Charter schools reveal how to step out of the box

Posted Feb. 08, 2011, at 8:07 p.m.

Bangor School Superintendent Betsy Webb recently spoke to state legislators about her thoughts concerning charter schools, saying, “Competition is good, but you need a level playing field,” and expressing her view that charters should not operate with a different set of rules. Yet, it’s the rules that have kept even the strongest school districts — such as Bangor — from fulfilling their goal of providing “academic excellence for all.”

In 40 states and the District of Columbia, charter school laws have enabled educational entrepreneurs to break with onerous rules and regulations that have hampered student achievement. Held to strict standards of accountability and free to innovate, the best charter schools are demonstrating the advantages of educating outside the box.

They can extend students’ time on tasks through longer school days and school years. They can implement proven curricula and assessment systems. They can pay their best teachers above scale and remove underperformers from the classroom without delay. They can engage disaffected students through an intense focus on project-based learning, the arts, or career and technical training.

They can partner with industry to shape education programs to meet economic and community development goals. A few schools are even operating within the charter realm — and with philanthropic support — to provide boarding opportunities and extensive social services to students at the greatest risk of failure.

Are all charter schools success stories? No. But unlike traditional public schools, those that fail to meet their goals are closed. Meanwhile, those that are yielding results stand as models for other charter school founders and traditional schools alike.

Most importantly, they’re meeting students’ learning needs today. As evidence mounts, it’s harder to defend the box within which traditional educators are forced to operate.

And, as a Bangor parent of three school-age children and a former member of the school committee, I’ve seen how great educators and sharp managers can make the best of the inside-the-box model. Bangor is indeed doing a lot of things right. Strong administrative leadership? Check. Effective teachers? For the most part, yes. A mission-driven process of goal setting, data analysis and performance review? Triple check. Bangor offers an academically rigorous program of instruction, diverse extracurricular offerings and a general culture of achievement that are the envy of many cities and towns across Maine, and rightly so.

Yet, even in Bangor, where so much is done so well, universal proficiency in reading and math remains elusive. Is it reasonable then to propose that we can close the achievement gap while working within the current structure of education rules and regulations? My question is not rhetorical. It may even have a mathematical solution. Looking at all the data and analyzing our schools’ performance trajectory in recent years, how long will it take to achieve 100 percent proficiency? Assuming there’s an answer, is it fair to make students wait?

Whether we’re talking about 50 percent of a student body below proficiency, or 30 percent, or 10 percent, the fact is the rules aren’t working for a sizable portion of Maine’s student population. Elsewhere, many who have struggled in traditional settings are thriving in charter schools.

With all due respect to Dr. Webb, I’d sooner level the playing field for students and families than for school districts in Maine. Otherwise, let’s be honest and change Bangor’s credo to “academic excellence for most.”

Mary Budd is a former member of the Bangor School Committee and a consultant to education management organizations.

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