Charter schools have generally failed to find a Petraeus-style solution to the urban school crisis. A surge of troops may have reduced sectarian violence in Iraq, but a surge of private innovation has produced only isolated successes in a sea of low test scores. Only 200 or so of the nation’s roughly 4,500 charter schools stand out as shining lights in the classroom firmament. Inevitably, writes Steven F. Wilson, the president of a charter school management company and senior fellow of an education think tank in Washington, the question turns to scale. Can rare exceptions be turned into everyday reality?
In a detailed examination of seven successful charter schools in Boston, Wilson found that all but one hewed to what is called the “no excuses” model: the philosophy that every child can succeed and neither family dysfunction nor poor preparation is sufficient reason for failure. A rigorous academic program was established to prepare every child for college. The key to schools’ success was the hiring of driven and highly educated teachers who made “nearly heroic” efforts to overcome years of accumulated learning deficits in the students. More than half of these schools’ staff members had attended elite undergraduate institutions, and 82 percent had attended at least a “very competitive” college.
Each year, about 142,000 students graduate from these highly selective colleges, so even if one of every 10 of their graduates went into charter school teaching for the usual two years, this cohort would provide only six percent of the educators employed in the nation’s large urban school districts. And even if many non-elite teachers were highly capable, the gap would remain great. Success in school reform will always depend on tens of thousands of “mere mortals” who mostly aren’t interested in working more than the standard 40-hour week.
The keys to success, Wilson says, are vision and good management. That means precise adherence to an effective instructional system with tools for “school culture-building,” placement tests, a content-rich curriculum, frequent assessments, and other detailed help. Legislatures should raise the pay of starting teachers, and drop the certification requirements that bar many worthy recruits. Teachers should be rewarded for performance in the classroom and not for seniority or degrees.
The entire social system does not need to be reformed before inner-city students can succeed. If shortages of qualified workers can be overcome in order to staff entire governments in developing countries, surely enough great teachers can be found to educate America’s most disadvantaged children.
THE SOURCE: “Charter Schools and the Limits of Human Capital” by Steven F. Wilson, in The Education Gadfly, Nov. 6, 2008.
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