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Posted at 6:00 AM ET, 09/22/2010

Are charter schools really innovative?

By Valerie Strauss

My guest is Marion Brady, veteran teacher, administrator, curriculum designer and author.

By Marion Brady
Peter Ruddy Wallace was the speaker of Florida’s House of Representatives years ago when charter-school legislation was adopted. He saw charters as incubators of innovation and experimentation.

So did I. Indeed, not long thereafter, I accepted an invitation to serve on the board of governors of a new charter school serving a built-from-scratch new town in a neighboring county. And, partly to enhance my board member-related knowledge and skills, and partly to gather material for Knight-Ridder/Tribune columns on the subject of charters, I visited those within reasonable driving distance.

I believe America’s broad-based system of public schools is a bedrock of the Republic, and that the country has gotten a better return on its investment than it deserves. But I also believe that major changes are long overdue, that fresh thinking is essential, and that serious problems are being made worse by simplistic reforms being pushed by self-serving corporate interests working through politicians.

One of those reforms is driven by an assumption that charter schools are wellsprings of new ideas. Unfortunately, with rare exceptions, that’s not the case. I’ve yet to actually see something happening in a charter that couldn’t be happening in a traditional public school. If there are exceptions, give credit to a local or state bureaucracy "loose" enough to permit it.

Official policy, not lack of educator imagination, not laziness, not union obstinacy, not anything else, is the main reason schools function very much as they did a century ago. Put the blame where it belongs.

There are several reasons why most charters differ little or not at all from traditional public schools. Here are four:

1) Innovation and experimentation aren’t what motivate most of the people seeking charter approval.

For several years I subscribed to an Internet "listserv" that gave charter enthusiasts across the United States an opportunity to chat. It didn’t take long to discover where most of them were coming from. They didn’t want to do anything really different; they just wanted to be in charge.

This doesn’t mean that most charter schools don’t offer something attractive. They do. That’s what gets their applications approved. But "attractive" isn’t the same as "innovative and experimental." If what a charter applicant wants to do is a good idea but it’s already being done somewhere else (as is almost always the case), it’s not an innovation.

What’s needed, then, isn’t another charter, but a procedure for finding out what interesting or promising idea is being explored somewhere, checking to see if it’s actually working as advertised, and if it is, providing the support necessary to put it in place locally.

2) Charter schools aren’t ordinarily a source of great new ideas (at least in Florida) because most of them have been created not to experiment and innovate, but to sell houses or eventually peddle them to the regular school system (at, of course, a profit).

As I learned firsthand, developers usually know little and care even less about educational innovation. They just know that most people who buy upscale like the sound of "charter school."

Charter legislation often stipulates that only local, non-profit groups are eligible. So what do developers do? They create a non-profit organization to get the charter, then the organization hires a for-profit company to run the school.

During the years of my peak interest in and enthusiasm for charters, three out of four newly approved ones in Florida were being run by companies with practices so standardized they were using the same glossy promotional brochures in other states. They were "McCharters," and they were in the school business not to experiment and innovate but to make money. I don’t see any evidence that such isn’t still the case.

It's ironic: Legislation originally intended to strengthen public schools is now being used as a sneaky way to privatize them.

3) In very few states are the entities that grant charters really knowledgeable about education’s deep-seated problems.

Neither are they sufficiently open to unorthodox approaches to approve applications that don’t meet fairly traditional public and bureaucratic expectations.

I’ve been involved in education as teacher, college professor, administrator, writer of textbooks and professional books, consultant to publishers, states, and foundations, and visitor to schools as far west as Japan and as far east as the Greek islands.

For what I’m convinced are sound reasons, I’ve come to favor shorter school days, the elimination of textbooks, standardized tests, grade cards, grades, traditional school buildings, single-teacher classes, the required "core" curriculum, and other policies and procedures. Would I be able to get a charter? Hah! Not a chance!

4) Charter schools aren’t usually sources of great new ideas, and aren’t likely to become such, because of subject-matter standards and high-stakes, standardized tests.

Imagine a close-knit group of experienced educators, unhappy with the status quo, thinking about opening their own school.

