In the original charter schools vision (Al Shanker – see http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/31/opinion/sunday/albert-shanker-the-original-charter-school-visionary.html?_r=0), students and learning/achievement were the heart of the matter. Dedicated teachers were to direct best practices to increase student achievement and personalize learning. The schools that provided the foundation of Shanker’s vision demonstrated high rates of student matriculation, higher education participation and the like. The article also cites high quality charter school examples across the country….exemplifying the attributes that Shanker originally recommended.
Today, the core of some charter schools is to feed business coffers and/or political mores to reduce the efficacy of public education. There are charter schools where student performance is well below state and local averages. In Michigan, the Department of Education has called out numerous charter schools and their authorizers for substandard student achievement, negligent operations and failure to comply with state laws. These examples negatively impact progress toward authentic school transformations and quality options/choices for families regarding their children’s education.
It is easy to throw barbs at high profile present and former politicians, education and business leaders who espouse school reform through family ‘choice’ of schools, effective use of technologies, blended and virtual learning, etc. I think it is important to understand what each offers, promotes and supports before throwing out that baby with the bath water.
My measure for examining these approaches focuses on the system and how students, teachers, school leaders, and technologies are engaged. The student must be at the forefront – the heart of all decisions, desired outcomes, instructional resources and tools. It must also seek to develop self-directed learners through a true personalized approach – I’m talking the approach that Barbara Bray and Kathleen McClaskey have embraced (http://www.personalizelearning.com/). Teachers are invaluable to this work. As such, much attention and support must be embedded in the model of everyday work among colleagues, with parents/caregivers, and the principal. Adult learning is also an everyday occurrence – as is collegial reflection, sharing, coaching and risk-taking. The principal is the ‘leader’ of the teacher leaders and ensures that the ecosystem is conducive to the shifts in culture and practice that this work demands.
The resources must be dynamic and promote teacher and student production and creation – not consumption and regurgitation. A one-size-fits-all digital content solution cannot be part of an optimal personalized approach. Learners and teachers are diverse and the ‘not-so-new’ global competencies demand their ability to ‘make’ artifacts of learning and knowledge – actual content. The use of historical, static resources has its place as reference and contribution to research. Using these sources of content for inquiry and real-life problem-solving must be part of this revamped learning ecosystem.
For transparency sake, know that I am school board president for a public charter school in Lansing, MI – Nexus Academy. The authorizer is Central Michigan University (CMU) and the school’s curricular/instructional model is Connections Education out of Baltimore, Maryland. It is a blended approach – 1:1 programming on steroids if you will-where each student has a success coach, is guided by a high quality counselor, dedicated face to face and online teachers. We are launching our third year of operation. Every teacher is high quality, dedicated, highly engaged in personalizing each student’s learning and committed long before and after the regular school hours – that includes outside the brick and mortar as well. The principal is the best model of an adult learner I have ever encountered. He leads the team; he is a member of the team; the team and community are highly interactive.
Nexus Academy has had bumps in the road; they have remedied, learned from and gotten better with every experience. They recognize their frailties and set regular goals for expected and necessary results. Their cycle of improvement is well in place. They were recently awarded accreditation by the North Central Commission on Accreditation. The NCA leader remarked that he had never yet evaluated a charter site with such exemplary practice, staff, curriculum, progress and school improvement undertakings.
Nexus didn’t happen by chance. CMU, Michigan’s DoE, Connections Staff have collaborated on a uniquely successful school model that incorporates all the tenets set forth by education research best practices, visions fostered by Arne Duncan, Jeb Bush, Bill Gates, Warren Buffet and those who find themselves in a similar camp. Nexus happened by design and being focused on a singular mission and vision. Everything the Nexus staff and community does is aimed at the target – personalized student learning and achievement.
I outline Nexus’s profile because I am familiar with it but more importantly because it is an example of a charter school that works…that embraces all the qualities (except the unionization) that Al Shanker promoted. I don’t think Nexus nor its team is opposed to a union approach…..but I know that the teachers’ and principals’ compensation packages are aligned and competitive with those of the Michigan Education Association’s teacher members.
Keeping my heart and mind open about school reform/transformation. There is much to learn and even more work to be done.