The founding board of our new school, Academy of the City Charter School, met with Dr. Noguera back in the summer of 2010 for an interview as part of our chartering process—and we were all quite impressed by him.
Pedro (folks at CSI seemed to be on a first-name basis with him) brought a sensitivity of issues of race, poverty and alienation to a process that often seems driven only by test score numbers and the constant repetition of words like “accountability,” dashboard,” “unrelenting,” “no-excuses,” etc. His dedication to improving educational opportunities for poor kids was and is unquestionable.
So, when he says that “charter school advocates and opponents have been locked in a bitter and ugly conflict over the expansion of charters that has little to do with the educational needs of the children who have been least well served” we should all pay attention.
Many of us got involved in this movement because, for the first time, the doors were opened on a way to make immediate impact on public education. But as time wore on and the conversation became increasingly focused on academic achievement (as measured by standardized tests), the idea that charter schools should be laboratories for new ideas has gradually been displaced by the idea that those models that we now deem successful should be scaled up.
There is obvious merit in replicating success, but the notion that all we have to do is scale up our best models does disservice to the intent of the original charter school law. Schools are not Starbucks franchises—certainly not if we really believe they should be innovative.
There is nothing innovative about a franchise. Innovation happens when teachers are encouraged to innovate, and that can only happen in a school culture that is supportive of experimentation.
If the charter school movement wants to become the barking dog of bottom line data/test-driven accountability, it may have some success in furthering those models that, at the moment, seem to excel in turning out that handsome bottom line.
But it will do so at the expense of driving away educators like Dr. Noguera, and in doing so it will widen the rift between charters and district public schools. And it will have the further effect of making our charter schools more segregated economically and racially than district schools, because middle-class families will not send their kids to charter schools like the models we’re presently pushing.
There has been a lot of heat and very little light in the charter/public school discussion. And if the heat generated was sufficient to make Dr. Noguera call it a day, then those of us who are laboring in the charter school world really have to consider the means our movement is taking as well as its ends.
It’s time to turn down the heat and it’s time for us all to talk openly and clearly about what we’re trying to accomplish.
Steve Zimmerman is executive director of The OWN Foundation.