A Final Thought

Teach Everyone

Charter schools need to fulfill their original mission.

A few weeks ago, a regular reader of this column asked why I appear to be opposed to charter schools. He pointed out that charter schools have the opportunity to develop educational programs that are different from those of traditional public schools, can bend some rules and avoid others. Unless one thinks that traditional public schools are wonderful, perfect and meet the needs of all children (and I certainly do not), then schools that can try to serve children differently and better are needed.

I responded by reminding him that I was an early proponent of charter or experimental schools for just the reasons he had cited. They were free to try different educational techniques and to see whether they could have better results with all children or with specific groups of children. The idea was that these schools (or, often, programs in traditional schools) would be evaluated and, if they worked, the new techniques, organization or whatever else was successful would be incorporated into the traditional public schools. In other words, the charter schools were not an end in themselves. If they worked, they and their techniques and programs would be folded into the established public schools.

Many of these original charter schools were started and did work. Some did not. Non-graded primary schools, where each child worked at his own pace and advanced at her own pace, rather than in a lockstep of going from grade one to grade two, worked very well. The concept of running a high school where “no bells shall ring” and where students had choices concerning what they studied and how they did it, also worked in many places — it did not in some others.

Open schools and open classrooms had mixed results. I was involved in the evaluation of one open high school and joined my colleagues in recommending that it be shut down because it was not accomplishing its purpose. Open classrooms run by teachers who understood that it meant working extra hard, not just, as the expression at the time went, “letting it all hang out,” were very successful.

All of these, and many more, were the result of work by teachers and educational theorists who knew that they were not reaching all children, who had ideas based on research including significant advances in understanding how our brains work, and who were willing to put the time and effort into trying something new. The key in all cases was that these experimental programs would not cost more than standard school, that they remained part of the public school system and, if they proved effective, the ideas would be translated into the traditional public schools that had spawned them. If they failed, they were dropped.

That’s not how the great majority of today’s charter schools operate. Today’s charter schools too often are simply private schools operating with public money, essentially doing the same things educationally, but doing it with selective groups of students. Most weed out the disruptive students and those with special needs, and then proclaim their success based on the result of standard test scores — hardly an educational innovation. In other words, only a few of today’s charter schools even make an effort to fulfill the functions assigned when the concept of charter or experimental schools was first introduced.

I am hardly alone in pointing this out. Very recently, Kevin Weiner, professor of education policy at the University of Colorado School of Education and director of the National Education Policy Center prepared an article, “The Dirty Dozen; How charter schools influence student enrollment” for publication in Teachers College Record. The article identified 12 different ways charter schools weed out unsucessful students.

To make his point clearer and more accessible, Weiner and colleagues developed a game designed to show the many ways in which charter schools bar, weed out or discourage certain students. The game is light-hearted in tone, but dead serious in terms of educational and political policy. You can get a copy by contacting The National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado Boulder or at www.otlcampaign.org.

The message is simple: “Good schools shouldn’t weed out kids; they should teach everyone.” And, while Weiner notes that many individual charter schools are “both equitable and excellent, charters generally under serve a community’s at-risk students… being innovative doesn’t require being selective or restrictive in enrollments.”

Well said. We need charter schools that fulfill the original concept of aiding, supporting and influencing the public schools, not charters that compete for public dollars, cherry pick the students they serve and then claim they are doing a better job.

This article originally appeared in the School Planning & Management October 2013 issue of Spaces4Learning.

About the Author

Paul Abramson is education industry analyst for SP&M and president of Stanton Leggett & Associates, an educational facilities consulting firm based in Mamaroneck, N.Y. He was named CEPFI’s 2008 "Planner of the Year."