Question: The most important education story of 2006 will be No Child Left Behind or Charter Schools? Since the article is titled Charter School Confidential, it shouldn’t be hard to guess the writer’s choice. But the underlying question in what follows is more along the lines of which of the two is the more important education reform program.

With that straw man securely in place, he goes on to ignore NCLB (which is all about testing and punishment – not school reform anyway) and heap lots of praise on charters. The evidence he offers for charter success comes from two books, one of which profiles one California school and the other which looks at organizations that manage multiple charters.

Actually, there’s a lot to like about the charter school concept. When implemented well, they offer the staff far more freedom and flexibility than schools are allowed by most districts. Even more important, charters are better able to narrow their instructional focus, allowing parents to better match their kids with the educational environment that will work best for them.

There are certainly some success stories coming from the charter movement. However, there are far more failures.

“While the EMOs [educational management organizations] all promised academic excellence, their schools were often run by people whose primary focus was not the quality of instruction,” Wilson [author of “Learning on the Job: When Business Takes on Public Schools”] said. “Few were fluent in the instructional programs on which they relied. Most offered blithe claims that ‘things were going well,’ but very few could coherently cite test results in support of them, let alone real-time data that revealed which classrooms and grades had gained traction with an instructional program and which others were as yet languishing.”

Even when the instructional program works, many charters fail because the people running them don’t have the financial backing needed for the long term. The claim that charters can do the job cheaper as well as better than “regular” public schools is one of those urban myths that needs to be dropped from the discussion.

Charters may have their problems but, once again, the concept is excellent. I’d like to see the overly-large school district I work for begin sponsoring charters within the system. As successful as our schools are – on average – we certainly could use a shot of new ideas unencumbered by our overly-large bureaucracy.

charter school, school reform