put more force and fear into holding it together.

    Charters are caught up in this mess. When the original proponents for charters envisioned these schools in the 1980s, there was never the idea that charters would be the captives of states’ standards-and-testing and teacher-evaluation-by-test-score regimes. The idea was that charters would truly be laboratories for real experimentation. But by the time charters got going, this potential was already removed. And, of course, the original charter proponents never envisioned the charter industrial complex that has manifested in some states.

    What Al Shanker envisioned was never allowed to take place, except in a few states that got in on charters really early. But now even these schools are stuck in the same reactionary mess.

    December 2, 2013
    • Chris Mercogliano #

      So sad but so true, David. Lest we should ever forget that schools are just a mirror of the rest of the society.

      December 10, 2013
  4. I wrote a blog post about charter schools that covers some of these issues.

    Charter Schools in NH only receive 40% federal funding and none are privately owned or run . They have been an important option for students and families .

    December 2, 2013
    • Chris Mercogliano #

      Thanks for chiming in, Peter. For some reason the link to your blog post doesn’t seem to work. Can you give us one that does? Thanks.

      December 10, 2013
  5. Hi All here is the link to above blog post I mentioned. It apparently was not working.

    December 10, 2013

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