March 4, 2008
I find it fascinating every time I hear about the achievements, struggles, and general state of charter schools in cities across America. Amidst all of the mistakes, failures, and outright tragedies that have taken place at my first-year charter school in St. Louis, it is easy to lose sight of the bigger picture with the charters movement.
It is a truism nowadays to observe that charter schools, in the aggregate, are similar to traditional public schools insofar as there are some that are exceptional, some that are in need of shuttering, and a great many more whose quality is in between the two extremes. And while the charter school I work at is a definite example of a case where greater autonomy has not led to improved outcomes for our students, it is always refreshing to watch videos like the one below that show how charter schools can thrive on the other end of the achievement spectrum.
What is it that makes some charter schools first-rate, and others not? From my vantage point, it’s all about the people. The obvious manifestation of this is how even the best of intentions in classrooms cannot succeed without high quality teachers to implement lessons, follow up with parents, manage classroom behavior, and contribute to a positive culture of high expectations. But human capital issues play out in many more ways in schools than just the one-on-one interaction with students.
The best example of this is with how decisions are made by school leaders in charter schools. Because charter schools are bound to a lesser degree to specific state and district processes on resource allocation with schools, principals and other decision makers have the ability to leverage their budgets and staff hours in much more fluid and effective directions. But a necessary quality for these decisions to take place is that the school leaders must be wise enough to make the right choices. In the absence of this wisdom and sound decision making, the absence of beauracratic red tape over school-level decisions can actually make charter schools comparably worse than traditional schools.
Think about it this way. It does no good for an NFL head coach to install a new offense where the quarterback has the freedom to call whatever plays he sees fit from the line of scrimmage, without knowing who his quarterback is! Of course if you have Peyton Manning or Tom Brady to make decisions you want to empower them to make calls on a case-by-case basis. The same is true in charter schools. Allowing dedicated, intelligent principals to make decisions instead of a far-removed assistant super-intendant over a curriculum decision, school day schedule, discipline process, or staff placement can have positive effects. But what if you have a rookie quarterback who has not shown the ability to make good decisions? In this case, increasing the amount of devolved autonomy can actually hurt the team–or the school in the case of a bad principal.
It seems to me that the Boston Charter Schools have some talented principals and strong teachers who are willing to work extra hours and have the right expectations for students. In St. Louis, sadly, we do not yet have these kinds of people in numbers sufficient enough to make charter schools any better than the traditional alternative.
Aaron Tang is the co-director of Our Education, a non-profit organization working to build a national youth movement for quality education. He also teaches eighth grade history in Saint Louis, Missouri.