Selected readings on US charter schools
Last month, Michael Gove’s big idea was called a “dangerous ideological experiment” by the new shadow education secretary, Tristram Hunt. Personally, I’m not convinced at all about the thought of untrained parents running a school. In my experience, however, autonomy can be a hugely significant step toward the education system we are all looking for.
Imagine a school where the teachers have full reign over how to teach their subject to students with little interference from senior leadership. Imagine a school where teachers collaborate and ideas flow into the classroom, creating an atmosphere of creativity and curiosity. This is a school where sub-par teachers can be let go, relatively quickly and where good teaching is financially rewarded. That is my school.
Coming from the UK, where a teacher had to give seven weeks’ notice to leave a position, it came as a bit of a Europhilic shock to start a job teaching in a US charter school with an “at-will” contract that could be terminated by either party at any time. This is the same arrangement as many other jobs in the US – cue visions of being marched into the head’s office between periods three and four, security being asked to escort you to your desk to clear your belongings and people staring awkwardly as you leave. But that is just not how it is.
When new staff join the school, leadership make it clear that someone would only be let go after several significant conversations about how that person can be supported to show improvements. You get the sense that it doesn’t help anyone to sack somebody immediately. On the other hand, it’s clear what is expected of you. If someone gets to the point of having to be let go, chances are they were just not made for teaching.
In joining the school, we are enrolled in a vigorous but not overpowering evaluative system that also forms the basis for any financial compensation for the next year. This includes four observations that can be given with less than 24 hours’ notice. It is less unnerving than it sounds; the feedback is given in terms of getting better at teaching rather than any hanging threat of being thrown out.
I work at a small inner-city school with a solid leadership team and a high level of accountability all round. Everybody knows each other, works together and plays together. The school is heavily integrated into the local community where teachers are often neighbors or fellow church-goers. There are not many secrets. Given a larger school and a more faceless, less scrupulous administration, the lack of any representation at all would be a concern. I believe strongly that school leaders should be given more freedoms, but this has to come with accountability for all their decisions.
At Herron High School, where I currently teach, the system works. There is an incentive structure that keeps you on your toes but not to the extent that you are suffocated by worrying about your job. It only works, however, because it comes hand-in-hand with a supportive senior leadership team who will help you become the best educator you can be. It works because the evaluation process is focused on being the best teachers for the students while checking that you are doing the job you were hired for.
As a public (state) charter school we receive funding per student from the state of Indiana and then fundraise for improvements to campus buildings and facilities. What comes with this is the ability of the senior leadership to say where the resources are best allocated. This means that decisions can be based on what is best for our students at this school, rather than having to go along with a broad move made by a whole district of schools.
More autonomy for teaching and choice for students is a great thing, assuming that there is a high level of professional development and accountability for teachers and senior leadership, alike. Granted, that is a huge assumption.
Source: The Guardian – by Adrian Pumphrey (A British mathematics teacher, now teaching at Herron High School in Indianapolis, USA)