Charting a course for charter schools

Heroic work by teachers and administrators often makes a difference in public education. But good schools take more than that.

Ann Hermes/Staff

The 2010 documentary “Waiting for ‘Superman’ ” was – still is – a powerful indictment of American public education. The movie describes a system so dysfunctional, teachers unions so entrenched, and urban neighborhoods so battered that frequent calls for “education reform” ring hollow. Every recent American president has come into office proclaiming improving education Job 1 and often signing landmark legislation. But too many students – other versions of the innocent Anthony, Daisy, Emily, Francisco, and Bianca in the documentary – are still being left behind.

Now, to be fair, most public schools are healthy, productive environments where capable teachers make a profound difference in students’ lives. Year after year, public schools in states such as Massachusetts competently prepare students for college. Still, “Waiting for ‘Superman’ ” makes a convincing case that much of the public-education system, especially in the inner city, is broken and that charter schools – by focusing less on the job security of adults who run the system and more on the kids who are supposed to be served by it – are showing how to fix it.

There are now 6,700 charter schools in the United States. They educate 3 million students (6 percent of the public school population); another 1 million are on waiting lists. If current trends continue, by 2035 charters could be educating as much as 40 percent of American students. Though charter schools vary in quality, in general they are effective at boosting educational achievement, which accounts for their popularity in inner-city neighborhoods. They are big players in cities such as Detroit, Washington, and especially New Orleans, where 91 percent of students now attend charter schools. 

Early charter schools resembled high-tech start-ups, powered by charismatic leaders, succinct mission statements, and a build-fast-fail-fast ethos. Administration was flat. Teachers put in long hours. Student discipline and a culture of learning were paramount. As the movement matures, that is changing. Case in point: Mastery Charter Schools in Philadelphia, where chief executive Scott Gordon has moved from a “no excuses” approach with students to one that takes into account students’ backgrounds and the communities they come from, much as traditional public schools do. (Click here for a Monitor cover story on Mr. Gordon and the schools he manages.)

As charters scale up, they face many of the same issues that public schools do. Few charter teachers are in labor unions now, but unionization is spreading. Management is flat now, but bigger schools will require more bureaucracy. Most charters tuck themselves into small spaces today, but that precludes them offering a full range of activities for students, including athletics and other extracurriculars.

Charter schools began as laboratories. If their growth rate continues, they will become factories. They might, as a result, lose some of the energy of the early days. They might even resemble the public school system they seek to reform. Heroism isn’t a sustainable business model, unless you are Superman, and school kids can wait forever for him. The key for charter schools and for public schools is to remain focused on what really matters. Their names are Anthony, Daisy, Emily, Francisco, and Bianca.

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