Commenter MS asked what I think about charter schools, which as it happens is something I have opinions on. (I know, go figure.)
I am a die-hard pro-public-schools liberal, in a nutshell. I wasn’t real keen on charter schools from the beginning: while I’m all for the idea that educators and schools ought to be allowed, dammit, to try innovative or new approaches, it was clear that demanding that “regular” public schools conform to the one-test-fits-all-and-here-is-THE-mandated-curriculum approach while setting up alternative schools that were magically freed of that bullshit while still being the financial responsibility of the school district was pretty much a recipe for trying to further siphon money out of public schools while beating teachers up for failing to educate 30-40 kids in a class with the change they could find at home in their couch cushions.
Funnily enough, that concern was founded on an expectation that charter schools, freed from some of the regulations that public schools have to adhere to, would, in fact, manage to offer better educations. It turns out that that’s not actually the case, though; by now we all know that the results comparing charters to public schools are mixed; there is no clear advantage to charter schools. My guess is that founding schools based on half-baked theories and ideologically driven philosophies, or as for-profit institutions, rather than oh, say, based on actual evidence about what works in education, isn’t the way to go.
The problem, of course, is that most of us aren’t experts in educational research; I’m highly interested in pedagogy, and know a lot more about what works and what doesn’t than most people, but it isn’t a field I’m trained in, I don’t read education journals regularly, and I would not claim to be an expert on this stuff. So we can’t, honestly, expect parents to pick schools based on their knowledge of what’s educationally beneficial.
That said, obviously parents in general can be trusted to know their own personal kid pretty well, and I think there’s a decent case to be made that parents ought to have the ability to send their kid to, say, a school with a heavy focus on the social aspect of learning, where there’s a fair bit of noise and chaos and no individual desks and lots of moving around the classroom; or to recognize that their kid is easily distracted and kinda likes the pen-and-paper model of learning and finds it easier to get stuff done while sitting in one of several rows all facing the teacher. (I have sent my kid to both kinds of schools, just fyi.)
There’s an even better case to be made that individual teachers should have the ability to try new ideas in their classrooms. After all, teachers, unlike parents, are actually trained in education, and they have a lot more experience than parents do of how things actually go in a classroom (and of what their own strengths and weaknesses are, and how much patience they have to deal with, say, a socratic approach where kids are encouraged to argue, or to put up with building materials all over the classroom for weeks while the kids construct some awesome physics experiment).
But right now the focus is entirely on parent choice, which, if nothing else means that the children of parents who are motivated to seek out schools that fit their kid or their beliefs about education are going to benefit, if there are benefits to be had, while kids whose parents are either less motivated or less financially able to move to a different neighborhood or afford the gas and time to transport their kids back and forth every day or research and follow up on what’s going on at school, are going to have to deal with what’s left over.
Which basically is my own personal bottom line, as well as—as we’ve seen over and over—the bottom line. The children of people who read academicish blogs are going to be fine no matter what. If my kid is going to a school that doesn’t have a librarian (which he did from grades 2-5), well, he has three six-foot bookshelves at home plus piles of books on his bedside table and floor. If his teacher isn’t super patient with his temper, he has a mother who is going to schedule meetings with the teacher to advocate for his emotional needs and then come home and figure out how to explain to him, in a way that he can sign on to, why he needs to manage his frustration and how we’re going to help him do that. If his school doesn’t offer music or art or science classes, and he is interested in those things or I think they’re important, I can arrange for those things privately.
Meanwhile, I’m highly aware that any system that’s set up to siphon money and ideas away from the base option is going to end up impoverishing the base option, right? If the problem is that the base option isn’t good enough or flexible enough, then we need to address that, not create some kind of parallel system. Especially if that parallel system functions as an implicit “alternative” to a default that “isn’t good enough.” If it isn’t good enough for my kid, it isn’t good enough for anyone’s kid. And if my kid is in a public school, then let’s be honest: I’m going to be far, far more proactive than I otherwise would about improving that school, and public schools in general (for example, I created a bit of a curriculum library at his last school, and at his current one I’ve been highly proactive in pushing the administration to deal with bullying).
And finally, the other really major reason for the kids of educated white folks like me to stay in public schools is that we are still a highly segregated society. As my own kid said the other day, “the easiest way to realize that poor people are not lazy or stupid is to have friends that are poor.” Substitute any group and stereotype that you want into that sentence (He also recently commented that he’s always had classes with kids who had “some kind of disability that makes them shout or act out or be really distracting in class” which led us to a conversation about how common learning/behavior/mental disorders are.) I think in our cultural push to “raise standards,” we’ve overfocused on traditional academic standards. Yet one of the things our society suffers most from—and the way we’ve approached academic standards echoes it—is the worship of extreme individualism. We need to keep in mind that our kids are not just my kid or your kid or the anonymous kids of “those” people over there: they are all our kids, and we have a collective duty and responsibility to model public citizenship to them. One of the best ways to do that is to participate in public institutions.