Selected readings on US charter schools
The Norfolk Public Schools (NPS) recently announced a decision to use a new state law in Virginia to open ten “Conversion Charters”. The ten schools are expected to adopt their new educational programs –– like Montessori and International Baccalaureate programs — for the upcoming school year, which starts in just a couple months. It is generally exciting to see districts explore innovative programs and work to establish options for their communities. It is also a great sign when educators in any situation, consider how to implement promising programs like those proposed in Virginia. But this effort seems problematic on a couple of fronts. One is related to the speed, the other to the limits of Virginia’s charter-like approach. A little patience might make this more successful.
First off, the NPS effort is extremely rushed. In mid-June, the district is announcing changes that schools will implement in the coming school year. According to news reports, the district only recently shared the proposal publicly. The history of education reform is littered with crash-course reforms that failed because of the rush. Having worked myself in Colorado to study similarly ambitious efforts that tried to change school programs quickly, I can describe a series of painful lessons that are already out there to learn. It is gratifying to see district leaders recognize the urgency of making change. But after the dust settles, inevitably the critique of such efforts points out that the champions of change failed because they attempted to do too much too quickly. They suffer from a variety of challenges linked to the rush.
The programs the district selected include strong, proven, and cool models. Nevertheless, these models are tricky to do well. They all take specialized leadership and training. Having seen my own kids’ progress through eight years of a district-run Montessori school, I can attest to just how different the program is from a traditional program. Just for starters, teacher training (and sometimes certification), instructional materials, and pedagogy, all change dramatically.
With the current approach, the district cannot provide the teachers and school leaders enough time to engage in their work or “buy into” each school’s specific changes. The Norfolk plan will ask teachers to sign commitments to the new program. If they decline to sign, the district will offer them assignment elsewhere in the district. Many will sign the commitments to avoid the dislocation, but they will do so under duress and subsequently undermine the changes required to pull off the new models.
Also, assigning kids and their families to schools with new programs by default, based on where they were already attending school, means many families will end up in these different schools without much knowledge of what they signed up for. Later, as they understand what a school with a specific model does and doesn’t do, many will wish their kids were in a different program. Without time to consider the evolving options, or because there are faults in the other schools, many families will remain in schools with new models, but will become frustrated with the new approach. Many will then push back against the very changes necessary to implement the models well. This makes it a lot harder to implement each of these reforms with fidelity. For example, some parents in the Montessori Program will want to see classes be more orderly, with desks in rows, and the kids sitting quietly working. Other parents will insist that their child’s new I.B. high school stops mandating so much homework. Those are compromises that these particular programs cannot survive.
A second set of challenges with this approach comes from Virginia’s limited approach to charter schools. The state’s charter policies do not give schools much flexibility or accountability. In the new “conversion charters”, the state’s approach is even less chartery. The schools remain under district governance and control, and are not subject to clear performance contracts. The schools will have parent committees to provide advice. But those committees will not have governing authority. It is not clear wht authority leaders have over staffing in their schools.
There are many state laws that allow districts to pursue innovation along lines of the VA law. These policies are better described as “innovation schools” run by districts, than as charter schools. Those laws are a welcome tool to districts and districts can use them effectively. To do either approach right, it helps to understand the pros and cons of the different approaches.
Interestingly, this challenge also creates an opportunity. One of the advantages that an innovation school has over a charter school, is that a school is already up and running with a staff and leader. Thus, the school can enjoy the benefit of taking a planning year. With more time, there is a group of people who can work together to consider what they want to achieve. They can research and select an educational model they want to implement that will fit that challenge. Then they can figure out how to implement their preferred design. Staff can become informed of various options and determine when they would rather leave instead of work in a program they disagree with. That planning year can also engage the community in the discussion of what they would be willing to choose. When all the work is done, leaders, teachers, and families at least have the advantage of more knowledge of what is going on. Teachers, as well as families and students, can all make informed choices about what they want to do in the new system and which program is right for them.
Hopefully, the NPS effort can take the time to adopt such a planning process. Without it, I fear a “new” set of harsh lessons will be learned over the next few years.
Source: Chartering Quality – by Alex Medler