I am an avid reader of The Philadelphia Public Notebook, a non-profit newspaper and website dedicated to all things related to public education in Philadelphia. The most recent issue focused on Charter Schools. This piqued my interest as I will be going to a Charter School next year after almost 7 years in the Philadelphia School District.  I read an article about the expansion of Charter Schools in Philadelphia and began scanning the comments. What I found was a not so friendly debate about the Charter School movement. Immediately what upset me the most was that two of the commenters were using Anonymous or other pseudonyms–a pet peeve of mine.  To see the full conversation you can check out the article and the comments here.

I felt the need to respond as I was disheartened by the unkind banter coming from “Anonymous.” I posted this:

Here was the response:

I responded as such:
(I have posted it here as text so it is easier to read)

Anonymous,

Is this the same Anonymous from the first conversation above?

I will first reply to your question: “What do you expect to gain from working there?”

I will gain:

  • being treated like a professional, not a cog in a wheel
  • having a say in what I teach, when I teach it and how I teach it
  • knowing that when my colleague is not towing the line or if his/her teaching is doing a disservice to his or her students that he or she will be let go (yes, I am prepared to be blasted for that statement)
  • working with a team that is dedicated to a clear mission and vision
  • not having to teach scripted programs for 2 hours a day
  • knowing that I am not being governed by a non-elected School Reform Commission run by the State
  • not wasting hours of instructional time giving my students benchmark tests that are not a true reflection of their learning (not to mention the hours of instructional time spent teaching them how to take these tests along with the PSSA prep)

I am a little confused by your grouping of Charters as ‘they.’ Charters are all very different. For instance, there are Charters like Mastery and KIPP that are very discipline oriented and are focused on academics and test scores. There are Charters like Independence Charter whose students take full immersion Spanish classes whether it is their native language or not. There are Charters like New Foundations whose curriculum is focused around Service Learning and whose teachers attend national conferences based on teaching Project Based Learning.

You cannot lump all Charters together is my point. They are not a united front by any means.

That said, if all of Philadelphia’s public schools had the freedoms given to Charters or even traditional model schools like Penn Alexander, or perhaps if being an Empowerment school actually meant being empowered and not weighted down with rules, regulations and scripted programs I would stay in the district. Unfortunately, the schools that are the most desirable are often protected by the transfer process & tenure or are highly competitive (100 applicants for one position) or no one ever leaves unless they retire. Many of these schools that are site-select only start interviewing before the site-selection process even officially starts, so unless you know someone you are SOL.

As for funding, I too am saddened at watching funding disappear for the arts. However, I wouldn’t blame it all on Charters. This is happening all over the country. Partially due to redirected funds, partially due to high stakes testing that does not included these subjects and partially due to the money put out for expensive programs to help raise test scores. It doesn’t help that Ackerman got a $65,000 bonus or keeps creating new positions at the top to support her.

As for rallying against Charters, why don’t we start rallying FOR the things that will make Charters unnecessary? More choice for schools in how they run themselves, more flexibility for and trust in teachers, a comprehensive study of whether giving students a standardized test every 6 weeks will really help instruction or whether formative assessment can suffice. More high quality, differentiated professional development to ensure that quality instruction is going on in ALL classrooms and accountability for those administrators and teachers who don’t tow the line?

I would love to hear people’s thoughts on my response or any other parts of the conversation, even if you don’t agree with me.

Just keep it civil and don’t post as “Anonymous.” πŸ™‚

23 Thoughts on “The Charter School Dilemma”

  • I think you know how I feel, as we discussed this a little last month in person. I am ecstatic for you that you will be in a better situation to help kids learn. My concerns for public education, however, escalate daily.

    The best part of your response was: "As for rallying against Charters, why don't we start rallying FOR the things that will make Charters unnecessary?" Amen, sister. We need an Administration (federal, not just local and district) who asks the very same question.

    Until that happens, I will continue to fight for public education as loudly as I can. Regardless of the number of private school or charter vouchers, scholarships, etc.- there will always be kids who have to "settle" for what they can get. If the public schools become the last resort, those kids are doomed… and so are we as a society. Public schools MUST improve and receive the attention they deserve. If there are other options with better funding, etc., then the public schools won't get the necessary attention to improve.

  • Michelle,

    Thanks for your honest response. I would add the word "traditional' in front of public schools as charters ARE public. If the traditional public schools continue to fail then charters will grow and traditional public schools will be left struggling with the least involved parents, the highest needs students and dwindling resources. I think we can take some lessons from successful charters and apply them to traditional public schools.

    I think that traditional public schools are getting attention, but not productive attention. All we hear is the bad. Sadly, our own Administration is touting Charter Schools as the be all end all fix for public education.

