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Washington Examiner


Public Schools Should Experiment Like Charter Schools

April 07, 2010

By Marcus A. Winters

The new line of attack against charter schools is that they have failed to achieve their original mission. In her new book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, Diane Ravitch joins the chorus lamenting that charters were never meant to compete with public schools or offer alternatives for a large population of students.

When union godfather Albert Shanker first promoted charter schools, the argument goes, he saw them acting as laboratories for new strategies that could then be adopted in the public schools. According to critics like Ravitch, the charter school laboratories have not produced consistent lessons for the public school sector to adopt and thus the experiment has been disappointing.

Of course, we would be justified in embracing charter schools solely on the evidence that in some school systems, such as New York City’s, they provide children with a better education while also improving public schools through competition. But the “laboratory” argument fails even on its own terms. Charter schools do experiment with alternative education strategies. The problem is, public schools don’t like the results of these experiments.

Nearly two decades of experience with charter schools have yielded some lessons in what works for improving student performance. There are easily perceptible patterns among the few charter school networks -- KIPP, Uncommon Schools, Democracy Prep, Achievement First, and DC Prep among others -- that have systematically yielded impressive (even miraculous) results with the most challenging students. Attributes of these schools include: exceptionally high goals, rigorous standards, frequent analysis of performance data, longer school days and years, firm discipline, willingness and ability to remove ineffective teachers, and uniform adherence among students, staff, and faculty to the school’s mission and community standards.

When you walk into a charter school that adheres to these standards, you see learning taking place. These schools have proven that demography is not destiny. All kids learn regardless of their race, class, or the income bracket of their parents.

Those attributes are vastly different from what is offered in urban public school systems, and for good reason. Educating low-income students in urban settings is hard work. We shouldn’t be surprised that sustained success requires structural reforms and not just a redesigned reading strategy or textbook.

Public schools have not pursued the strategies that the best charter schools use. In fact, they routinely fight against adopting even watered-down versions of them. Utilizing student performance data in the public schools, for example, remains taboo. Collective bargaining agreements that keep teachers from supervising the lunchroom are hardly amenable to requiring the vigilance necessary to enforce strict discipline policies or partake in school culture exercises. Longer school days and years are a fantasy without a whole lot more money for teacher salaries. In fact, school calendars across the country are shrinking because rather than renegotiating contracts, the teachers’ unions’ best offer for handling the financial crisis is unpaid furlough days.

There is nothing inherent in the concept of “public” that keeps public schools from adopting successful charter-school strategies. Systematic changes seem inconceivable only because the structure under which public schools operate has become so rigid, and the organizations that benefit from that system have become so politically powerful. Perhaps that’s the real lesson from the charter school laboratory: the structure of public school systems is incapable of enacting the policies necessary to serve our most disadvantaged students.

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