Traditional public schools are failing children nationwide due to the burdens that have been placed upon them, ranging from overcrowded classrooms to teachers who have gotten tenure and stopped working as hard. Proponents see charter schools as the saving grace of education that can allow these structural problems to be solved, not from simply doing the same things better, but from trying something new.
A New York Times article sums up the purpose of charter schools, saying that “When first conceived 20 years ago, charter schools — which are publicly financed but independently operated — offered two distinct promises: to serve as an escape hatch for children in failing schools, and to be incubators of innovation that, through market forces, would invigorate neighborhood schools.” In the following post, I will attempt to highlight these two appealing goals of charter schools.
According to a recent U.S. News & World Report, charters “tend to cater to a largely minority and disadvantaged student population, particularly in inner cities.” The Stanford based CREDO study also makes note of this when it says “The results point to large strides in some locations and with some of our most needy students. Charters serving minority students in poverty, students in poverty and English language learners are posting stronger results both against their 2009 record and against their current TPS counterparts in closing the learning gap for these students.” However charter schools are doing this—whether through true innovation or by allowing teachers the time to focus on students instead of prepping for tests—charter schools deliver on their promise to allow a worthwhile alternative to failing public schools.
Picture above shows Charter school growth in Los Angeles is predominately catered to lower economic groups.
As I’ve discussed in earlier posts, traditional public schools have been suffering from a loss of qualified credentialed teachers. Education scholars believe that a qualified teacher will have the ability to differentiate instruction for students that may be having a harder time, but the bureaucratic nature of traditional public schools pushes these teachers away while the charter system draws them in. The associate director of the undergraduate teacher-education program at Harvard says in a letter to the editor of the New York Times that “Researchers have shown that the shortage of qualified teachers has as much to do with retention as with recruitment. Too often, bright new teachers encounter schools with a toxic professional culture. They find few opportunities to observe or collaborate with colleagues; they are assigned the largest classes, limiting chances to build meaningful relationships with students; and if they are given curriculum support, it is often scripted lessons, which undermine intellectual curiosity. Charters offer the potential of a blank slate on which to build an environment that nurtures learning for teachers and students. When they do this right, they should be a lever of school reform.” So not only do charter schools provide an alternative to students who would otherwise be forced to go to failing traditional public schools, they also serve as an alternative that allows teachers to do the same.
A National Study of Charter Schools report about the impact of charter schools on local traditional public schools’ policy said that”Most districts implemented new educational programs, made changes in educational structures in district schools, and/or created new schools with programs that were similar to those in the local charter schools.” This is possibly the best feature of charter schools—their success is something traditional public schools can mimic and replicate, and these several different education policy “experiments” being conducted in parallel allow for public schools to adapt quickly and with certainty. With charter schools leading the way, traditional public schools now have a mechanism to evolve past their shortcomings, benefitting the public education system overall.
Charter schools don’t do everything right, but that isn’t their purpose. The purpose is to try something new and innovative, and to see how this affects educational outcomes so that traditional public schools can adopt their practices. Parents and teachers alike find this promise hopeful, and charter school growth around the nation is evidence of that.