As the husband of a public school teacher and a father of 2 children who are beginning their public school careers, articles like this recent one in the NY Times drive me nuts. http://mobile.nytimes.com/2014/05/12/nyregion/charters-public-schools-and-a-chasm-between.html?_r=0&referrer= It paints a picture that all innovation taking place in the classroom transpires at Charters and if those darn stuck-in-the-mud traditional schools would just “collaborate” great strides could be made. Well collaboration is a two way street.
When was the last time you heard a charter school say, “We looked at the discipline policy of the local HS and decided it really was best practice so we adopted it”? It doesn’t happen because it would destroy the straw man of the “do-nothing traditional” schools. What the Charter supporters have realized is that people make 80 percent of their decisions based on emotional input. That’s why the narrative is so important. Since facts aren’t on their side it becomes important to create an emotion inducing story. The facts can take a backseat as long as you can prop up the story.
In their story. The tire less charter operator is constantly chasing and embracing new innovation in their rigid pursuit of new ways to reach students while the traditional schools are staffed with union controlled minions happy to do nothing but stand in front of a chalk board. Funny thing is, every night I see my wife rack her brain for new ways to reach children. She attends countless workshops to gain a greater understanding of new tools available to teachers, while money siphons out of our bank account so that her students can be in a better position to benefit from those new tools. When we have BBQ’s and kids birthdays at our house I over hear her fellow professionals discuss new strategies and technology that they are using to make strides, never do I hear a defense of the status quo.
That’s right I said new technology. As much as charter advocates try to paint a picture of teachers standing in front of rows of desks and writing on chalkboards, that’s not what’s happening. Public schools are doing every bit as much innovation as Charter Schools. Experimenting with ideas like project based learning and innovations like academies and community schools. There is no just standing pat and teaching the same way as ten years or go or even last year. Lesson plans may be revisited but they are constantly tweaked to find a new angle.
An example of the innovation would be the adoption of Project Based Learning (PBL). As described by Markam (2011), ” PBL integrates knowing and doing. Students learn knowledge and elements of the core curriculum, but also apply what they know to solve authentic problems and produce results that matter. PBL students take advantage of digital tools to produce high quality, collaborative products. PBL refocuses education on the student, not the curriculum–a shift mandated by the global world, which rewards intangible assets such as drive, passion, creativity, empathy, and resiliency. These cannot be taught out of a textbook, but must be activated through experience.” In other words PBL assigns a kids a project that design and complete using real world skills. It truly focuses on critical thinking because kids are forced to confront challenges and create solutions based on skills they’ve acquired.
This provides kids an opportunity to develop confidence in their skills and practice collaboration before they ever need to apply them in a career situation. There is plenty of research that demonstrates the value of play for kids to learn. PBL takes those ingredients and pushes them forward in a more structured environment. If children wish to participate fully in the project they will pick up the skills necessary to contribute. If its a project they are excited about you can bet they will develop those skills. This is innovation that’s not taking place in some far flung charter school but right here in an urban school district. Do you think though that a charter will ever visit that urban school and ask for coaching on implementing that curriculum?
What about Career Academies? (http://aypf.org/documents/092409CareerAcademiesPolicyPaper.pdf ) Career Academies are typically smaller learning groups in larger schools and provide college prep curriculum based on a career theme. By attending an academy students can see the real world relationships between the classes they are taking and the work place application. They have proven to be quite successful especially with young men. They give a clear vision of a life path for the student. Again this is innovation taking place in our urban schools not charter schools.
In Knoxville, they are experimenting with community schools. These are schools that are supported monetarily and with volunteers by local business. The community school’s will incorporate health care and dental services for the family, evening classes for adults and maybe even evening meals. The sponsoring businesses would provide volunteers to act as tutors or aid with capital projects. These schools give the entire community a stake in each child’s success and they still answer to the democratically elected local school board. That sounds pretty innovative to me.
Its not just sweeping change like the for mentioned either. Our public schools are also embracing technology. Recently Nashville’s school district has begun developing programs utilizing Aimsweb. This program allows teachers to assess a child’s reading level and then through the program itself recommend, based on students interest and reading level, appropriate reading materials. Through a virtual library program all those books will be available. It also allows the formation of small groups based on reading level and interest to form and discuss readings. The options are pretty exciting and recently a group of public school teachers got together to brainstorm on how to use this technology to create even more robust programs. It doesn’t sound like they are exactly resisting change.
The truth is innovation is taking place constantly in our public schools. Teachers are working tirelessly to find new ways to overcome the challenges of poverty and a high percentage of English learners. Charter School advocates don’t want you to know that though. They don’t want you to know that there is no evidence of Charters being better at educating kids then traditional schools. They don’t want you to know that the key to charter success is that they educate kids with greater incoming advantages then public schools. The problem for them is that the public is starting to wake up.
Articles describing the waste of money by Charter operators (http://integrityineducation.org/charter-fraud/) and their actual impact on communities (http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2014/05/19/140519fa_fact_russakoff?currentPage=all) are becoming more and more frequent. The picture they paint is not a pretty one. Its one of high salaries for administrators while special needs children and EL learners are shuffled back to traditional schools. These articles illuminate the problems that are threatening the very places innovation is taking place, our neighborhood schools.
Right now the education landscape is like Iraq after the war. It’s filled with profiteers looking to cash in on government money to build and the government is all to happy provide the cash. If you think I’m just generating hyperbole, look what’s in front of congress now. (http://www.usnews.com/news/politics/articles/2014/05/09/house-passes-bill-in-support-of-charter-schools) A bill that provide 300 million annually to expand charter schools. So while traditional schools are cutting art, music and scaling back on Liberal Arts curriculum, the government wants to give the privateers more money. Times like this make me pray that Common Core actually does improve critical thinking, because lord know we need it. Remember, Iraq didn’t start getting better until the consultants and the suitcases of money started to leave.
What we need to do is put the money towards programs that will actually have some impact on students education. How many school nurses and nutritionists could you employ with 300 million? How many psychologists could you place in middle and high schools? If we start to realize that things that hinder children’s learning happen outside the classroom as well as inside, we might get somewhere. If we stop trying to run a restaurant with out talking to the waiters, we may find that teachers are a pretty good resource on what works and what doesn’t. In order for that to happen though, we’d have to apply the immortal words of my son’s pre-k teacher and “put on our listening ears”. I’ve got an extra pair if you need them.