Let’s get biases and politics out of the way first. I am a big fan of the charter school concept—defined as the rich idea that when it comes to schooling, one size does not fit all, and big monolithic districts do not and cannot serve diverse children as well as site-directed, purpose-driven, innovative schools. If I lived in Detroit, I would choose a magnet school or charter school for my children—and even though I live in a district with fine public schools, one of my children attended a public school and the other attended a private school. Ideologically, I’m with Dewey on this one: I want the best possible education for all children, the kind of carefully chosen options my own children had.
more thing: I think that positioning charter schools as the opposite of public
schools, rather than a necessary supplement to public education, has poisoned
the discourse. And—it goes both ways. It’s not just public schools and public
school teachers being skeptical (or downright nasty) in their remarks about
charter schools. Public school academies—charters—seem
to be bent on repeating the worst sound bites about public schools, whether
they’re strictly true or not, thereby displaying the aphorism that your mother
repeated when you were seven years old: you don’t make yourself look better by
tearing someone else down.
I have a number of friends now working in the charter school movement in Detroit, a city where a handful of good charter schools have begun to flourish and bear fruit. Last week, they invited me to attend a showing of “The Providence Effect,” a full-length film depicting a school success story: Providence St. Mel, a K-12 Catholic school on Chicago’s tough west side.
Providence St. Mel has accrued considerable recognition after parents adamantly refused to close it on diocese recommendation, 30 years ago: President Reagan visited, around the time the “Nation at Risk” report was being crafted, and Oprah Winfrey has taken a personal interest (and contributed more than a million dollars). Providence’s outcomes—an average ACT score of 23, and 100% college admission for graduates—resemble those of well-heeled suburban public schools. Now, there is an attempt to replicate the “Providence effect:” a charter school in Englewood, led by Providence graduates and veteran teachers, and based on programs and principles at the original PSM.
The screening was part of a two-day professional conference for charter school proponents and teachers, and featured a panel discussion with Big Names in the Michigan charter school movement, a State Board of Education member, various business-leadership types, and the principal of the new Providence charter school. The room was set up for hundreds of people, but I’m sure the attendance numbers (perhaps 60 people) were disappointing to the organizers. As I was parking on the rooftop of Cobo Hall, charter school teachers wearing conference badges were flooding out of the building, recognizable as teachers by their youth, their post-collegiate dress and tote bags—plus their “let’s go get a beer” demeanor.
Impressions from the film and the panel discussion:
- The movie has a campaign-film aura—gauzy graduation footage with students inexplicably wearing white gloves, bits of talking-head rhetoric, quick-cut black and white shots from Chicago’s troubled past, backed by a vocal track of adolescents singing. It’s impressive, all right, especially their catch phrase: It’s not rocket science. The lingering message: anybody with high expectations and tight rules can turn around kids destined for the dumpster.
- There is curiously little about instruction in the film; we do see a few examples of very traditional classroom teaching. There is a clip of first-graders in a race-to-the-board competitive spelling game (the teacher assigning points to teams, a la Professor Dumbledore), and a HS math lesson where the teacher puts an equation on the board and announces “No calculators!” (which drew a spatter of applause from the audience). An elementary teacher models a familiar and effective questioning strategy but then suggests that nobody in his circle believes that second graders can do work at this level.
- Among the panelists, the principal of the new Providence charter school was most grounded in reality. She admitted that while they were on a strong upward curve, test scores were still mediocre. Asked how they deal with discipline, she said that students were put on a “three strikes and out” contract—if they couldn’t abide by the rules, they held a conference with parents to decide if the child was a “good fit” for Providence. According to the principal, every child, even kindergartners, has a grade point average (another murmur of approval from the audience). Nobody asked about parents who never bothered to come to school, the advisability of a five-year old having a GPA before he understands cumulative averaging, or where the kid who is not a good fit ends up.
- There was a kind of professional pep rally atmosphere. The panel moderator took questions from people who seemed pre-selected, often acknowledging the “great work” Joe was doing or the “outstanding leadership” of Mary. There was an angry question on why charter schools get less money than public schools, on average, from the public coffers. Reginald Turner, the State Board member, clarified: charter schools get the same per-pupil allowance as other public schools in the surrounding area. And guess what? There aren’t many charter schools in Grosse Pointe, where the funding level is high; charter schools are generally found where there is dissatisfaction with public education and not much money. And they get the same public monies as the other schools nearby—you might even call that equitable.
- When asked what Detroit could do as a first step to fix its failing public school, the business folks agreed: get new teachers, preferably from Teach for America (which one panelist described as “the Peace Corps of teaching,” an unfortunate metaphor in a city trying to pull itself out of devastating depression). A woman asked what special training Teach for America corps members got that would make them particularly effective in Detroit. The panelist replied that it wasn’t a matter of training—it was a chance to get “graduates of the top colleges” into the classroom.
If you believe U.S. News and World
Report, two of the top twenty Schools of Education are right here in Michigan,
including the long-running #1 in Elementary and Secondary teacher preparation,
Michigan State University, and the #4 public university in the country, the
University of Michigan. There is also a strong network of regional teacher
preparation programs. There is no shortage of smart, highly qualified and skilled teachers
here in Michigan.
Michigan is a teacher-exporting state. About three-quarters of our best and brightest would-be teachers go to work in other states (when they can get jobs). Of those who remain in Michigan, a significant segment gets jobs in newly formed charter schools—because there are no jobs in public schools. The best new teachers in Michigan? They’re the folks who went streaming out the door to grab a beer with their teaching colleagues as I was parking my car.
When it comes to evaluating charter schools, the key question is always: Compared to what? Charter schools in Detroit have many potential resources that public schools do not, beginning with positive public assumptions and PR.
Charter World is an interesting place, with different beliefs, incentives and catch phrases than Public School World. It would be a shame to lose the opportunity to do something truly different with charter schools, relying instead on rhetorical flourishes and empty myths.