Chartering A New Course?

Few innovations in American education are more controversial these days than charter schools. Supporters claim that they are the salvation of public schooling and detractors say charters will ruin it. The truth, of course, lies somewhere in the middle. Quality Uneven, Despite Popularity, a two part article in the Washington Post (part 2) is a good overview of the state of the 39 charter schools operating in the District of Columbia (and the District’s educational system itself).

Unlike many people in public education, I really like the concept behind charter schools. The originial idea was that a group of educators would use public money to create a school based on different learning concepts from those commonly used in "regular" schools. Or they create a school designed for a specific population that is not being adequately served. The concept is excellent. It’s the execution that has generally been less than stellar.

Charter schools, especially in DC, are a real mixed bag. Some are very good, while many never should have been allowed to open in the first place. But considering the poor quality of most public schools in DC, charters look awfully good by comparison.

Some charter advocates say the marketplace weeds out weak charter schools, as parents tend to pull their children out of those institutions and the schools are forced to close. But that has not happened so far in the District, perhaps because even a poorly functioning charter school can look good to parents compared with the regular school their children used to attend.

In the interest of full disclosure I need to tell you that my wife teaches in one of the DC charter schools discussed in this article. I’ve watched the school develop over the four years she’s taught there (it’s been open five) and it seems to be generally good academically. The school, however, is on probation with the charter board for financial problems. Looking both at DC and other areas of the country, that seems all too common. The founders of charters often have a good idea of what they want to do educationally but have poor management skills.

On the other side of the country, the LA Times is reporting (free registration required) a new study that says students in California charter schools showed greater improvement in standardized test scores than did students in "traditional" schools. Add this one to other studies and the Post article and you still get mixed results for charter schools. The experiment continues – as it should.

Orwellian Schools?

Many people are familiar with George Orwell’s novel 1984 and, even if you’ve never read it, you probably understand the basic cultural reference. But four years after 1984 was published Orwell wrote an essay called Such, Such Were the Joys in which he recounts memories of the English boarding school he attended from 1911 to 1916.

Jane Ehrenfeld, a first grade teacher in Boston, has written a terrific essay of her own for Education Week (free registration required) in which she compares one aspect of Orwell’s schooling to what many students in public schools experience today: testing. Jane does a great job of making the eerie connections between then and now but I especially like this point she makes.

It can be hard for us to tell what effect the test pressure has on the children, and so we are fortunate to have a writer such as Orwell to describe the effect it had on him. "Over a period of about two years," he writes, "I do not think there was ever a day when ‘the exam,’ as I called it, was quite out of my waking thoughts." He goes on to say of all children: "The weakness of the child is that it starts with a blank sheet. It neither understands nor questions the society in which it lives, and because of its credulity other people can work upon it, infecting it with the sense of inferiority and the dread of offending against mysterious, terrible laws."

No Cure For The Common Senior

Senioritis is one of those conditions, like a cold, that can’t be cured – only treated. One high school in New Jersey sounds like it is taking the right approach by requiring seniors to participate in a project or internship of personal interest to them instead of just sitting through classes.

WISE [Wise Individualized Senior Experience] involves seniors’ doing an internship or taking part in a project for some of their senior year. Students choose a topic or field they want to pursue. With a faculty mentor and an outside supervisor, they keep a journal, and the program finishes with a presentation before a panel of teachers, students and community members. [via: NY Times – free registration required]

Lord knows threats and penalties have never worked!

We Mean What We Said and We Said What We Mean – Maybe

Now that "thousands" of seniors in Florida will not be graduating because they didn’t pass the state’s standardized test, the legislature is scrambling to pass a bill to allow alternative methods for declaring these kids literate and giving them their diploma. The state board of education has already rejected any alternatives but a law passed by the legislature and signed by brother Jeb will probably set everything right.

One alternative noted in the article is for the kids to use their scores on the SAT. The Florida Department of Education has determined they would need a minimum of 370 on the verbal and 350 on the math to equal a passing score on the test. 370? Don’t you get 200 points just for showing up?