Friday, July 18, 2008

The charter school alternative: how much of an alternative?

When a city mandates that all its public schools use a Reform Math curriculum, and when its only math and science magnet stresses leadership skills and cooperative, project-based learning, you'd think that a demand would arise for some charter schools that teach traditional math.

But consider the case of Philadelphia.

As yesterday's Philadelphia Inquirer reports, the eight new proposed charter schools that have received Philadelphia funding include a school for immigrants that stresses foreign languages, a school for at-risk high school students, and the Democracy in Action Charter School, which will be "student-driven and project based." No mention of any traditional, hard core math offerings.

Nor does one find anything about traditional, hard core (rigorous, abstract, linear) math in the mission statements of any of the 63 existing Philadelphia charter schools (with one exception: the k-8 Philadelphia Montessori Charter School). Instead, what dominates are schools stressing culture (6), leadership (3), the arts (3), project-based learning (5), and social and emotional skills (6).  

As if this represents an alternative to what already pervades the regular public schools.

There are two possibilities:

Either these offerings represent what almost all parents in Philadelphia want for their children--which seems unlikely given the huge, multi-year waiting lists for the Philadelphia Montessori School.

Or the charter school application process--which notoriously lacks transparency--is skewed in favor of those who have satisfactory answers to application questions like: 

Briefly describe the core philosophy or underlying purpose of the proposed school.

Why is there a need for this type of school?

What teaching methods will be used? How will this pedagogy enhance student learning?

How enthusiastically would the Philadelphia School District, which decides which applications to accept, respond to answers like:

There is a need for this school because many parents desperately want a more rigorous alternative to the Reform Math currently mandated by the school district.

and

Our school will use a traditional, teacher-centered pedagogy based on explicit teaching and rote memorization of basic math facts--of the sort that has shown to be effective in studies like Project Follow Through.

Given the dominant paradigm that the powers that be have embraced, it would be hard for such declarations to compete with this mission statement, from the Philadelphia Academy Charter School:

The Philadelphia Academy believes that for children to perform at their highest levels, to become life-long lovers of learning, to live, work and grow with integrity, self-discipline, compassion and respect for themselves and others, they must learn and flourish in environments that honor their individuality and commonality.

The essential experiences we provide will broaden their world beyond the classroom and the neighborhood and will offer them the opportunity and the challenge to develop the critical skills necessary to make the difficult decisions as they grow to become truly productive and contributing citizen [sic] of the world.

The upshot, in this fifth largest U.S. city, even with its 63 charter schools, is that there is almost no free access to traditional (rigorous, abstract, linear, mathematical) math.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

In Georgia, there is a huge push for entire systems to become charter. What is the purpose in entire rural county systems becoming charter, where there is only one elem, one middle, one HS, anyway? Travel time to the next closest school (private or public) is often 30 miles or more on rural roads. The purpose? So the local schools can omit ITBS or other national tests which let the parents know how far behind their kids are getting AND FOR MONEY! The System gets $ from the state for each charter school. The Governor of Georgia has been misled on this one. It also gives the local super a "pat on the back" because the term "Charter" is so progressive and hip, right now.

lefty said...

Very interesting... Does the state get to pick and choose what kinds of charters are offered? What does it mean for a whole system to go Charter in terms of teachers, classes, etc? I'd love to hear more about them--their mission statements and such.

Anonymous said...

I truly think someone at the Georgia DOE realized how well charter schools elsewhere were doing and without any research just decided to provide money to systems who would become charter. Sort of a "smoke and mirrors" educrat-ese type of label. Local parents in our Title 1 (high poverty) district don't look into this type of thing. I think it is part of a move to get rid of ITBS or other accountability factors, plus the lovely "progressive" label and newspaper articles that go along with the term "charter." At least 2 of our four schools have been charter for two years, but the only visible change is an increase in beaurocratic layers - several more assistant principals and another assistant superintendent.