Friday, September 2, 2011

Fingers Crossed

My daughter and I recently sat down to watch Waiting for Superman and The Lottery.  Waiting for Superman got a lot of hype last winter when it was released in theaters, complete with Oprah appearance and hoopla.  The Lottery is very much the same story, with guest appearances from Geoffrey Canada and a heart wrenching final school "lottery" scene.

In addition to putting the problems of public education in the spotlight for a couple months, these movies also brought increased attention to public charter schools. Both movies highlight all the obstacles facing traditional public schools and their efforts to improve educational programs, most notably the power of teacher's unions and the difficulty in firing bad teachers.  Public charter schools do not, for the most part, have to deal with a teacher's union and the limitation of a union contract.  This has in turn created both a nation-wide call for more charter schools and a backlash from teachers and groups advocating for alternative reforms in public education.

Those in favor of more charter schools and/or changes in the ways teachers are hired, fired and evaluated argue that administrators and parents are at the mercy of teacher tenure and the teacher contract.  Both movies highlight these problems, discussing in depth the "lemon dance"and district offices in which teachers get paid to sit for 6 hours a day for months waiting for disciplinary hearings.  Very rarely are teachers ever fired.

Charter schools, on the other hand, do not have to deal with teacher tenure or a contract.  They may fire teachers at will and are able to extend the school day, school year and/or time during which school staff may have to work.  These parameters are often clearly defined in the union contract in traditional public schools.  In response to this, parents and students are flocking to charter schools.  In many cases hundreds of students have to be turned away from these schools.  Thus the demand for more charter schools.

On the other side you have advocates for teachers, like Diane Ravitch, saying that the problem is not the unions, but rather poverty, limitations placed on teachers by No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top and an increased dependence on standardized testing.  I have discussed standardized testing and the stresses it places on schools before.  Unfortunately, I do not think testing is going away any time soon.  Too many resources have been expended on national and state standards and, as a result, assessment tools.  Pointing the finger at poverty is not new and it certainly contributes to the challenges faced by teachers.  On the other hand, charter schools draw from these same populations and yet appear to be getting better results.

This group also argues that charter schools are, in many cases, just an excuse for corporate education.  Many charter schools now clone themselves in cities across America.  Many new charters are given to familiar names like KIPP and Imagine and often tout incredible results -- that is until you look a little deeper.  Some charter schools have such rigid codes of conduct that students leave in large numbers after the first or second year.  Charter schools cannot pick and choose their students (students must be selected through a lottery), BUT they can set the rules for remaining in the school.  Additionally, some charter schools have been unwilling to open their books and therefore their accounting of public and private funds has been up for debate.

I do not hate charter schools.  In many ways I am a fan.  But on the other hand, I do think that teachers in traditional public schools are limited by all the demands placed on them by testing and poverty.  I also do not hate unions, but feel that there is room for negotiation.  Many school districts are now implementing tougher teacher evaluation systems directly tied into standardized testing.  We will have to wait and see if this is the answer.  I have a feeling it is not.

For me the jury is still out on large, corporate-like charter schools.  I love the idea of having a small charter school that works like a tight-knit family.  In fact, I dream of starting such a charter school.  The minute you put a corporate structure into that model, the appeal for me is gone.  Public schools should remain public and answer to their constituents, not a corporation or business.  On the other hand, I have not had schools in my neighborhood so terrible that I feel trapped.  I am not always happy with the schools in my district, but they are not bad schools.  In fact, my current schools are exemplary.  As I watched the movies I kept thinking "what would I do"?  If I could not move out of the neighborhood, afford a private school or did not have the knowledge to maneuver the system?  What are my options?  Wait for the school to improve?  Corporate or not, a KIPP school might look good at that point.....

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