  • I don't get the problem with charters in general. We are trying to diversify in our classrooms, why not in our schools? Of course, if a charter behaves in the same way as a traditional public school then why bother?

  • It is so easy for people to just howl at the moon instead of asking questions. It is also very easy to howl behind the curtain of anonymous. You make excellent points about foucsing k the thi gs that caused the need for charter schools. What was the problem with public education that forced the need for these charter schools.

    Detroit is dealing with a very tough problem in their school system. The corruption runs deep and the SB Pres, who it turns out is functionally illiterate, was arrested for fondling himself at meetings. There is a valid point about the leaders lining their pockets, but that doesn't mean all of the blame is on the charter schools.

    Tossing shots at teachers that are trying to help students is not a way to solve the problem. It is cowardly to question why someone works where they do when they are too afraid to use their name on the comment. I work in an upper class suburb of Detroit. I chose to go there because it is one of the best districts in the state and I felt I could do some good there. That doesn't make me any less of a teacher.

    This person claims to want to make a real change in education, and their voice shouldmbe heard, but their style is the real reason progress is tough. Honest and open dialogue is needed for positive change. As teachers we are working on helping the students in our classroom and across the state by ensuring that all students get the chance for a great education. Others prefer to continue to howl at the moon.

  • MaryBeth-

    I have been teaching at a charter school in NV for 6 years. This is not a charter friendly state and makes it very difficult for charters to begin, and to continue. I support charter schools as a result of my experience teaching in one. I have found that my school is able to more directly influence student learning. The class sizes are smaller, admin is very supportive in allowing us freedom to try new things, we are able to spend a lot of our money directly back into the student and not the bureaucracy of the machine. Our school went from not making AYP in its first 8 years of existence (we are an experimental hybrid school in one of the highest drop out districts and the highest drop out state in the country), but have made it in the last two years.

    The main reason why we have made it recently, is because our administration was given freedom from the board of directors and has been able to direct funds to research based ideas, let go of teachers who were hurting student learning, individualize our teaching experience with one-on-one help, hire unique positions (social worker, speech therapists, in house pd coordinator, on site psychiatrist, 504 coordinator) and manage on-site issues with extreme efficiency.

    We are a non-profit charter and admin wages are based on the district we operate closest too geographically. Its the same throughout the entire state. There are a few for profit charters like Connections Academy and K12 Online, but they have to operate under very difficult charter regulations. Charter schools are controlled by each state individually, so it is impossible to group them all together as a "they."

    After spending time in Los Angeles and then Clark County SD (Vegas), I am very thankful to have my charter around as an option to what was nearly impossible in those giant districts.

  • Why do people oppose charters? Because they don't care about the kids.

    A charter school fails – they shut it down.
    A traditional public school fails, it continues to destroy the lives of children.

    As a bonus, charter schools cost the government less money! Less money for better outcomes – unless you are a terrible teacher that needs job security, or a union thug who wants to benefit from failure, I don't understand how you can be against charters as a CHOICE for parents.

  • In the charter public school versus traditional public schools debate too much mud is thrown at many of the teachers who struggle to teach children. As a long time public school teacher in NYC and an aspiring school leader; I want opportunities for teachers and admin to develop learning communities within their building that will allow students to excel. The only problem have with the environment within education is the extreme focus on test prep. Schools are so concerned about prepping students to pass the exam they have taken time to determine the knowledge the student had actually acquired. Need more than "I taught my students" and more of "My students learned"

  • Having been a public school teacher for 8 years in a variety of socio – economic towns, I am disheartened by the state of public school education.

    I agree with you that our colleagues should be let go when they are doing a disservice to children. This is a practice that I wish was available in public education. There are 3 teachers in my building that are treated poorly because they teach in a manner that is not accepted by the norm. While each of their teaching styles are different, they do have one thing in common: they believe in their students & do anything possible to educate them. Even though our colleagues refuse to see the value in what they do, these 3 teachers consistently get results & their children learn.

    I don't think the real issue is whether our children are in a public, private, magnet, or charter school. I think it comes down to what you mentioned: a group of colleagues working together towards a clear mission & vision. KIPP schools may focus on test prep, but EVERY teacher in those schools is working towards the same mission/vision. The same is true for Waldorf schools, & Achievement First schools. You may have a group of great teachers, but if they are not all working towards the same mission / vision than the children will suffer, & results/learning will not be had. Maybe all public schools need to do in order to be as successful as alternative schools is to develop a clear & focused mission / vision. And, there are children lucky enough to be attending public schools who have just that. We just need to find a way to increase that idea.

