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.