They make a list of the kind of people they want their students to be and become. Yes, they want them to be knowledgeable. But they also want them to be curious, creative, self-aware, empathetic, confident, courageous, resourceful, in love with learning, and possessing what Albert Schweitzer called "reverence for life."

They devise a curriculum, apply for and are granted a charter. A year or two down the road, there’s a collision of aims and priorities.

The state says to the educators, "We’re giving you tax money. In return, we’re holding you accountable. Your students have to take the state’s annual standardized test."

And the educators say, "WHAT!? What’s your definition of accountable? Didn’t you give us a charter to help students become critical thinkers, curious, creative, self-aware, empathetic, confident, courageous, resourceful, in love with learning, and capable of wonder?"

"Yes."

"And now you’re telling us that a standardized, one-shot, paper-and-pencil, multiple choice, bubble-in-the-oval, machine-scored test of short-term memory of the contents of a few school subjects - you’re telling us that a computer is going to spit out a number that tells us whether or not we’re succeeding!? You've gotta be kidding!"

The charter school movement has been billed and sold as a strategy for strengthening public education via experimentation and innovation. What it’s done instead is remind us of the ubiquity of the Law of Unintended Consequences.

But that shouldn’t surprise anyone. That’s because, generally speaking, those most determined and successful in promoting charters rarely know much about educating. They’ve just bought the view of the late conservative economist Milton Friedman that privatizing public schools and forcing them to adopt market forces will shape them up.

It doesn’t hurt, of course, that a side benefit would be the weakening of unions, and the broadening of corporate access to the half-trillion dollars a year America spends on education.

-0-

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By Valerie Strauss  | September 22, 2010; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  Charter schools, Guest Bloggers, Marion Brady  | Tags:  charter networks, charter school movement, charter schools, charters and innovative, expanding charters, marion brady, school reform  
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Next: A critical look at a report on standardized tests

Comments

DCPSparent : ---

"re: Michelle Rhee's
"mom friendly" comment,
prepared specifically for the Oprah show, about moms not tolerating mediocre teachers being given time to grow and develop professionally.

----- Well... The unqualified,
needing-to-grow-professionally (newbie 'Teach for America') "TFA" principal
that Rhee PUSHED on our school, despite protests from a panel of engaged, informed, truly progressive, professional educators and parents with advanced degrees in education . . . . . (this TFA principal) hired and protected even more inexperienced, unqualified teachers who will take YEARS to develop into true professionals. But the principal and those teachers all know how to say "yes" to their boss. Too bad they don't know the basics of how children learn, or the nuances of curriculum and instruction.
It is hard, hard work indeed to have to reprogram my kids every day after school, to get them to embrace and understand learning again.
Rhee's influential, BAD decisions and practices, more than ANY OTHER failure
of the DC Public School system, has me
on the verge of pulling my kids out of school.
Rhee embarrassed herself mightily
at the DC screening of this film
re: pseudo-reform
("Waiting for corporate Super-scammers")
with her comment insulting DC voters.
My kids, and the 350 others in their school, will not be devastated at all when she leaves.
We assume she will
head to the business world for which she
may have more
appropriate skills."

------------------

Posted by: honestaction | September 22, 2010 6:44 AM | Report abuse

investigate this!

Rhee-form, edu-profiteers
& sleazy, corrupt, criminal HYPOCRISY

What was helicopter-in
Michelle Rhee’s ‘Damage Control’
for (boyfriend) Kevin Johnson?

note:
Michelle Rhee was on the
board of directors
(and was "operations manager")
of Kevin's privatized High School charter
--- during the time when
there were financial illegalities
& misappropriations
($400,000) of federal grants
and also a pattern
of outlandish sexual misconduct
perpetrated by school director
Kevin Johnson involving students (minor teens)
& subordinate (Americorps) school staff --
as documented by
U.S. Govt. Inspector General
Gerald Walpin.

(crucial, must read) ==>
http://www.washingtonexaminer.com/politics/Exclusive-Congressional-Report-Rhee-did-damage-control-after-sex-charges-against-fiancee-Kevin-Johnson.html

also, more detailed
info. =>
http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/blogs/citydesk/2009/11/20/what-was-michelle-rhees-damage-control-for-kevin-johnson/

====================

Posted by: honestaction | September 22, 2010 6:47 AM | Report abuse

honestaction--

Please try and stay on topic.

