Charter Schools in America

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Charter Schools in America

Much has changed in the education world since the United States was declared a "nation at risk" in 1983 by the National Commission on Excellence in Education. We've been reforming and reforming and reforming some more. In fact, "education reform" has itself become a growth industry, as we have devised a thousand innovations and spent billions to implement them. We have tinkered with class size, fiddled with graduation requirements, sought to end "social promotion, "pushed technology into the schools, crafted new academic standards, revamped teacher training, bought different textbooks, and on and on.

Most of these alterations were launched with good will and the honest expectation that they would turn the situation around. But the problem with much of this reform churning is that the people who courageously addressed this issue in 1983 basically took for granted that the public school system as we knew it was the proper vehicle for making those changes and that its familiar machinery could produce better products if it were tuned up, adequately fueled and properly directed. In short, requisite changes would be made by school boards and superintendents, principals and teachers, federal and state education departments, and would be implemented either in time-honored system-wide fashion or through equally familiar"pilot" and"demonstration"programs.

Yet despite much effort, decent intentions, and billions of dollars, most reform efforts have yielded meager dividends, with little changing for the better. Test scores are generally flat, and U.S. twelfth graders lag far behind their international counterparts in math and science, although our school expenditures are among the planet's highest. On the reports of the National Education Goals Panel which monitors progress toward the ambitious objectives set by President Bush and the governors in 1989, most years we see the number of arrows that point upward just about equaled by the number pointing down. Combining large budgets and weak performance, American schools can fairly be termed the least productive in the industrial world.

Many in the education establishment excuse the lack of progress by asserting that the reforms we've undertaken still haven't had time to gain traction, haven't been adequately funded, haven't been accompanied by enough "staff development, have been underm...

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Second, charter schools have cousins in the K12 family. Their DNA looks much the same under the education microscope as that of lab schools, magnet schools, site-managed schools, and special focus schools (e.g., art, drama, science), not to mention private and home schools. Much the same, but not identical. The Bronx High School of Science is selective, while charter schools are not. Hillel Academy and the Sancta Maria Middle School teach religion, while charter schools cannot. The Urban Magnet School of the Arts was probably designed by a downtown bureaucracy and most likely has carefully managed ethnic ratios in its student body, whereas most charter schools do not. Yet the similarities outweigh the differences.

Third, these new schools reveal a classic American response to a problem, challenge, or opportunity: institutional innovation and adaptation. In that respect, they resemble community colleges, which came into being (and spread rapidly and fruitfully) to meet education needs that conventional universities could not accommodate. As an organizational form, then, charter schools are not revolutionary. They are part of what we are and always have been as a nation.
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