I was reading TIME Magazine recently, and noticed that in a single piece, Gilbert Cruz has apparently solved all our nation's education problems. There's an easy, quick solution to it all – if only we'd listen to him! There really is! (Call now while the offer's still good.)
While we'd all undoubtedly like to believe it, Cruz's miracle cure unfortunately seems to call for a few points of reality. Some thoughts.
First off, and perhaps to state the obvious, there is no “quick fix” for education – if there was, we would have found it long ago. Education is a continual process, not somebody’s toy model that just needs a bit of glue.
Second, though I’ve generally been supportive of charter schools in the past, I believe they only really work when used as a structural mechanism of reform to allow for a broader range of educational philosophies and attract committed and focused, though perhaps non-traditional, teachers and school leadership. There are many great educators out there who nonetheless fail to make an impact in their current setting, because of the bureacratic and cultural constraints around them – and the offer of having more "breathing room" to focus on what really matters can bring out a lot of great talent and potential. That said, allowing the charter school "movement" to devolve into what is essentially a rhetorical substitute for the corporate takeover of education is simply bad mojo, and the opposite of what makes good charter schools (or schools in general) work. The use of charter schools can be a double-edged sword: they can encourage the exchange of ideas and philosophies if handled well, but can also be reduced and simplified into a placeholder for free-market ideologies. When that happens, it's a bad thing. Profit-driven education only benefits one party: the corporate profit-makers. If Arne Duncan's Department of Education, as well as the many charter school proponents out there, want to get serious about making sure charter schools work, they need to establish from the onset some very clear guidelines for what's involved and who can set one up – and remove profits from the equation completely. I also believe charters should be required to articulate a long-term manifesto of education: a well-developed, vibrant vision and philosophy of what school should be – preferably based on the best thinking and most current innovations and strategies in education – as well as a 10-15 year outlook for achieving "success", and the necessary experience among school founders and teachers to make it all happen.
Another crucial element to ensure charter schools live up to their promise is re-considering how we measure a school's success to begin with. One frequent criticism of charter schools is that many often fail to deliver test scores and results that are on-par or better than what they were before, as public schools. For many schools, this criticism is warranted; they fail to truly differentiate themselves enough from other schools or their past incarnation, and when the only thing that's different about them is who the money goes to, they're inevitably bound to fail. However, this shouldn't stop us from questioning the methods we use to measure a charter school's performance. If we constantly complain that schools don't measure up, and nothing still seems to make a difference, isn't it time we ask whether the measurement tool itself is faulty? - A final thought: Why do we rely on the same criteria for measuring charter school performance as what we used before – yet not consider whether the measurement tool itself is faulty? No Child Left Behind helped entrench a culture within our public education of constant measuring a countless number of things – yet in the end those things may, or may not, be useful to children after they leave schools. The question of what matters, what's worth caring about, is important. How you respond may depend largely on your own philosophical view of education – but there’s a valid point to be made that we will never be able to really quantify the true benefits of education or judge schools based solely on aggregated test scores. We need more flexibility in looking at education, and what it is and should be. Given the new age we're in, it's no longer enough to measure education today the same ways we've always measured education. To paraphrase Sir Ken Robinson: "We don't even know what the world will look like five years from now, much less in ten or fifteen years. And we're meant to be educating children for it?"
The bottom line is this: charter schools are only going to be as good as the thinking behind them. When we approach and utilize them for their potential to encourage and sustain a diverse exchange of pedagogical ideas, there's cause for hope; when they simply become about free-market capitalism and a race to see which corporate-run school board has the most efficient assembly line to meet yesterday's demands, however, there is none.
For all the talk – good and bad – about charter schools, though, most of it is diversionary. If we truly want to get serious about education reform, the first question – and possibly the only question – that should dominate our efforts has to be this one: What is education really about?
The structural mechanisms by which we enact education reform matter far less than the philosophy that drives it. For instance, public education in Sweden and the Netherlands both support and utilize partial voucher-based systems – to a high degree of success, ranking consistently high in global education rankings as well as seeming to fulfil their countries' own educational needs. Yet the only reason both countries have had success with such alternate structures is because the expectations and conceptions of education their citizens hold are radically different from our own, here in America. Tests are a rare thing for children, and they aren't emphasized when they are administered; parents, educators, and the culture at large regard children's learning as self-generated, and their engagement in a topic helps drive the curriculum; schools also strongly encourage and support children's active participation in society – and there is a great trust in children themselves, as well as teachers. Sweden and the Netherlands are able to experiment with their educational structures, in other words, because they have such a strong culture of support for children and education already – not the frenzied, results-driven madness that characterizes much of what we have in the United States.
In the end, it's not enough to try to "fix" education simply by implementing a few tweaks in how it's structured and the ways we pay for it. Changing education so that it benefits children will require a fundamental shift in the way we think of education, and our philosophies about children and learning. Further, this revolution needs to happen across our society and culture: as long as most Americans imagine education in the same way its always been, change will only ever be small and gradual. It's a tough slog either way – even while charter schools may offer the opportunity for a "fresh start" in many communities, and can serve as different examples that gradually influence the more popular conception of education in America. Until that kind of culture change happens en masse, though, we're just spinning our wheels with all of these "quick-and-easy" solutions.