Maybe just a little.

Posted by: gardyloo | September 22, 2010 8:58 AM | Report abuse

Wow, could you oversimplify a complex subject more. First, you've defined innovation in such a way that it's impossible for any public school to be deemed innovative. There's no reason a public school can't, to use your words, "help students become critical thinkers, curious, creative, self-aware, empathetic, confident, courageous, resourceful, in love with learning, and capable of wonder" AND prepare them to demonstrate basic literacy and numeracy skills on a standardized test. The two are not mutually exclusive. Second, just because practices in charter schools could be done in traditional public schools does not conflict with innovation. Longer school days and years are innovative when you consider the environments many low-income students would be in without their charter school options and that fact that most district schools cannot afford to lengthen their school day or year under their current labor contracts. Similarly, there's no evidence that teacher certification denotes good teaching, but district schools are required to hire certified teachers whereas many charter schools are not. Finally, how do you know charter schools are not providing the innovative education you hope for when the only results that get reported are standardized score. Many are offering unique courses, integrated curriculum, access to experts in their field, etc. while at the same time working hard to make sure their students are prepared to pass the state exams. Charter schools are too diverse to paint with such a broad brush. Even if it's a minority of charter schools that are innovative, they deserve the opportunity to model what can be done for other public schools to emulate.

Posted by: gideon4ed | September 22, 2010 9:22 AM | Report abuse

Ah yes, because ancient listservs are credible representations of nuanced and evolving policy discussions.

And "towns from scratch" comprise a relevant context for most of us.

And "official policy" is a coherent villain in the story of poor public school performance.

And using standardized tests obviously, automatically means that schools are assembly lines churning out mindless robots.

I think everyone has enough comically overdrawn stereotypes, thanks. Let's not lazily heap charter schools onto that pile.

Posted by: zoomoccamsracer | September 22, 2010 10:13 AM | Report abuse

".....Didn’t you give us a charter to help students become critical thinkers, curious, creative, self-aware, empathetic, confident, courageous, resourceful, in love with learning, and capable of wonder?"......
_________________________
As usual, Marion Brady, you are so on target!

During the longest stint of my teaching years, I worked in an alternative school that would roughly correspond to a charter school. We took kids that were either on the verge of dropping out or being kicked out of their regular schools for all kinds of reasons. The staff was an eclectic mixture of experienced, certificated teachers & administrators, young people with no ED background who wanted to give it a try, and an array of therapists, art drama and photography teachers. Strategies
revolved around VERY small classes (4 - 8),
intense individualization and and an understanding that we could be creative - we had to be; nothing had worked for our students previously, and we were all dedicated to trying everything AND the kitchen sink.

It was difficult, and I loved it - for the first 4 years. Then the school needed more money to keep on surviving, and it reluctantly went for state support. As the money came through, so did more and more state guidelines, more rigidity, and slowly the unique characteristics of a vital, caring community became blunted and lost in the process of constant state and county interventions and crushing mounds of paperwork.

I believe that the school was innovative and successful (most students stayed all 4 years of high school)in its early years because it had a unique combination of
1) a nurturing environment
2) a wonderful mix of staff who exchanged ideas freely 3) grounded expertise
4) small classes 5) permission to have fun
and 6) a lot of off-campus, experiential trips.

I have thought wistfully of those 4 years of teaching many times.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | September 22, 2010 11:15 AM | Report abuse

"Similarly, there's no evidence that teacher certification denotes good teaching, but district schools are required to hire certified teachers whereas many charter schools are not."

Posted by: gideon4ed |

False statement. Every peer-reviewed study that has compared certified teachers to uncertified teachers shows the certified teachers to have better results, whether the evaluation is based on one-shot standardized tests, or in long-term longitudinal results. Read the research and stop making statements that are demonstrably false.

Posted by: mcstowy | September 22, 2010 11:37 AM | Report abuse

This is the problem with public education.

This author talks about charter schools for new upscale neighborhoods.

