Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Charter School Questions

Thomas writes about Just What Is a Charter School? and it brought up a lot of questions in my mind. This was perfect timing since I recently went to a reception hosted by charter schools in my county. I have heard about them but not really thought about all the ramifications of them until now. I met with charter school board members and discussed philosophies and ideas but not about the actual operations. I loved the idea of how small the school was and how involved the parents were. In fact, parents agree to spend so many hours at the school each year volunteering. I think they said there were 13 teachers at this school and the class sizes was smaller than in public schools. This was not a private school and students do not pay any tuition because they get public school money for this.

Thomas states, “…charter schools in those states where legislation has been created are free of virtually all other state and federal rules and regulations.” I was wondering where special education fits into this. Do they have to follow IDEA and NCLB? What does “virtually free” mean? Do they get to pick and choose which state and federal rules and regulations they want to follow? How do they know which ones to follow and which one they don’t have to?

He also states, “In addition, many educational and non-educational professionals insist that governmental regulations stifle the learning environment. By their very nature, charter schools are free to experiment with educational practices and curricula. For charter schools, creativity and innovation are not simply buzzwords: these concepts are expected to be the cornerstones of such entities.” If this is true, why are public schools stifled with these governmental regulations? Charter schools are funded with public money through taxpayers so how do they get out of following governmental regulations? I hear a lot of complaining in public schools about how much time is spent on testing and specific rules for teaching standards. In fact there is so much time doing this, that teachers complain they can’t be creative in their own lessons. If everyone knows that this stifles the learning environment, why do we insist that teachers teach this way?

I guess all my questions show my lack of understanding about Charter Schools. I would love to be teaching in a charter school where I wasn’t pressured by rules and regulations. I would love the chance to use project based learning and universal design for learning. What a great chance to use technology in the classroom! I would love smaller class sizes and the support of parents who are really involved in the school.

I have said for years that we need to go back to the old neighborhood schools where schools are smaller and students attend a school right in their own neighborhood instead of being bussed miles away to another school. I understand about race ratios but I think in today’s time that we have reached a level where our children’s education is more important than race ratios. I think we need to have smaller schools where parents and teachers can interact more; where students know that their teachers will encounter their parents in the neighborhood. We need to be more of a “family” to the students where we are all working towards the same goal. I think that is what I see Charter Schools becoming. Maybe after all the years of consolidation and large schools, we have realized that smaller schools are the way to go. Maybe this is the start to moving in the other direction.

If you have any answers to my questions, I’d love to hear from you. Maybe my view is too simplistic and would love for someone to explain why my view is wrong.

Photo credit: Original image: 'Crayola Lincoln Logs'

http://www.flickr.com/photos/73207064@N00/404321726by: Chris Metcalf


Beth Knittle said...

Both my children attend Charter schools and my husband works in one. I do agree that many laws hinder education and impact school planning. The idea of a charter lets schools experiment out side many of the these constraints. The idea being that we can learn from these best practices and apply them to traditional public schools. However I have yet to see state boards of Ed grant permission for traditional schools to apply the lessons learned.

Mark Fuson said...

My concern with Charter Schools is simply that I don't see how they are the answer. If we open 100,000 charters for students with engaged parents, containing teachers who are allowed to make professional decisions rather than adhere to bureaucratic rules, and practices addressing misbehavior quickly and effectively, we will still have parents and students who will not "play" by those rules. They will inevitably end up in public schools which have been wiped out by private and charter school migration and become a true cesspool since most good teachers would not want to stay in them.

It seems to me that charter schools are the result of the government saying, "OK, we have screwed schools up with all the legislation we have created regarding schools, so now we are going to create schools who don't need to follow those rules." If these schools have a better chance at success, and they do, why don't we simply stop making public schools live by these rules, and see what happens?

