Some Honest Truth from a Charter Teacher

5.2-Apples.jpgBy Bill Waychunas – Telling people that you teach in a charter school can elicit a wide range of reactions.

Usually, people simply ask me some innocent questions to try to figure out what charter schools actually are. This is completely normal because the vast majority of us grew up at a time when school choice meant the option between public and private schools; charter schools didn’t even exist. Because so few people have had experiences with these types of schools, it should be expected that they may have some reservations, or at least questions, about them. Sadly, this unknown world is too often demonized as the world renowned rapper Macklemore has said so plainly because “we fear what we don’t know.” After spending the past seven years teaching at three different charter schools in two different states, I’d like to think that I know a thing-or-two about the topic and would like to offer my honest thoughts on charter schools and the school choice movement.

Let’s first clear up the most common misunderstanding that people have about charter schools. Charter Schools ARE public schools. Students at charter schools do not pay tuition. They do not have to take a test to get in. Students in charters can live in any part of the city to attend, and charters are mostly funded using taxpayer money (alongside some private donations–to be discussed in a future blog).

I do not believe that charter schools are some sort of saving grace in public education because not all charter schools are good schools. Some struggle mightily and do a disservice to many of the students. Some are outstanding and are making huge strides towards closing the achievement gap. Many are just mediocre.

Of the three different charter schools which I’ve taught in, one has been middle of the road and in a suburban area, and the other two have been in high poverty urban areas, one which did no better (and possibly worse) than nearby schools and the other which significantly out-performs the neighboring schools. The spectrum of quality in charter schools is as wide and varied as neighborhood public schools. So, let’s please move past the “good vs. evil” narrative, which is too often injected into the school-choice discussion and collectively reflect on what can be learned from the differing models to provide better learning opportunities for students.

Another common sentiment among those who are anti-charter is the idea that school choice cherry-picks the best students and leaves the neighborhood public schools with the most disadvantaged students, with a disproportionate share of students with special needs, and the least involved parents. By skimming the cream from the top, charters are dooming neighborhood schools to chronic failure. In my personal experiences, I haven’t found these arguments to be particularly true.

In regards to special education populations, the school which I teach at now has had a comparable or higher rate of special education students compared to the nearest neighborhood high schools. In Chicago, charters average special education populations of 13% compared to the 14% average in neighborhood public schools. When teaching at a more suburban charter, I saw a different problem. In a disturbing trend of “school hopping,” parents of students with disabilities would leave one school for another once the school had referred their child for special education testing as a way to avoid a label being placed on their child, which ultimately had a negative impact as their student didn’t receive the services they needed.

There is some validity to the argument that charters have more involved parents. For a parent to become aware of the educational options for their child takes some effort on their part. But, simply enrolling your child in a school doesn’t mean that you are an involved or particularly good parent. The “better parents” argument is based on a large assumption that parents know what makes a good school. Sadly, especially in low-income homes, parents don’t necessarily have the expertise to make informed decisions about their child’s education, which takes away this supposed competitive advantage for charter schools. Market systems depend on informed consumers and the lack of clear, easily accessible information about schools for parents is a large flaw in the school-choice theory, both for those who are in favor and against charters.

For example, I’ve had plenty of parents who have expressed to me that their child is “the school’s problem,” have hung up on me over the phone, and one who has threatened to break my fingers for giving their child a detention. Too often, I’ve seen parents withdraw their child from a charter school because it is “too much work” or because the school’s “doing too much.” Students sometimes even enroll in charters because they’ve been kicked out other schools. The “cream” which charters skim hasn’t always matched the rhetoric that I’ve heard people use regarding school choice.

I’ve had lots of great parents too, but this brings me to a larger point about the purpose of charter schools. The original idea behind charter schools was to allow freedom for teachers to get creative and find innovative ways for schools to educate students that were falling through the cracks in the traditional system. It has also become a way to inject a bit of competition into the field of education as a way to spur innovation. The reality is that many students are leaving the traditional system in search of better educational opportunities at charters and, according to research by Stanford University, they are finding them, at least in the cities. In order to avoid getting into a “who’s better” argument, (the research on charter vs neighborhood schools is generally very inconclusive) I’d like to point to another study of the highest-performing charter networks in the country that can bring charter successes back to their origins – to be the laboratories for potential education reform.

In 2012, the Brookings Institute and Harvard produced a report which determined the common factors associated with high performance in New York charter schools. Their findings shouldn’t be that surprising and can seem to be common sense. Schools which had the highest levels of achievement and growth had the following characteristics:

1)      Teachers receiving frequent observations and quality feedback
2)      Data-Driven Instruction Practices
3)      Providing High Dosage Tutoring
4)      Increased Instruction Time (or time on task)
5)      Creating cultures of high expectations

I encourage you to take a further look at the report and explore their findings. There are excellent charter schools around the country doing amazing things for students using these practices. So, instead of getting caught up in the partisan battle of the school-choice debate, I hope that we can step back and take an honest look at the good that can come from the charter movement and leverage that knowledge to better serve all students–no matter what type of school they go to.

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