The reality is that the majority of charter schools are being used as alternatives to public poverty schools where a lottery system is used to select which children will escape the unsafe and chaos of poverty public schools.

These charter schools simply offer a refuge for children since the children that are found to be disruptive and/or prone to be violent are simply tossed back into the poverty public schools.

These charter schools are innovative only in the sense that they believe that it is more probable that children will learn in a safe and non chaotic environment instead of an unsafe and chaotic environment.

Posted by: bsallamack | September 22, 2010 11:46 AM | Report abuse

Valerie Strauss should focus more on finding thoughtful guests to write this column. This opinion appears to generalize anecdotal experiences in Florida from some point in the past. The absence of any mention of the many unique charter school programs in Washington, D.C. (hello WASHINGTON Post) was pretty conspicuous. You live here, right? Have you set foot in one? Washington, DC is second only to New Orleans in the per capita percentage of charter schools. You couldn't make any of the claims about developers getting charters or founders just wanting to be in charge about these schools. Do some research right under your nose, then write - isn't that what people employed by newspapers do?

Posted by: DCcomm | September 22, 2010 11:52 AM | Report abuse

I am currently taking a college accounting course in which the biggest barrier to study is the textbook--glossy pages that resist note-taking, poor organization, and required online exercises that require high-speed Internet connections, offer nothing that couldn't be done on paper, and more time spent trying to figure out how to enter the answer than to find the answer. Even the feature that should help--immediate feedback--is vaguely worded and doesn't tell you much; if you type in Dec. 4 for an entry that the problem lists as Dec. 5, or if you leave out that entry entirely, you get a message that "one of the dates is wrong." Worse, the book and Internet program cover two courses, and the Internet access, costing $100, expires in one year. Students who decide accounting is not for them have wasted half the money, and those who, for one reason or another, do not finish the sequence in the next term have to pay more for the Internet access.

Eliminating textbooks would not only improve students' knowledge but would increase college graduation rates by cutting unnecessary costs.

Yes, Mr. Brady, let's eliminate textbooks

Posted by: sideswiththekids | September 22, 2010 11:55 AM | Report abuse

During the longest stint of my teaching years, I worked in an alternative school that would roughly correspond to a charter school.
Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large
.......................................
This is more of the problem of the myth regarding charter schools.

Sounds like you simply worked in a private school that was not directly receiving public funds. In no way this can be called a charter school.

The charter schools are structured so that they do not have to deal with problem students since these students are simply dumped back into the public school system. The costs of charter schools per student can be lower since there is not the expense of problem students.

The major advantage of charter schools is simply that they have the advantage of private schools in that they can simply remove problem students.

Even very expensive private schools expressively for problem students will remove students that are unmanageable.

Posted by: bsallamack | September 22, 2010 12:09 PM | Report abuse

If you wish to read a success story of a group of charter schools, you can take a look at the article by Dr. William Martin of Rice University in "Texas Monthly", the most prestigious monthly magazine of Texas. This is really a sound article with full of scientific facts and figures. To read the full article, visit this website: http://www.divedu.com/articles/15/head-class.html

Posted by: williampack | September 22, 2010 1:02 PM | Report abuse

Most charter schools (i.e.KIPP) advertise themselves as highly structured "back to basics" schools. For example: "Students at both KIPP and Achievement First schools follow a system for classroom behavior invented by Levin and Feinberg called Slant, which instructs them to sit up, listen, ask questions, nod and track the speaker with their eyes." As Ira Socal has pointe dout, this is Calvinist church behavior, where childern are to be seen and not heard.

Compare that to Sidwell Friends: "We seek academically talented students of diverse cultural, racial, religious and economic backgrounds. We offer these students a rich and rigorous interdisciplinary curriculum designed to stimulate creative inquiry, intellectual achievement and independent thinking in a world increasingly without borders. We encourage these students to test themselves in athletic competition and to give expression to their artistic abilities. We draw strength from silence—and from the power of individual and collective reflection."

