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Education in Two Worlds: Are Charter Schools Greenhouses for Innovation and Creativity?

The rationale for the charter school movement went something like this: "Public education is being crushed by bureaucratic regulation and strangled by teacher unions. There is no room left for creative innovation; and tired, old, traditional educators have run out of energy and ideas. Let free choice reign!" It sounded good, especially to people who were clueless about how schools actually run. How have things actually worked out? What new, revolutionary ideas have come out of the charter school movement that can teach us all about how to better educate the nation's children?

Recently I had the pleasure of traveling to a southwestern state to spend a day discussing 50 Myths and Lies that Threaten America's Public Schools with a large group of teachers, school administrators, school board members, and college of education faculty. These occasions are always enlightening for me, and I always come away from them with an enhanced sense of confidence in professional educators.

Among the audience were two young people who took advantage of one of the breaks to initiate a private conversation with me. They had read the 50 Myths book and felt that my co-author and I had dealt unfairly with the charter school topic. To put it bluntly, Berliner and I had written that in our opinion the vast majority of charter schools were underperforming traditional K-12 public schools and that the charter school industry was shot through with fraud and mismanagement. I don't think that the fraud allegation applied to these two young people, and I doubt that the mismanagement charge did either. And they clearly felt that I was uninformed.

The young man graduated just a few years ago from Yale with a degree in history. The young woman was a UCLA alumna with a sociology degree. He was Academic Director of a pair of local charter schools serving poor, urban children; and she was Director of Research and Assessment. Both had left positions with KIPP very recently. I didn't ask why. They felt they were doing great things in the inner-city. I advised them to leave the charter school industry and work in the public schools. They said that charter schools are public schools. I said that I doubt it.

The afternoon session wound up with a free-wheeling "open mike" audience discussion about "50 Myths." My young charter school friends took one more try.

Young Man: "You seem to ignore the fact that charter schools offer parents 'choice." And 'choice' is what they are asking for."

Me: "Why is 'choice' an unconditional good? A crack addict chooses drugs. Consumers make bad selections all the time, and unregulated markets are notorious for offering people options that are not in their best long-term interest."

Young Man: [Silence]

Young Woman: "Charter schools are places where we can innovate and create new ways of doing things. That freedom will let us all learn how to run better schools."

Me: "Give me one specific, concrete example of what you have created that we can learn from." Young Woman: [Silence]

Young Man: "I'll give you one. We are adopting the International Baccalaureate for our two schools. Every kid will get an IB diploma."

A woman in the front row turned in her seat to address the young people who had just spoken.

Educator: "We introduced the International Baccalaureate in your district ten years ago. Families can choose to enroll their children in it if they wish. We have had to carefully counsel them because the IB is not a curriculum for all students."

So much for innovation and creativity in the charter school industry.

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Gene V Glass

Gene V Glass is a lecturer in the Connie L. Lurie College of Education of San José State University. He is also currently a Senior Researcher at the National Educ...