In my state, Indiana, Charters are exploding. I am for anything that is good for kids, but so far, we have seen gross mismanagement of these schools as they take funds from public schools. Charters have skewed their enrollment numbers, performed poorly on state exams (not that I think state exams are all that great either), and even hired non-teachers who simply administer American School Homeschooling materials to students for their classes. If these are signs of the competition that Charter Schools provide, it's not pushing teachers in this state. In fact, it is more proof schools are not seen by our politicians as an answer to anything in society, but rather a scapegoat for all the ills on which they can lean to have a platform to get elected.

If public schools were allowed to say parents must be involved or their children could not attend, or programs such as welfare were linked to parental involvement in schools and student performance, and we opened trade schools for students who simply do not want to go to college (no shame in that, most tradesmen I had a students make more than me with my Master's), we might just see our public school system become the envy of the world once again.

OK, off my soapbox....at least for the moment.

Chris Prout said...

I've been teaching in a charter school in Michigan and I can assure you we are not free of state and federal rules and regulations. NCLB is very real and drives most school decisions. We also have to follow all legislation regarding special education services.

loonyhiker said...

Beth: I wish traditional schools had more time and opportunities to experiment with different strategies. How do we find out best practices if someone doesn't experiment with it first? Thanks for reading!

loonyhiker said...

mark: Thanks for sharing your views. It is conversations like this that I look forward to so I can try to understand the differences between the two. I do agree that we need to have opportunities for students who are not on the college bound track. Thanks again for taking time to comment!

loonyhiker said...

Chris: Thanks for clearing that up. I do feel better knowing this.

Carl Anderson said...

I am in a unique position in that I work for both a traditional public school and a charter school. Here in Minnesota we have a lot of wonderful charter schools. We also have and have had charter schools that flounder and fail. None of these schools are exempt from state and federal standards or rules of operation.

The problem, as I see it, has to do with change. Our traditional public schools are incapable of quick change. There are too many checks and balances that prevent change from happening quickly. This is usually a good thing. These checks and balances prevent bad ideas from taking hold and reduce the chances our schools will make reckless decisions. However, this same structure also prevents our schools from making quick change and it also prevents schools from making foundational changes. Schools are large systems and any large system is resistant to change. We see this in business too. It is often easier to build a new house than remodel an old one. Charter schools offer an opportunity to circumvent the agents of stagnation that plague our public schools. When starting a new charter school there are no traditions that need to be kept, there is no history of bad relations between teacher unions, administration, and school boards, there is no dominate pedagogy or curriculum that must be kept. Charter schools give us the opportunity to start with what the research shows to be effective for learning and build a program that fits the needs of the student rather than trying to train the student to learn within the system.

In Minnesota charter schools are governed by a board of directors that is comprised of a majority of teachers and includes parents and community members. Often these boards also include students. This puts control right in the hands of those who know and understand the situation on the ground.

Yes, student migration to charter schools will ultimately lead to poorer conditions for our traditional public schools. Of course it will, with the students come state funds. We have already seen this in MN two years ago when Minneapolis Public Schools had to close some of their schools in North MPLS. The Superintendent of that district conceded that the charter schools in that area were better equipped to educate the children in those schools. He went a step further and said that as education professionals it is our ethical duty to do what is best for students and learning. In this case it meant closing public schools and supporting the charter movement.

@mark fuson It is not that the government is saying that they screwed things up, it is more that they are recognizing that external factors (as a result of our flattening world) have caused a crisis that our school systems are ill prepared to deal with. The old system cannot make the changes that are needed. Also, the reason you see so many different types of charter schools is two fold: 1. part of the solution is diversity in choice and educational approach; and 2. No one really knows what the 21st century school should look like. And yes, there will always be people who don't play by the rules. That should not be a significant factor in our decisions. Of course we have to recognize that this will occur but to think any school can change this part of human behavior is naive.

Valerie said...

School board Cartoon.

loonyhiker said...

carl: Thank you so much for sharing this. I was interested in seeing that you work for both systems. Do you ever find yourself in a position where they are competing for your services, time or expertise? If the mindsets are so different, how do you not get confused when you are going from one place to the other?