Or Georgetown Day School:
"Georgetown Day School honors the integrity and worth of each individual within a diverse school community. GDS is dedicated to providing a supportive educational atmosphere in which teachers challenge the intellectual, creative, and physical abilities of our students and foster strength of character and concern for others. From the earliest grades, we encourage our students to wonder, to inquire, and to be self-reliant, laying the foundation for a lifelong love of learning."

Why can't poor kids be taught, better yet ALLOWED, to be reflective and creative?

Posted by: mcstowy | September 22, 2010 1:26 PM | Report abuse

If you wish to read a success story of a group of charter schools, you can take a look at the article by Dr. William Martin of Rice University in "Texas Monthly", the most prestigious monthly magazine of Texas. This is really a sound article with full of scientific facts and figures. To read the full article, visit this website: http://www.divedu.com/articles/15/head-class.html

Posted by: williampack

You obviously haven't read much educational research. The "studies" cited in the article are old and discredited by mjore recent, peer-reviewed research. (When cites are provided, although most of the quoates are easily traced to issue papers from Heritage, Gates, TFA and the usual "reform" groups.) Sounds like the author needs to do his homework. That being said, the need for more instructors with subject-matter expertise in high schools is clear, and the tolerance of schools run by Turkish Musilims in Texas, of all places, is admirable. Of course, it would be hard NOT to be able to improve on Texas public schools and their wacky state school board.

Posted by: mcstowy | September 22, 2010 1:41 PM | Report abuse

@bsallamack: the 'rough correspondence' I referred to was a specific target group that no other school was helping at that point, and my understanding of charter schools is that they supposedly develop programs to educate a particular group, among other things. Also the school I was at evolved into a hybrid of sorts, in that we were state-funded because we had so many special needs students (often the reason they were on the verge of dropping out or being kicked out).

In terms of your statement, "very expensive private schools expressly for problem students will remove students that are unmanageable", I believe that society as a whole has yet to grab the bull by the horns and address students that are: 1)severely emotionally disturbed 2) drug or alcohol addicts 3) physically violent
4) criminally active 5) all of the above. NO school - public OR private, is equipped to handle these very serious issues.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | September 22, 2010 2:10 PM | Report abuse

mcstowy:
Why can't poor kids be taught, better yet ALLOWED, to be reflective and creative?
_______________

I'm with you; I think the answer is that it's expensive (small classes,a varied curriculum,experienced teachers & admin)- and our country really doesn't put its money where its mouth is on the things that matter in education.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | September 22, 2010 2:15 PM | Report abuse

As a person who has been studying the secretive Gulen Movement/Turk-run charter school network, I must respond to williampack and mcstowy.

I urge readers to inform yourselves about this network and the Gulen Movement at http://turkishinvitations.weebly.com/ and
http://charterschoolscandals.blogspot.com/p/gulen-school-characteristics.html

Members of the Gulen Movement and their sympathizers troll online forums such as this, in order to promote the schools; that is why the puff piece was recommended. The schools' connection to the Gulen Movement is never mentioned. This organization spends a great deal of energy on developing native-born sympathizers, focusing on a subset of American academics, reporters, and religious leaders. Read Joshua Hendrick's thesis.

Posted by: pondoora | September 22, 2010 2:36 PM | Report abuse

mcstowy:
Why can't poor kids be taught, better yet ALLOWED, to be reflective and creative?
_______________

I'm with you; I think the answer is that it's expensive (small classes,a varied curriculum,experienced teachers & admin)- and our country really doesn't put its money where its mouth is on the things that matter in education.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large
.........................

Poverty for children is like war. Some survive while other do not. Some are lucky with little adversity that makes them stronger, while others are not so lucky with great adversity that totally destroys them.

A number of poverty children will probably never be able to learn.

At the opposite extreme is the middle class childhood where the norm is five years of almost no adversity and large attention on the needs of children.

It would be nice if Americans actually started to act like adults and deal with reality and not dream worlds.

Posted by: bsallamack | September 22, 2010 3:02 PM | Report abuse

Now you don't mean that Arne Duncan's support of charters has something to do enhancing business profits, do you?

Posted by: educationlover54 | September 22, 2010 9:16 PM | Report abuse

"Every peer-reviewed study that has compared certified teachers to uncertified teachers shows the certified teachers to have better results, whether the evaluation is based on one-shot standardized tests, or in long-term longitudinal results."