  • I support all options that work. Somehow in education we have gotten to the point of an either or and an us versus them mindset. All of us are in this together and all institutions: traditional, charter, private, religious, nonprofit, and for-profit, are needed to serve the diverse learning and emotional needs/interests of our children.

    It is time to stop bickering and claiming to have the rights to what is best for our children. Each of us bring different strengths and ideas to the table. We must step forward and develop a plan for working together and making K-12 education work for every young person. The welfare of our country and the diversification of our economy is at stake. Egos and a-holes need not apply.

  • I am with Michelle on this one and love the last paragraph of your response Mary Beth. I must come clean in that I think there is possible danger and damage to public schools in the charter school movement. I'm a huge supporter of schools and students of poverty and my biggest fear is that embedded within the charter school movement is further worsening of the schools that need help the most and even more disastrous- the kids that need the best and brightest leaders and teachers wind up with a worsening environment because of the skilled folks that choose to switch over.

    It's a tough cycle to be sure. The toughest kids to teach are the most likely to be left behind because there aren't a ton of folks that can take it and excel within that environment. So the good people leave, and the school gets worse, and the toughest kids suffer further.

    I am not against charter schools and I'm all for diversity. In urban areas, choice makes a good deal of sense (rural areas…not so much). I just find myself worrying about the effects on the kids left behind.

  • If we can pull off communication between charters schools and traditional schools so that we share what works between our classrooms, then we'll help kids.

    Our greater concern about the privatization of schools should be about the money being spent on scripted curricula and intervention programs. Somehow, we've lost faith that teachers can use research, best practice, and knowledge of their students to develop instruction that helps them move ahead in their learning. Our government has been complicit in assigning "research-based," "science-based," and other such vaguely affirming phrases only to expensive education products marketed by private vendors.

    Look at this Read 180 cost proposal. Correct me if I'm wrong, but it costs $37,000 for materials and licensing for 60 kids. That would come out to $74,000 for 120 kids, a common number of students taught by a secondary teacher per annum. When we purchase such programs at such a scale what we're saying is we would rather deliver a teacher-proof private product than employ another specialized reading teacher. Charter schools sometimes have the flexibility to avoid such purchases and the implementation of such products – charter schools can sometimes spend their public money on kids enrolled in public school differently than all the other policy-bound schools in a division. Surely, then, charter schools have a role to play in innovating and re-asserting best practices that can be shared out to all schools as alternatives for privatized curriculum, assessment, and instruction.

    I don't think all education business is bad; I don't think all central administrators mistrust teachers to teach; however, I do think charters offer us a chance to reexamine what we value in teaching and learning and the opportunity to re-balance freedom and accountability in local schools. In so much as we're all working to find what works for each kid, we're all charters.

    I would love to talk with anyone interested in sharing more learning between charters and traditional schools.

    With hope,
    Chad

  • I live in Ohio, a state has very little over site of charter schools which has led to very inconsistent results and a great deal of wasted money. Charter schools in Ohio are pretty much free from the regulations public schools have to deal with and the justification is that without such regulation they are more nimble and better able to meet student needs.

    Okay, I can buy that as long as the schools are producing. But lets take a look at the realities. Charter schools in Ohio can require parents to perform 'volunteer work' to help keep costs down. They can require longer school days, longer years, and Saturday school. They can require parents and students to sign contracts about behavior, homework, and the like. They can expel students for reasons that a public school cannot. Parents have to choose to send their children to a charter school – this suggests they care. With all the other conditions; the contracts, longer days, etc, you'd think that even a mediocre charter school would be getting better proficiency test scores. You'd be wrong. While a few stand out, most are performing at lower levels than the public schools that serve in the same area.

    Meanwhile every year at least 2 or 3 charter schools close in the middle of the school year from lack of funds sending their students back into the public schools. So the charter drained money from the public school and pushed the kids back in. How nice.

    Are there good charter schools? Yes, I know there are. I also know there are good public schools. But I don't see that charter schools have fulfilled their promise of creating competition. What I see is that they take out students whose parents care but cannot afford to send their children to private schools leaving public schools with a larger pool of problems.

  • I don't think the problem with charter schools is that they are charters. I think the problem is the assumption that they are way better than public schools. It seems that there is a movement among the people in charge of education (not all of whom are educators) to slowly dismantle public schools as we know it. Charters are being pushed as the be all, end all. What is especially distubring to me is the resistance of administrators and officials to regulate charter schools. It seems ridiculous, especially in light of the corruption at one of Philly's charter schools.

  • Unfortunately, Jonathan… that's a decidedly unhelpful comment – we shouldn't demonize folks who disagree with us by reducing counter-arguments to strawmen like "They don't care about kids." There are tons of really caring educators who don't support charter schools because of any number of reasons. I'm on the fence about charter schools because while there is no question that there are charter schools that are doing amazing things for students, I worry about who and what is driving the charter school movement.

