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Charter Schools: The original vision and the morphed reality

As you might imagine, I am often asked why I’m against charter schools. Such questions are posed in ways that range from the genial to the downright combative, yet it always pays to listen and draw out what people feel they are supporting.

More often than not, what people are sold on is the promise of charter schools. I don’t blame them – I am sold on the promise, too.  But, as I point out, it’s wise to learn from what history and experience has taught us and, no matter how beautiful it is, we must meet the dream with facts.

The original vision for charter schools, as laid out by Albert Shanker, was for places where innovation would be encouraged in staff and students, where teachers would have a huge say in how the school was set up, what was taught and how, and where students from all manner of backgrounds would be educated alongside each other. It was (and is) a marvellous vision. Sadly, it was soon hijacked by those with entirely different motives.

Some saw charter schools as a chance to undermine unions, some saw a chance to promote political ideologies, some saw it as their chance to leap in and undertake huge social experiments.

And, of course, there were those who saw a chance to – one way or another – make money.

It moved from being about freedom and innovation to being about control. Control of teachers, control of students, control of communities, control of policies, control of unions and control of funds.

charter schools dividing communities since1991300With the promise dashed, most charter schools were even more segregated by colour and wealth.

Teachers found themselves working in highly stressful, non-collaborative situations that offered nothing remotely like the innovation or freedoms Shanker had envisaged.

And worst of all, students’ grades were, more often than not, worse than or just the same as in state schools.

The incredible promise was gone: the Charter Schools experiment had failed.

What is amazing to me, as a New Zealand teacher, is that much of what Shanker originally envisaged can be seen in our best state schools. (And by best, I don’t mean highest decile or best NCEA or  National Standards results – I mean schools that provide the richest learning environments for their students, both academically and socially.)

  • New Zealand has schools that are brave enough to make the most of our flexible curriculum to create amazing learning and growth opportunities for students (and, indeed, teachers).
  • We have schools that include staff in decision-making, actively canvass ideas and listen to them, and tap their potential making them part of a truly interactive and collaborative team.
  • We have schools that work hard to actively attract and retain students from a broad socio-economic and ethnic canvas.
  • We have schools that are driven not solely by results but also by students’ wider growth.

All of that already exists in New Zealand state schools.

Rather than spend money and energy setting up a parallel school system that has much the same benefits and flaws as the first but at a greater financial cost and with less oversight, what we should do is tap into those schools already leading the way, learn from them, and encourage all other schools to step outside perceived and real confines, and shine.

Because when it comes to improving education for all children, what better than to take Shanker’s original vision and work to apply it to ALL schools.

~ Dianne

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