In Sunday’s New York Times, Trip Gabriel reports that the standardized test scores of charter schools are widely variable, with some schools soaring above traditional public schools, and some falling markedly short. Gabriel suggests that charter schools are not a sure bet, despite their growing favor with the Obama administration and venture philanthropists.
Gabriel’s observation is less than helpful to the debate about how to improve schools. The fact that a school is a charter school refers only to the manner in which the school was created. It says nothing about the school’s teaching methodologies, quality or systems. As Christensen, Horn, and Johnson point out in Disrupting Class, “calling a school a ‘charter school’ implies a typology that does not exist.” The discovery that charter schools produce a wide range of results is not earth shattering since the only defining similarity in chartered schools is their shared legal formulation.
What is earth shattering about charter schools is that they provide a modicum of flexibility and a hint of open space wherein innovators can maneuver to introduce transformative education reforms. Paul E. Peterson, author of Saving Schools: From Horace Mann to Virtual Learning, explains:
What makes charters important today is less their current performance than their potential to innovate. Educational opportunity is about to be revolutionized by powerful notebook computers, broadband and the open-source development of curricular materials (a la Wikipedia). Curriculum can be tailored to the level of accomplishment each student has reached, an enormous step forward.
If American education remains stagnant, such innovations will spread slowly, if at all. If the charter world continues to expand, the competition between them and district schools could prove to be transformative.
Teachers unions and other political forces have sought to erode the growth in charter schools. To their point, poor performing schools of all types–both with traditional and chartered beginnings–should be held accountable. But the chartering process itself is not the culprit. Chartering allows for choice, expands competition, and provides a crack in the system for innovators to experiment with new technology that holds the promise of vastly more customized, effective instruction for children. The opportunity to charter should be protected, defended, and expanded.