In the Fight Over Charters, It's Time to Put Down The Talking Points and Pick Up the Nuance

It's time to stop lumping schools into politically-charged packs of “charter” and “traditional.”


Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Last week, the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford published their latest study finding that, “the typical student in New Jersey charter schools gains more learning in a year than his or her traditional public school counterparts, about two months of additional gains in reading and three months in math.”  

Over the coming weeks, it’s sure to launch another salvo into the education debate as various camps line up their arguments for and against rapidly expanding the number of charter schools across the country.  Strap in—here we go again.


A black and white shot of two sumo wrestlers falling over together, arms linked.


Photo by Rekishi-Japan via Wikimedia Commons

As they’ve done before, voices on both sides of the debate will make sweeping generalizations based not on individual schools or networks, but on charters as a whole.  The anti-charter school crowd does it. The pro-charter school crowd does it.  And the national media does a pretty good job themselves.

And not only is it not helpful—as evidenced by the fact that this debate has been ongoing for a decade—it’s intellectually lazy.  In the world of education and anywhere else, whenever anything is presented as a panacea, there’s good reason to be suspect.

We need to stop characterizing schools merely by the laws that brought them into being or by the freedoms and restrictions they have as a result, particularly when the results are as varied across schools and networks as they are.  I’m not going to let the fantastic spinach ravioli I had last week or the Chef Boyardee I had for lunch dictate my entire outlook on pasta.

The varied school-by-school results tell us that simply being a charter is not a guarantee that a school will produce impressive student outcomes.  But the poor results of some schools doesn’t mean that the freedoms enjoyed by charters—such as the capacity to set the length of the school day and year and the ability to base personnel decisions on performance measures that they independently design—aren’t having a substantial, positive impact at others.  

Nuance like this isn’t clean.  It doesn’t fit well into a sound bite and it isn’t the red meat that the fervents on both sides crave.  But it’s the truth.

I’ve been to a broad suite of charter schools over the years and have dozens of friends who are currently teaching, serving on boards, or placed as corps members in charter classrooms.  I’ve seen an enormous range of effectiveness, pedagogical excellence, and outcomes.  And I’d imagine that if you sat down with the head of any national charter network with a history of impressive results, they’d agree that even among the schools in their network there are broad differentials.

Once again, it all comes down to leadership.  The leadership of school administrators and the structures, coaching and management they provide.  The leadership of individual and teams of teachers in the classroom.  The developing leadership being forged in students.  That’s what makes effective schools run.This is why efforts, such as the National Association of Charter School Authorizer’s One Million Lives campaign, to take a nuanced look at individual schools to hold them accountable for their quality are essential.

Let’s put away the tired arguments and stop lumping schools into politically-charged packs of “charter” and “traditional.” Instead, let’s commit to uncovering the schools across this country that are truly opening doors and producing incredible marks of student achievement.  Some of these schools will be charters.  Some will be traditional public schools.  And in each case, if we drill down to the details and ask, “What makes this individual school work so well?,” we’ll start to  get to real solutions that put kids, rather than agendas, front and center.


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