‘Third way’ in education not the answer

Emulate well-run district schools, don't impose charter model

IS THERE A “Third Way” to close the charter-district school divide? A recent CommonWealth article suggested there might be. I’d like to add my two cents concerning that possibility and even suggest there might be a fourth.

As a retired public school teacher, I was grateful for the opportunity because our main local forum, the Boston Globe, has largely ignored dissenting op-ed views about school reform for the past two decades. The absence of critical reportage about the charter movement and of vigorous public discussion has helped create the divide.

But it isn’t just the one-way media conversation that has caused this division. To explain a chasm of this depth we must recognize certain facts on the ground:

• The redefinition of education itself as a standardized test score.

• The evolution of a few “laboratories of innovation” into a dual school system.

• The promotion of charters and the charter industry by the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

• The privatization of public institutions like schools and unions as part of an ideological agenda.

• The elimination of democratically-elected school committees.

• The passage of a 1993 law that actually forbids the state Board of Education from considering local financial impact when approving new charters schools.

In response to this last point, the chairman of the Wareham School Committee recently stated that charters are “blood-sucking” the public schools. This shared sentiment has already led 50 of our school committees to oppose the November ballot initiative that would lift the charter cap. So when we seek to bridge the charter-district divide, remember that many mainstream community leaders believe the very existence of their public schools is in jeopardy.

But let’s push all these large issues to the side — as well as the other problematic issues surrounding charters (student retention and attrition rates, percentage of English language learners served, the number of suspensions given, teacher turnover rates, public monies diverted, etc.). Let’s clear the table and take a look at that Third Way, which its main proponent, venture capitalist Chris Gabrieli, characterizes as a veritable “movement.”

In Lawrence, where the schools are in receivership, the state plan gives more autonomy to individual schools to offer a longer school day, and provides for other collaboration with charter groups that are running some district schools there.

In the case of Springfield, Gabrieli describes this new approach essentially as a way for low-performing districts to avoid a state takeover by coming under the supervision of a special “Empowerment Zone“ board that he heads. As I understand it, under this model participating districts must assimilate certain charter norms that once were matters for union contracts, such as the length of the school day and the enhanced powers of principals to hire and fire. In agreeing to this arrangement, these schools are then rewarded with charter-like autonomy. In Springfield, the elected district school committee was relieved of responsibilities for schools in the designated zone, and Mr. Gabrieli, the state-appointed chairman, and members of his board, which includes some local appointees, supervise the “Empowerment Zone.”

You want autonomy, this new approach seems to ask? Then become more like charters. The end result — this Third Way – sounds remarkably like charterization from within – and under the existing charter cap.

There’s another way, and it reflects a different perspective arising from my life experience. Unlike some reformers, I did not attend elite private schools or send my kids to them. I went to the public schools of New York City and graduated from the non-exam DeWitt Clinton High School, where my teachers inspired me to follow their example. After completing my student teaching at Brighton High School, I worked as a history teacher at Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School for 35 years until my retirement.

The Fourth Way I am proposing will evoke howls of disbelief, because it rejects the fundamental assumption underlying “education reform”– and repeated ad nauseum –that public education has failed. Actually not. How tragic that none of the fervent, well-meaning reformers ever bothered to first ask this simple question: What might struggling (or new) schools learn from successful public schools? Call it heresy, but charters can learn quite a bit from our public schools.

Case in point, Lincoln-Sudbury, which was founded as a regional district in 1954. In the half-century since then, the school has enjoyed autonomy of a different kind than charters celebrate. It used its autonomy to create a culture of continuous innovation, energetic participation, dedication to academic rigor, and, yes, love of learning for its own sake. The school is located in an upper middle-class community, but its most interesting aspects have nothing to do with money.

Hiring: Charter advocates think the key is to concentrate that power with principals. At Lincoln-Sudbury autonomy meant forming hiring committees made up of teachers and administrators, and often, student representatives.

Curriculum: This is largely fashioned by the faculty, working within departments. Teachers also have had the opportunity to create new courses that enrich the elective system. They enjoy a large measure of autonomy in the classroom, and are held to high standards by unscheduled, in-class evaluations.

Pedagogy: Critical thinking and comprehension emphasized over memorization; experimentation, literature and writing over textbooks and worksheets.

Administration, discipline, and culture: Responsibility for supervising students is decentralized among four “houses.” The entire staff works hard to encourage students to internalize the core value of “freedom with responsibility.” Students are given the chance to learn how to manage free time. There are no bells to mark the beginning and end of periods. The school motto, “Think for yourself but think of others,” sums up the school’s academic and ethical mission, which is carried out in the classroom and in an extensive extracurricular program. The focus is on educating the whole child.

Institutional decision-making: This is done with faculty participation at staff meetings or through the faculty senate. This collaborative approach deepens staff commitment, and makes the faculty feel this is their school as well. Being treated like professionals, and not just employees, creates a different mindset. Of course teachers look to the union at contract time to reach agreement on salary, basic working conditions, and due process rights.

There are many such public schools with decades of experience in creating schools that students regard with affection and gratitude. Charters and policy-makers would do well to explore these well-established educational models. These public schools deserve respect and emulation–not state standardization.

Meet the Author
So whither? Which Way? Thoreau reminds us that “…there are as many ways as there can be drawn radii from one center.” But I would venture that the best way forward involves a commitment to give all children, regardless of zip code, a thoughtful education, to show respect for what we have democratically created together over three centuries in Massachusetts, to allocate public monies for the benefit of the many, and to accord to teachers the right to negotiate for salary and working conditions that will keep them in the classroom and their families in the middle class.

Bill Schechter was a history teacher at Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School from 1973 to 2008. After his retirement, he served as a practicum supervisor for Tufts University and the University of Massachusetts Boston, and as a volunteer tutor at the Boston Arts Academy.