What a liar McStowy is. Almost all of the studies done on this issue show negligible differences between certified and uncertified teachers -- see Goldhaber, Rockoff, Kane, Staiger, etc.

Posted by: educationobserver | September 23, 2010 10:22 AM | Report abuse

Pondoora, take your racist attacks elsewhere please.

Posted by: educationobserver | September 23, 2010 10:24 AM | Report abuse

What Marion Brady is missing completely is any perspective on the charter approval and charter renewal process. I have worked with educators in designing 6 successful charter schools and our desires to be innovative knew no bounds. We were unable to be innovative as a direct result of the law and the charter authorizers many requirements that EVERY aspect of the school be proven and research-based - from pedagogy to curriculum to schedules to professional development decisions. How can one be innovative and also only subscribe to practices that have already been 'proven' by research?

Posted by: gvdepaul | September 23, 2010 1:58 PM | Report abuse

I find good agreement with some of the commentary by the author and also much of the reader commentary. We seem to get caught in being forced to take a complete for or against position on lots of educational issues. In our time of educational crisis, we need more tools in our educational toolkit for results. Educators and the consuming publics should not be forced to pick one best way. A major issue stopping educational gain nationally is that we are still looking for the one method or a single tool to serve more of our students. The students of concern as our non-achievers have varying needs, achievement levels, and aptitudes. We also seem to have an over reliance on broad-based standardized knowledge testing that was originally intended to be a general life signs indicators. Those indicators were never intended to be the bottom line or final judgment call on a school's effectiveness. A poor life sign indicator in terms of achievement testing, was intended to lead to further data mining for the explanations, seeing anomalies, and looking root causes. That happens infrequently in public education. The benefit charter schools might eventually realize for public education is in their ability to be effective with underserved or unserved student populations. Their autonomy allows them to try somethings differently without organization culture restraints. In having autonomy, it could lead to and has led to lots of abuses. A real danger to public education not being attended to by many educators is the Threat of the Certification Movement. In the employment sector, lots of jobs, both professional and industrial, have the standards of qualification set by the profession or industry. It is quality standards controls outside of public education institutions with intended reason. If the standard for entering a job field is administered and controlled outside of public education, then any educational provider can do the job. It changes the playing field in terms of now the competition is for outcomes produced. It is more tied to relevant assessment, accountability, and transparency of reporting. There's an article I have done that is ready to go on that topic for a publisher interested and willing to use it as part of a dialogue for educational change or innovation.
Woodrow H. Jensen, Ed.D

Posted by: jensenw1 | September 23, 2010 2:27 PM | Report abuse

In Response to :bsallamack

“Poverty for children is like war. Some survive while others do not. Some are lucky with little adversity that makes them stronger, while others are not so lucky with great adversity that totally destroys them.
A number of poverty children will probably never be able to learn.”


Why not to try to stop the war to see the outcomes? Poverty can be a very emasculating experience when a person lives in a so wealthy society and it can even lead to aggressive behaviors as it has been already observed in other rich societies like in London for instance, though it is not a letter written in a stone that poor children cannot really learn.

I have been reading a lot about education in USA. It is incredible that the richest country in the world has so many children living in poverty in comparison with some other rich countries (Denmark). Many children don’t have access to print material. It is so obvious that without print material it is impossible to learn how to read. Grammar, spelling, vocabulary, idiomatic expressions, knowledge of the world, history, literature, social sciences, biology, chemistry, and even math and physics can only be achieved if a person is literate in their mother tongue and it is a plus if people can attain a second language, but not only the spoken language but to be able to reach academic levels in a second language.
As technocrats in USA are so obsessed about the idea of broad- based standardized knowledge testing, it is not easy for many deprived poor minority children to fit in such a tied model.
I was very lucky that I was not born in the richest country in the world…Why do people deny the obvious?

“Material poverty is easily cured, but spiritual poverty is terminal. Montaigne”


Jehovanna Arcia

Posted by: getfit25pa25pa | September 27, 2010 10:56 AM | Report abuse

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