(Sarah B is a middle school social studies and language arts teacher in Colorado. Her insightful look at charter schools follows this introduction.)
Few educational initiatives have had the degree of hype and promise we see every time a new charter school is launched. DoE career bureaucrats tout the success “…certain to follow” by allowing teachers the freedom to teach differently, and schools to operate under conditions that foster learning better than public schools. Caring parents, especially those struggling with private school bills, rush to apply and move their child to the new school. Hope and promise are in the air. Every teacher I know has been hopeful that charter schools would be the trigger to show how real changes could help us be able to teach again, despite all the destructive mandates that prevent effective teaching.
But reality is starting to hit across the nation. Those “real changes” never happened. The rush to charter schools has ignored one predictable unintended consequence – since all those “…changes and mandate exemptions” turned out to be mainly cosmetic, with little actually changing, and all the destructive unintended consequences of federal mandates stay in place – nothing substantive happened to fix the underlying systemic failures in all urban high schools, including in the new charter schools.
In 2013 alone, while 642 new charter schools were being launched as “…the next big thing for education,” another 206 failed and were closed. And literally hundreds others across the nation were reported to be in the process of failing.
Why such a high incidence of charter school failure? The answer is simple – none of the federal mandates of NCLB or RttT are waived with charter schools, and some of the states either did not waive state mandates, or only made cosmetic changes. The underlying systemic failures remain.
So why the success in some of the new charter schools? Again, it is a simple answer. It has nothing to do with the structure of the schools, mandates, or policies. It is 100% about expectations. Parents and students coming to the school are those who already have high expectations and motivations. According to census and national Center for Educational Statistics, the overwhelming bulk of the growth in charter schools has come from students transferring from private schools. And it is clear to any classroom teacher that most of the remaining transfers have come from children of the most motivated and supportive parents in the public school system.
Fill a school with the most motivated students of supportive parents, and teachers have a chance to succeed in helping these children learn, despite all the educational system does to prevent teachers from teaching. We cannot “fix” education with cosmetic changes by career DoE bureaucrats and legislators – we will only succeed for our children when we fix the real systemic failures in urban high school education.
Here is Louise B’s story. It has been wait-listed by the panel as likely to be included and quoted in the main chapters of the 2nd edition of Lifting the Curtain: The disgrace we call urban high school education.
Charter schools – same old, same old?
I teach in a K-8 charter school founded on the idea that children will learn if they’re given choice in learning that is experiential and relevant. Last year, I took a job teaching social studies at this school because I was tired. For eleven years, I’d watched public education turn teenagers apathetic or angry, I’d fought administrators obsessed with data, and I’d taught beside colleagues so burned out they’d begun to resort to formulaic lesson plans and disconnection from their students. I knew I needed to quit teaching or find a different world.
In some ways, I have found a different world. But in many others I have not. The challenges I experienced in standard schools exist in charter schools, too. As just one example, no charter school in today’s education system can escape testing. For four weeks this spring, the students in my school will stop their project-based, meaningful learning to sit for state tests.
Is it a coincidence that the middle school students in this alternative school are just as apathetic as teenagers in any school where I’ve taught? Like their peers at other schools, these kids have short attention spans and a closely held belief that school is irrelevant in a world connected by Instagram and YouTube. At conferences, their parents say they’re grateful their kids are at a school like ours, and I nod and smile – but I worry, secretly, that this isn’t the solution either, and that what is wrong is much deeper than an educational approach.
I think we would all find more answers if we’d look more directly into the increasing emptiness in an American teenager’s eyes.