November 2012 • Volume 44 • Number 2 • Page 5
A View from the Middle
David C. Virtue, editor
Rethinking Charter Schools
When my brother and, later, my sister announced that they were enrolling their children in a virtual charter school, I had reservations about their plans. At the time, I had little experience with online learning, and I also had little firsthand knowledge of charter schools. Many of my questions had to do with issues of quality and accountability, and my dad, who was a guidance counselor in a traditional public school for 33 years, shared some of my concerns. "I had my doubts," he now says, "but it has turned out to be the best thing for them."
For members of my brother's and sister's families, a virtual charter school met certain unique needs their local public schools could not meet. While charter school options are not a "quick fix" or sure remedy for all the challenges of public education, they allow parents and students to choose schools with educational missions and programs that align with their unique needs, circumstances, or philosophies. In addition, because of their increased autonomy, charter schools can serve as incubators for innovation that may benefit all schools. Some promising practices developed in charter school settings have been featured in Middle School Journal. For example, the November 2011 issue included an article about project-based learning in San Diego's High Tech charter school network, and a forthcoming issue will include an article about how STRIVE Preparatory Schools, a charter school network in the Denver metropolitan area, meet the learning and life needs of young adolescents and take an innovative approach to teacher professional development.
In the September 2012 issue of Middle School Journal, Miller and associates made a well reasoned argument that the unique charter school structure of the Promise Academies central to the Harlem Children's Zone (HCZ) initiative makes the HCZ model difficult to replicate in other settings. In making their argument, the authors listed many common criticisms of charter schools that they associated with questions of replication and scalability of area-based initiatives like HCZ. I am concerned that this list of criticisms commonly raised about charter schools may be taken out of context and read as a list of criticisms common to all charter schools.
Because of the tremendous variation among charter schools in terms of size, structure, mission, and a host of other variables, it is very difficult to make any sort of useful, categorical generalizations about them. Nevertheless, examples of successes and failures of charter schools are seized and magnified by various political interests. Some focus on the successes because, to them, charter schools represent parental choice and the principles of free-market competition that will spur the improvement of the traditional public schools with which they compete (or force them out of business altogether). Some focus on the failures because, to them, charter schools represent loose oversight and—you guessed it—the principles of free-market competition that will spur the demise of the traditional public schools. Interestingly, the political divide does not fall along party lines. Both Democrats and Republicans at all levels, from the statehouse to the White House, support charter schools and the element of competition they engender.
What disturbs me most about the political rhetoric about charter schools is the polarizing manner in which educators are portrayed as villains (or superheroes) for purely political aims. In fact, most charter schools are managed responsibly and their faculties work hard to help their students succeed. The same can, of course, be said for traditional public schools. At the AMLE conference in Portland this month, educators from charter schools, traditional public schools, and other types of schools will assemble in workshops and presentations to learn from and with each other. They will exchange ideas, celebrate successes, and troubleshoot the challenges they face daily in their classrooms. They will do this because educators themselves—more so than anyone else—recognize that there are no silver bullets, magic formulas, or quick fixes to ensure student success, but there is one sure path to student failure—to give up and stop trying.
Copyright © 2012 Association for Middle Level Education