Today’s Boston Globe has a story about a new Massachusetts charter school, that if approved would become charter number 63 in the state. Charter schools, both in Massachusetts and elsewhere, have come about for two reasons.
First of all, and about this there is little disagreement, public schools, in particular those in our large inner cities, were failing to educate their large populations of poor and minority children. Something radical was clearly needed, especially given that previous incremental reform efforts had not been successful.
In the second place there were growing numbers of individuals who cared about the schools and were concerned by the plight of the large numbers of poor and minority children who were either dropping out of school altogether, or, if they completed high school, were often reading at an eighth grade level and still floundering in the rudiments of algebra, if indeed they had got that far.
These individuals who were ready and willing to act were either parents or young, idealistic college graduates, or both, all of whom shared the belief that schools needed to be completely remade in accordance with their ideals. And it was no longer enough to merely reform them from within.
The charter school, now outside the control of the district school authorities, became the vehicle for these individuals to go ahead with the realization of their dreams. In Massachusetts perhaps half of the new schools have become what their founders intended for them, and these schools are truly great schools. Nationally, however, the success rates are less, and it seems now, some 15 years into the charter reform movement, that too many of these schools have done no better for their students than the district schools they have replaced.
Notwithstanding this, however, the charter school still represents the single most powerful and most hopeful reform effort that we who care about the plight of our failing public schools possess. And the new Massachusetts charter school shows us why.
The current and dominant reform movement in public school education is that which allows parents and their children more school choice. District schools, no less than charters, bear this out. In our large cities district schools may be magnet schools, exam schools, alternative schools–especially high schools, small schools, regional math and arts academies, still a few intercity and regional vocational schools, not to leave out of course the various schools and particularly classrooms within the schools designed to provide for some 20 degrees of disability among the some 20% or so of all students who have been labeled as disabled. In other words district schools are not of one size, shape or color but are as different and varied as the children who attend them. And they should be.
Charters (and in Massachusetts their imitators, but still in the district, called pilots) illustrate this same tendency, to vary the school offerings as much as possible, given the fact that the children themselves represent widely different interests and abilities. In Massachusetts there are as many different charter schools as there are different individuals and parent groups behind them. This, I think, is a good thing. Schools could never with their students succeed the way the Ford Motor Company did with its cars.
Why did we try for so long to do so, to turn out kids in mass as products on an assembly line? And why do those nostalgic for the past still think of that time as a Golden Age? There never was a Golden Age in the history of our schools.
The new Massachusetts charter school, number 63, would be a Mandarin Chinese Immersion school. This school also is the result of individuals who wanted something else, in this instance parents and educators who wanted some children, not all children, to have the opportunity to master Chinese at a young age when language mastery is easiest to come by. Given the place of China in the world, given the one billion or so people who speak Mandarin, who could disagree with their plan to create a few more Mandarin speakers in the United States?
I have two things left to say about all this. First, I would ask you what do you think was the reaction of the school authorities to the Chinese immersion charter proposal? If you’re new to this sort of thing you probably think that they welcomed still one more choice of schools for their children. For isn’t the Mandarin Immersion school really another magnet school within the public school system? In fact the Amherst school officials had hoped to start their own Chinese and Spanish immersion language programs but couldn’t afford to do so. Why wouldn’t they welcome the people who were ready to do so on their own initiative?
Well, those of you who are familiar with this sort of thing probably know what in fact was the response of the school authorities. Charters, they said, like many of their ilk are saying throughout the country, are taking away important educational qualities from the district. For one, diversity. Fewer of those young girls, for example, whose parents had gone to China to adopt them, will remain in the district school. And overall an important part of the Asian share of the district’s diversity will now attend the new charter school.
For two, money. The students who leave the district schools take their money with them, and given the fact that the charter schools will eventually serve some 300 students from as many as 40 different towns and cities, there would probably be little or no cost savings for the district schools affected.
Things could have been different. (We didn’t have to go to war.) Charters, this charter in particular, could have been welcomed by the local school authorities, and helped and encouraged to provide the additional choices to kids and their parents.
Why didn’t this happen? It’s not as if the district school were a place where everyone, rich and poor, Latino and African-American, disabled and gifted, sat together in the same classroom, where all the existing disparities and differences between kids somehow magically disappeared, and all kids learned to live with one another overlooking the differences. And it’s not as if they all became better citizens of our democracy as a result.
We know, Helas!, that this didn’t/doesn’t happen. Also, as we’ve pointed out above, there are all kinds of district schools, not just one school, one melting pot, for all. And furthermore even within the different schools kids are tracked, whether or not the word tracked is used. The common school ideal was probably never realized except, perhaps, in the original one room school house that may have served every child in the village. But that’s no longer the case, if it ever was.
For me the Mandarin Immersion Charter School is one more excellent example of the power we still possess in our country (such a school would not be possible in France where I am at present) to improve our lives, and the lives of our children, by our own actions. Furthermore, one need not defend providing an additional opportunity to learn the Chinese language. This is clearly a good thing.
The organizers tell us that their Chinese Immersion school, if approved as expected,** would open this fall with about 42 students in kindergarten and first grade, and would expand slowly to eighth grade, adding about one grade each year. What a great thing if it happens! Don’t you agree?
**On Tuesday February 27th the Massachusetts Board
of Education approved the application of the Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion
Charter School (PVCI) and gave the school the go-ahead to open in the fall of