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After 25 Years, What's Next For Charter Schools?

Oivind Hovland
Getty Images

The major advocacy group for charter schools is meeting this week in Nashville, Tenn., and there's lots to celebrate.

What began with a single state law in Minnesota has spread to a national movement of nearly 6,800 schools, serving just under 3 million students.

But at its annual meeting, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools is also using the moment to call for a fresh look at how these innovative public schools are managed and how they're held accountable.

Among the concerns is whether the failure rate of online charter schools is hurting the credibility of the movement in general.

Others inside the movement say charters "have hit a wall" — that too many are operating like traditional public schools, with unimpressive results because they've done little or nothing to innovate and adopt the most promising classroom practices.

That makes it a good time to talk with Ted Kolderie, one of the architects of the nation's first charter school law in 1991. In his new book, The Split Screen Strategy: Innovation and Improvement, Kolderie argues that public education is cursed by the notion of the "one best way to do education better." The problem, he says, is that it's impossible to generate a political consensus for radical change.

/ Ted Kolderie/Education Evolving
Ted Kolderie/Education Evolving

So are you saying school reform and the charter school movement in particular are at an impasse?

I'm trying to say that you have lots of people [in conventional schools] who aren't ready for the "radically different." The way to get innovation is to ask people to do things they've never done before, but nobody is forced to move from the traditional to the new and different. So you have a dual system, with innovations gradually spreading and at the same time a traditional model improving. This is the way successful systems work. Why not education?

So you're saying you can innovate and make dramatic changes without ramming it down people's throats. Eventually, they too will adopt these changes but at their own pace. That's what you call a "split screen strategy." Can you give an example of how or where this has worked?

In New Hampshire, you'll see the state pushing competency-based education. Students get credit for as much as they can learn, as rapidly as they can learn. It's not a complete break with the old traditional "age grading," but it's a start in that direction. There's also personalized learning, greatly assisted by digital electronics that make it possible for students to work individually. Project-based learning asks the student, "What are you most interested in?" Then, working with the student and parents, teachers design a program of learning for the year, built around the student's interests. It's a curriculum built around kids' interests.

Your book also poses this question: Does the country go on working to improve performance in existing schools? Or are the problems of performance the result of a fundamentally flawed school design?

If students don't want to learn, you can't make them. So any effort to improve learning must begin with improving student motivation. I challenge people to explain how a conventional school is designed to maximize student motivation. They can't. Organizing, grouping students by age with a different teacher every year, these [policies] are set in concrete and they're very difficult to change. People need to try different things, which is why the charter sector is so important.

The fascinating thing about chartering was that it didn't tell anybody what kind of a school they had to create, how to organize it or how to teach. It was created to be an open system so people could make those decisions by themselves for themselves.

Some worry though that more and more charter schools are operating like conventional public schools and not doing anything different or better. Many charters are run by large organizations with their own centralized bureaucracies, top-down management and little or no innovation.

Along with that centralization comes standardization, which suppresses innovation. We tell [schools] what to do, check to see if they've done it and then whack them if they haven't done it. We've been doing this for 20 to 40 years and it hasn't dramatically improved performance. It hasn't solved the achievement-gap problem. And it hasn't produced any real change in the design of schools or teaching and learning.

So if standardization is the enemy of innovation, hasn't the federal government contributed to that in its efforts to hold schools accountable, including charters?

The job of the top leadership is to build and develop a climate that encourages innovation. So I would go to the federal government and say: You don't own the schools, you don't run the schools, you don't even enact education laws. Your job is to create, in states and districts, a climate for innovation. Just that simple.

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