There is a public education crisis, but it’s not the one that we usually hear about and it’s not the one that so much hot air has been wasted upon.
The crisis is one of relevance. We’re well into the second decade of the new millennium and our schools are still operating under a 19th century philosophy and leadership style. We talk about innovation ad nauseam, but we are still propping up lifeless and loveless institutions that stifle creativity largely through their avoidance of democratic ideals and modern communication and business practices.
Enter charter schools—public schools governed by private boards and largely freed from much of the bureaucratic molasses that has mired public education. And, not surprisingly, you find at a lot of innovation at these schools. At a recent educational technology trade event I attended there were charter advocates all over the place, not to mention a healthy number of edu-tech startups with new products that had spawned in charter school environments. People who are making new products and designing new services for education look first to the charter school market—because charter school leaders, unlike their counterparts at traditional schools who have to navigate a minefield inside a briar patch to purchase anything not specifically prescribed by the district, are actually able to purchase new goods and services. This is a very simple fact of the charter school movement, and it is a fact that charter school critics often fail to acknowledge.
That’s why many of the best brains in education are being directed towards charter schools—warts and all. Good brains hate stasis. If I were a young teacher coming out of TC or Bank Street, and I were given a choice: work at a new charter startup that has a mission of integrating arts and technology and community service, or work at PS 1234—and if I had any sense of adventure at all—would there really be a choice?
So we can scream all we want to about charters taking resources away from regular district schools or any of the other criticisms (many of them very fair criticisms, by the way) but we will miss the point. The point is that charter schools are one of the few places where there is change and innovation in education and, for that reason alone, they are necessary.
OK – here’s the other side: Charter Schools are not the answer.
Charter schools are not the answer because we keep asking the wrong questions. The questions we should be asking are: “What should our schools look like in the 21st century” or “How can we prepare our kids for a future we can hardly fathom?” But instead we keep asking, “How come Johnny can’t read?” or, in Common-Core-Speak: “(2RL2) How come Johnny can’t correctly identify the author’s purpose?
We keep obsessing over measurable outcomes of student achievement and concluding that the problem is that we are not being relentless enough on our fixation with measurable outcomes. Government then responds with programs like No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top and Common Core Standards—all with good intentions but with the cumulative effect of whipping teachers into standardized scripts with the intent of driving improved standardized, measurable outcomes. It does us no good to have charter schools, magnet schools or gifted and talented programs if ultimately the benefit from them is going to be judged through the prism of how well they improve test scores. We need schools that nurture creativity, not ones that enforce regression to the mean.
Charter schools and other disruptive forces in education are needed more than ever, but the forces of standardization need to be kept in their tidy corner. No one has ever suggested that we don’t need standards and no one has ever suggested that literacy and numeracy are not important goals. But children’s creativity is even more important and we have to stop encouraging schools to kill it.