Saturday, January 30, 2010

Charter School Summit

Today I attended the Charter School Summit at the County office of education. This summit was created by the county's Charter School Task Force to "Increase collaboration among school districts, the County Office of Education, and charter schools" I'd like to share a few thoughts on this summit because I think it's an important dialogue.

Many forces in education at the County, State, and national levels strongly support charter schools. Legislation is passed with an explicit goal of increasing charter schools. Personally, I support the idea of charter schools for a couple of reasons.

Competition is good in business because it forces innovation. You have to be different from the competition to stand out and attract new customers. This forces companies to try new things. Strong ideas should flourish, and less effective ways should fall by the wayside. There is no reason to believe this doesn’t apply to education. One need only look at a small liberal arts college and a large public university to realize that in education, as in life, one size doesn’t fit all.
Data Integrity (hopefully)
One unique aspect of charter schools is that it creates competition while controlling some of the variables. For example, LASD does not try to compare our test scores to Los Angeles Unified. Our student populations are so different, the comparisons are meaningless. If a charter school within a district does something that is truly different, we have a better chance to compare the student s from the charter back to the traditional school and see if there’s a meaningful difference in the results.
If schools have truly unique offerings, we can actually compare those ideas and find the best way to reach kids. One of the common complaints from career educators is that their hands are tied by the regulations. You must teach “x” minutes of math, “y” minutes of reading, and here are the text books you can use. If charter schools truly seize their mandate, they’ll try doing things that are very different from their local schools. Then if they produce a better result, the local school will know that they can learn from it.

Charter schools, like real businesses, don’t always live up to their mandate. There are good charters and bad ones. One speaker from the US Dept. of Education today highlighted a charter school in another part of the country that was nearly all white in a largely minority neighborhood. There are also charter schools that have done wonderful things in finding new ways to engage kids from underserved communities where they would otherwise be lost in “the system”.

Overal the summit was good, but it's also fair to point out the shortfalls. It was organized by the county's Charter School Task Force with the goal of helping to "increase cooperation", but there seemed to be little in the way of serious debate about the points of disagreement. Cooperation is a two-way street. I don’t teach my kids to get along by telling them that the youngest one is always right and the older one needs to defer to her. Meaningful debate in this context means not loading up the panels with charter proponents. While lip service was paid to holding charters accountable, the reality is that there are two sets of rules- one for charters and one for districts. Who is favored by those two sets depends on whom you ask. Overall I came away with a sense of having been invited to a political rally as much as an educational summit, which is unfortunate.

Still it was worthwhile, if for nothing else than a chance to chat with several members of the board from BCS as well as some of their teachers. I’ve been trying to “reach across the aisle” over the past several months. I attended three BCS recruiting events to better understand their program. I’ve initiated private meetings with members of their board to discuss issues away from the charged political atmosphere. I have toured their campus during the school day to better understand what they do. I will continue to reach out and hopefully build some bridges. Time will tell as to whether that is an effort well spent.

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