Charters and innovation

As those who have followed our efforts over the years know, we have for some time entertained the idea of starting a charter school. And if you asked me today how we planned to go from being a program for high school seniors (which is what we are now) to being a full high school, I’d tell you the charter route is still probably the most likely option (though we are open to others). So it was with great interest that we followed news last week of the District-Charter Collaboration Compact, hailed by the SRC and the city as a fresh start in the relationship between the city, the district, and charter schools.

This is positive step. One of the original reasons for having charter schools was so that we could try out new approaches to schooling, which the rest of the system could ultimately learn from. That has not happened, largely because districts and charters effectively compete with one another. Trying to shift the conversation away from District vs. Charters and toward trying to build on what seems to be working – charter or not – is a big step in the right direction.

But there is one aspect of the compact that concerns me. It appears that the conversation is all about scaling up existing models. Like we’ve got it all figured out, we just need to do more of it.

But we don’t. What we have are some promising approaches – approaches that deserve to be expanded. But we also have failure on a massive scale, especially in high schools. We need all the help we can get. We need Mastery and KIPP, but we also need El Centro and Youthbuild. We need FLC and Science Leadership Academy and Benjamin Rush. We need to learn from progressive teachers in our comprehensive high schools, whose work often goes overlooked because it is not supported.¬†And we need models and approaches that we haven’t thought of yet.

We need to encourage innovation, whether inside or outside of district systems. Then we need to learn from each other. We need to have honest conversations about what’s working and what’s not. About who we are serving well and who is still falling through the cracks. We need to pay attention not only to the usual metrics like test scores, but to real-life, long-term outcomes for kids. Are they getting good jobs? Are they succeeding in college? Are they self sufficient? Do they have options?

Ultimately, the question is not whether to have more or fewer charters, or which model is the “right” one. It’s about how well our schools prepare our kids to be contributing members of society. We need innovation and creativity, collaboration and honest dialogue, and above all, the humility to understand that we don’t have it all figured out yet, and that in the end pretending that we do only slows down our progress.