Editor's note: Patch recently published a series of articles examining the role of charter schools in well-performing suburban school districts. Parker Block, a co-founder of the Princeton International Academy Charter School (www.piacs.org), sent us the following response:
As the current debate about charter schools in urban and suburban districts unfolds, it is important to recognize that charter schools are intended to be laboratories of innovation that provide, according to the Charter School Program Act, “a mechanism for the implementation of a variety of educational approaches which may not be available in the traditional public school classroom.”
It is common and understandable for school districts to find innovation too difficult to implement in the face of institutional inertia and entrenched parochial interests. In so-called “top performing” suburban school districts, the bureaucratic instinct to defend the status quo is buttressed by data which seemingly justifies intransigence.
Compared to state averages, suburban schools are not under-performing; they are “humming along.” As long as the “local achievement gap” exists, suburban school districts are under no pressure to innovate and improve.
Despite the fact that the most tragic situations in public education capture media attention, business leaders, policy makers, progressive educators and parents are increasingly aware that in the 21st Century, our students are not going to be judged in comparison to local standards, but by international benchmarks.
To that end, New Jersey became one of the lead states in the Partnership for 21st Century Skills (www.p21.org), an organization working to infuse 21st Century skills into public K-12. The Partnership was a key resource in the development of New Jersey’s revised Core Curriculum Standards in 2009.
One of the reasons for the increased focus on 21st Century skills, according to the Partnership, is the fact that “for the past decade, the United States has focused nationally on closing achievement gaps between the lowest- and highest-performing students –a legitimate and useful agenda – but one that skirts the competitive demand for advanced skills. Equally important is the global
achievement gap between U.S. students — even our top-performing students — and their international peers in competitor nations."
The comparison to local standards may serve suburban school administrators well, but not suburban students. Nonetheless, those who propose innovative, ambitious programs are often summarily dismissed by local school officials with phrases like “nice to have, but not necessary” or “wait until the economy improves."
President Obama consistently reminds us, however, that continuous innovation, even in times of budget constraints, is necessary if we are to remain economically competitive. Yet, even in Princeton, the president of the school board equates programs that will increase proficiency in math with learning to play bagpipes, and says that fluency in a strategic world language like Mandarin is like learning Gaelic.
This exemplifies the complacency, arrogance and protect-the-status quo mentality which has plagued public education for decades and gave rise to the need for charter schools in the first place.
Critics deride schools such as those offering dual-language immersion programs as “themed, boutique schools,” implying that the scope of the education is somehow limited.
The intent of a charter school is, according to the law, to offer programs which are differentiated from the program already available in the traditional public schools. If these points of differentiation are considered “themes,” then there is no such thing as a “non-themed” charter school.
Some believe that charter schools only serve a small number of private school families who simply want to have their tuition paid by tax dollars. First, in the case of the charter school of which I am a co-founder, three out of four applicants are already attending a public school within the respective school districts.
These are public school parents who simply want forward-thinking programs that better prepare their children to compete in the 21st Century. Second, if the school is successful on a smaller scale, these innovative programs can and should be replicated in traditional schools for the benefit of the larger community.
In her endorsement of high quality charter schools, New Jersey Education Association President Barbara Keshishian states that “it is critical that successful schools of all types share their successes so that other students can benefit from the best practices in all of New Jersey's public schools."
Innovative programs always require first-adopters before the larger populace is ready to endorse them. Yet public school officials are reluctant to acknowledge charter school successes out of fear of a domino effect; if one succeeds, there will be others.
This Cold War-era paranoia greatly underestimates the difficulty of getting a charter school authorized and established. If parents in the community don’t believe in the school, it won’t survive.
In smaller municipalities like Princeton, the school districts are the most powerful political force in the community, controlling huge budgets, payrolls, and a bully-pulpit from which the politics of fear can be employed to get initiatives passed or killed.
This is why the charter school law established “a new form of accountability for schools” by providing parents and educators the opportunity to apply directly to the state Department of Education for the authorization to open a charter school.
The same body, which is ultimately responsible for the curriculum standards and public education throughout state, oversees the evaluation and authorization of innovative, high-quality charter schools and holds them accountable to agreed upon targets.
Students in New Jersey who happen to be on the right side of the “local achievement gap” will find themselves on the wrong side of the “global achievement gap” unless the innovation provided by high-quality charters is available throughout the state.
President Obama chastises the complacent official who puts parochial interests ahead of progress: “China is not waiting. Germany is not waiting. India is not waiting. These nations -- they're not standing still. These nations aren't playing for second place.” The competition our children will face is not just “humming along.” They are pushing ahead. So should we.