Is Charter School Design Preferable to Traditional School Design?

First championed by visionary union leader Albert Shanker (see picture) in the 1980's and then promoted by Bill Clinton in the 1990's, charter schools came into the national spotlight in the late 1990's when the KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) charter schools had proven that they could consistently outperform schools in their sending districts. As of 2008, 40 of 50 states have passed bills allowing charter schools to operate as special public schools.

What makes charter schools different from traditional public schools is that they largely operate free from union restrictions and are therefore able to try things that traditional schools can't. For example, many charter schools opt for an extended school day and school year, giving greater opportunity for student achievement. Charter schools tend to be smaller and because of their smaller size can focus more on fostering a strong sense of community and purpose.

Due to the success of the majority of charter schools, many states are raising the cap on how many charter schools may operate. However, this has lead to increased opposition. Because public schools are typically funded according to a system that accounts for the number of students at the school site, those opposed to charter schools argue that they are siphoning money away from the public schools in the area and depleting the system. In addition, the students who typically attend charter schools come from homes in which the pursuit of education is proactive enough to seek out alternatives. These students consequently tend to have a higher degree of support at home and are thus some of the more higher achieving students. So, naysayers argue that not only is the money leaving the schools to attend charters, but so are the best students.

The strength of our middle class depends on the strength of our public schools and because of restrictions imposed by collective bargaining agreements between teacher unions and schools, there is very little room for reform at the school level. This, therefore, leads to the question: should "The Academy" be a charter school, largely free of union-based restrictions, or should it be a traditional public school with a strong leader that could potentially be made more effective from the inside?

Some of the best related readings (from the sidebar):
-Public Agenda Online (2006)
-Lake, R. (2007)
- Also, see the forthcoming book: Merseth, K. Purpose, People, and Planning: Inside Five High Performing Urban Charter Schools.

1 comment:

  1. The recent New York Times Op Ed piece by Hirsch (March 23, 2009) makes a very good point about accountability and charters. He comments on the inability of our current testing system to determine whether students are being taught to think. In my recent book (Inside Urban Charter Schools), I identified several high performing schools (on the well-regarded MCAS-Massachusetts State Assessment System) where the instruction within the classrooms was remarkably low level. The cognitive demand for students was low with an emphasis on procedure and not on conceptual understanding. Students were not being asked to think for themselves, they were not asked to conjecture, to evaluate, to assess. Why? Because the tests which holds these charter schools accountable do not measure higher order thinking.

    Hirsch is right that it is the quality of the existing tests that places an unnecessary low ceiling on what we ask kids to know and be able to do. It is time to spend some of the stimulus money on developing better measures of student knowledge.