While I would enthusiastically support the concept of creating a charter school to test a new instructional model and would certainly approve the use of incentives to encourage families to place their children in that school, that is not the way charter schools are being utilized here in Fort Wayne, Indiana nor, I suspect, in most other communities in the US.
The Charter schools with which I am familiar are might posture themselves as innovative but, in reality, they are little more than lifeboats floated out into the murky sea of public education to give the few families that are so inclined a place to which they can escape from the public schools.
There are insufficient numbers of these lifeboats to accept more than a miniscule percentage of the total population of children who are in the figurative “damaged ships” that are our urban public schools; thus, such schools can have no more than a marginal impact on the challenges facing public education in America.
The fact that we create these avenues of escape for the most motivated families and their children and still expect the teachers of the abandoned school to improve scores on standardized competency examinations is absurd. Charter schools may be a lifeline for a small number of families but they are a virtual sentence of death, or at least imprisonment, to the abandoned schools and to their students and educators.
The message this sends to the community at large is “we cannot do anything to fix our most challenged public schools so let us, at the very least, help a few families and their children escape.
The practice of using school vouchers is also creating its own series of adverse impacts. Not only do vouchers drain scarce tax dollars out of the accounts of our most challenged schools, those dollars are not creating outcomes that are significantly better for the students as, at least locally, the performance of charter schools on competency exams is disappointing. Worse yet, is that a portion of the tax revenue siphoned out of the budgets of our public schools is being utilized for purposes other than the education of our children.
I know, personally, of two Catholic parishes in Fort Wayne that have found vouchers to be a profitable enterprise and have used the revenue to pay off the parishes debts to the Dioceses or to address non-school related financial concerns while requests for school related uses of the funds have been denied. Now that this practice has come to light, that unfortunate and inappropriate practice will be discouraged, hopefully, if not discontinued.
We say that our purpose is to fix public education and that is expressed in our collective mission statements. Our behavior suggests that we have given up on at least our urban public schools as lost causes.
The fundamental problem with education reform is that it amounts to little more than tinkering with obsolete educational processes that contributes, greatly, to the failure of its students and the overwhelming majority of educational reformers, “corporate reformers” or “traditional,” seem oblivious to this reality. No matter how many times we keep re-shuffling the same deck we will continue to get the same 52 cards. Unfortunately, they are the wrong cards.
If the reader can allow his or her mind to consider, imagine that we have landed on another planet with a couple of million families and we want to set up schools for our children. If we were to take advantage of this unique opportunity and design and educational process from scratch, would it appear anything like public education looks in the United States of America, today? If we were to apply any amount of imaginative, exponential thinking the answer would be that the system we would create would bear little resemblance to what we have here and now.
The saddest fact of all is that reinventing our educational systems and processes would not be all that difficult if only we would open our hearts and minds to a new way of thinking about education. With but a few exceptions, most of the things we would do differently would require nothing more than a majority vote of the local school district.
I am proposing that we apply a systems-thinking approach utilizing present day business principles to reinvent education in America. I am not talking about such business principles of the corporate board room as financial incentives, competition, privatization and entrepreneurialism. In fact, these are the exact wrong business principles.
The business principles to which I refer are the principles learned in an operational setting such has: focus on one’s customer; identifying and focus on one’s mission, structuring the operation to meet its objectives, problem-solving, teamwork, integrating quality assessments into the learning process, and giving the people on the production line (teachers and administrators) the tools and resources they need to do the best job of which they are capable.
In my book, Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream: The Challenge for Twenty-First Century America, I offer a comprehensive blueprint for change.
My request to educators and reformers alike is: let us pause for a moment, clear our minds, and listen to the ideas of someone with a fresh perspective. What do we have to lose other than a few minutes of our time? This is something else smart businesspeople have learned. They often seek out consultants with a broader perspective to challenge their assumptions and paradigms. They even pay for this service, which is the best indicator of its perceived value.