    The United States is built on two fundamental concepts that work in tension and concert – our democratic ideals and our capitalist ideals. I have a real concern that those who are driving the charter school movement, like the Gates Foundation, the Broad Foundation, Tom VanDerArk and others, have an unwavering faith that "the market" will create a better educational system than the one we currently have, when there is no real reason to believe that yet. Moreover, economists long believed that public education was an externality to the free market, and I am concerned that we have abandoned that viewpoint prematurely.

    That being said, it is undeniable that there are charter schools doing right by kids. Good. Let's admit that the charter school debate is a complex issue worthy of a great national debate, but let's enter into that debate understanding that there are good, caring people on all sides of the issue, and we do little if we resort to name-calling.

  • Mary Beth,
    I wish you all the best as your venture into a charter school. With your passion and dedication, I imagine your students would be inspired in either a charter or traditional public school setting.

    I plan on posting blog about charter school dillema my family experienced. I am hoping my post provides some personal context to the debate, as I am both a supporter and detractor of charter schools.

  • Reading the above hatemongering post by Jonathan is what has driven me to post on your website. How does he know we don't care about kids? His arrogance is what we have come to hear too often from charter promoters and their propaganda. Jonathan's claim about bad charters being shut down is just proof that he doesn't have a clue. Has he not read anything about charters here in Philly. For all the scandals involving charters in Philly there have been very few charters actually shut down. Too many polticians go to bat for them so they continue to limp along. Charters are doing better than public schools? The majority of studies have shown that most charters are not doing any better than public schools and in some cases, even worse. That's with the advantage of cherrypicking their students. They cost less because the majority of them pay less than public schools while paying their administrators salaries higher than most paid to public school administrators. It's the greatest scam in America since Reconstruction ended. Ask Jonathan why public school teachers that get fired by public schools get hired so quickly by charters. What is his excuse for the high rate of teacher turnover at charter schools.

  • Corruption at "one" of Philly's charter schools!?!? There have been at least five charter schools that had major scandals at them in Philly. That was before City Controller Alan Bukovitz began to investigate (something PA politicians had tried to stop and which the Philadelphia School District failed to do over the years) 11 charter schools. He found problems at everyone of them. The school district can't even monitor the ones they have, but are going to add another 11 more to the mix. Where did you ever get the idea that it was simply one charter school that was corrupt.

  • I do remember asking that the discussion stay civil πŸ™‚ I can tell that there are strong feelings on both sides of the issue, which is why I wrote the post.

    To your points, Harvey–it was discovered this year that 19 Philadelphia principals were uncertified or had let their certifications lapse. In addition, the district tends to shuffle administrators around from school to school without much say by either the administrator or the school to which he or she ends up. What about the fact that Ackerman has been hiring more people at the top to support her, pulling funds that could be used in schools?

    As for teacher turnover, my school has had teachers walk out one day and never come back, never resign and therefore never get a sub. I have watched at least 15 teachers come and go in the last 5 years.

    My point? Both systems are faulty. Again, rather than arguing back and forth, why don't we focus on where both systems are succeeding and ensure that the children of Philadelphia get what they deserve: a quality education. Or maybe it's a pipe dream of mine that someday both sides will finally accept each other and move forward.

  • It is a known fact that money intended for our traditional Public Schools is diverted and given to Charter Schools–Why can't we focus on using that money for our Public Schools and help them out first?
    Also, good luck with teaching in a Charter School—Your right to union representation and rights under due process you will no longer have and you will give up all of your excellent benefits. Also, if you as so much blink the wrong way, the Charter School will get rid of you for any reason. You will also not be receiving an excellent salary as the administrators of these schools reap all of the benefits (especially money )

  • The last I heard, every child has a right to a free and appropriate public school education. Charter Schools are not always the best thing. Charter Schools also use uncertified teachers while many of our public school teachers are well and best qualified maintaining Master and Doctorate degrees within the field of education.

  • MaryBeth, thanks for sharing your conversation back and forth on this. The comments are very interesting.

  • I agree that the public schools are bad, but too many people want to blame teachers for what is clearly the administration's fault. Uncertified principals is Ackerman's job. It bothers us because these principals were allowed to retain their jobs while 47 uncertified teachers were discovered and fired the previous year. Both are suppose to adhere to the same contract so there is no reason these principals shouldn't have been fired. As for hiring more administrators that, once again, is not the teachers' action, but the administration. Teachers leave because of the lack of support from administration. A weak principal can destroy an entire school no matter now great the staff might be. Philadelphia has deliberately allowed principals too much power to abuse teachers they dislike or dare to ask embarassing questions.

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