What charters have taught me

Recently Gary Rubinstein blogged about what he’s learned from charters. Here is what charters have taught me. (There is a shortened/edited reply on his blog.)

I’m a charter school teacher myself. I know they are not the answer, and they will not solve the issue of providing quality education for all students. I know there are some good ones and bad ones. I have preferred working at a charter over a traditional school, and would like to share with you what charters have taught me.

You might have learned this lesson (keep the lowest 15% from the top 50%) from charters – but it’s a lesson repeated in selective enrollment/magnet schools as well, right? I can think of many other ways our society keeps the “haves” from the “have nots.” I think you have a valid point that some charters perpetuate this but it did not start with charters.

I understand how teachers in traditional schools are frustrated that charters are touted as “high performing” when some play numbers game with attrition.

Charters do have more freedom. That’s a great thing and I wish more schools had the autonomy to do what they feel is best for their students without going through a large district bureaucratic snail-speed process. My students and I have gotten to do some amazing things I’d never be able to do at a traditional school, and I’m very grateful.

Another myth about charters I wish was addressed was the idea that they could do a better job teaching students with less money. I think that’s a major cause for attrition – students with more significant needs cost more. Most schools (charter or otherwise) struggle to teach diverse learners with varied needs. All schools need a equitable amount of resources to address all students.

In regards to “innovate” and “experiment,” those are scary terms when you think about educating children. Necessary, maybe, but scary. Most experiments fail many times before they are successful. I heard Geoffrey Canada once say that if a charter (experimental) school does not “succeed” it should be shut down. I thought to myself – What effect would all these failed experiments have on the communities these failed schools are in? I wish more people realized we need strong, stable neighborhood schools just as much as we need to “experiment” and figure out what works best. (This is a similar argument against TFA teachers – I belive we need ambitious dedicated new teachers just as badly as we need experienced, quality teachers.)

You touch on something I struggle with a lot. How do I best teach all students when a few are distracting and suck up a large amount of my energy? That’s not a charter issue, but a general teacher issue. In every school I’ve taught in (two, one traditional, one charter,) they have not been separated in my classroom.

I also disagree that classroom management issues are not why teachers quit ‘bad’ schools to go to ‘good’ ones, in my experience it’s been administrative issues. Again, not a charter issue.

I think there are a lot more lessons we could learn from charters, and lessons charters could learn from traditional schools, if we would collaborate more. Many people are so upset about the existence of the other side, and all that they are doing wrong, that they blame them (and sometimes the teachers who work in them), for the lack of resources in districts/current educational climate. The others are seen as the enemy. Most teachers on both sides are just trying to provide the best education we can for those students who are in front of us.

In my view, (which evolves and changes as I learn and grow), charters should be viewed as niche schools. A niche is not for everyone. They do increase school choice for many families who didn’t have it before. (I’m quick to realize that school choice and a quality education are not always the same thing.)

I guess my hope is that we can start working together. Charters and TFA were created with the thinking that they would figure it out from the outside and  then that would fix the inside. Well, both sides are still struggling, so why don’t we band forces again, and be a bit more humble and collaborative?

3 responses to “What charters have taught me

  1. Magnet schools do not have selective enrollment in NYC. All magnet schools do is remove zoning to increase diversity in the school. In the case of D14, where we have 8 magnet K-5 schools, the goal is to bring in both racial and socio-economic diversity to areas that are racially and socio-economically isolated. There is no other selection in place. After the three years of magnet money has been spent, the relaxed zoning only occurs after the zoned kids are accepted.

    Selective admission schools (like G+T and select middle and high schools) don’t pretend to have an open lottery that accepts everyone.

    • Thanks WAGPOPS for commenting. To be honest, I have a lot of understanding to do when it comes to magnet schools. Maybe you could help – 1) How do they determine diversity? Neighborhood? Race? Academic abilities? 2) Is it sheer lottery? 3) Is there any test at all they have to take? 4) What do you mean, “magnet money”? What is that spent on? 5) Could you describe what “relaxed zoning” means?

      Gary’s posts has sparked quite a debate – it seems that some people are saying the lowest 15% should be separated from higher performers. Tracking is still a hot topic.

      I think my general frustration is not that any school “weeds” out the kids who “can’t hack it” – but more that it is a very common practice in many aspects of our society to feint equality but really perpetuate separation and isolation. Some charters do it, other areas of education do it, housing market, judicial systems, etc. etc. etc.

  2. Magnet schools are not allowed to screen based on academic achievement so there is no admissions screening and no test. There is also no lottery. The magnet allows the school to be unzoned (with preference within the district). The NYC DOE has not supported their magnet schools with press or publicity and, as a result, many D14 families are not aware that we have such a fantastic model of school choice, with magnets focusing on the visual arts, sciences, communication, technology, performing arts, etc.,

    Magnet grants are funds given to schools that allow them to specialize around a theme and attract more diversity. PS84 in Williamsburg is a terrific example. PS84 Jose de Diego became PS84 Jose de Diego Magnet School for the Visual Arts and Sciences. For years, PS84 was an exclusively latino school, but the magnet grant increased diversity (socioeconomic and racial) and the effects on the PS84 community have been tremendous.

    For the D14 magnets, diversity was considered by income and racial/ethnic background. We have schools with considerable populations of both low-income and latino (primarily Puerto Rican and Dominican) families. The magnet grants were given to increase the diversity in the classroom (as opposed to a G&T program which generally segregates classrooms but increases diversity in the school).

    If you want to learn more about magnets, you should check out the UCLA Civil Rights Project. Magnets have fallen out of favor, not because they were unsuccessful in integrating schools, but because charters have heavy lobbyists. The UCLA Civil Rights Project discusses how magnets are often more successful within a few years of the magnet funds (the funds last 3 years) being spent. Their studies also show that while charter schools have a serious problem with segregation, magnet schools are an equitable and sustainable model for both integration and achievement.

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