Opinion: Child-Centered School Proposals Should Prompt Rigorous Authorizing—Not Lazy Denials
Wednesday, May 24, 2017 | Alex Medler
A recent Fordham Institute study, Three Signs That a Proposed Charter School Is at Risk of Failing, compared the details of charter school applications to the performance of the resulting schools. According to authors Anna Nicotera and David Stuit, schools trying to implement “child-centered” models were more likely to struggle academically than schools pursuing other models.
There weren’t many such schools in the study, so it’s a better prompt for discussions about their issues than “proof” of anything. That said, I wasn’t surprised by its results. They echoed my experience as an authorizer and a researcher.
It’s important to first note that what makes a school “child-centered” is not rigidly defined, and some schools from every model have been more successful than others. Several well-known versions, like Montessori and Waldorf, primarily serve younger kids. Other models, like the Big Picture and Expeditionary Learning, serve older students. The details of these programs vary depending on the grades they serve and their founders’ philosophies. Generally, however, their students are actively working to direct their own learning, and teachers guide or facilitate this experience, rather than being responsible for delivering pre-established content. Child-centered schools, whatever they do, tend to avoid a single, structured, and sequential curriculum.
These schools are also quite popular. They already constitute a significant part of the charter sector, and their market share is likely to increase in years to come. In Washington, D.C., for example, child-centered models receive three applications for every available seat.
Despite their popularity, however, effectively implementing “child-centered” school models can be difficult because of at least three challenges: superficial understanding of the model; underestimating the importance and complexity of implementation; and disagreements over what constitutes “student success.” Authorizers should therefore probe applicants’ knowledge and expertise to determine just how well a new charter school is likely to address these challenges.
An old anecdote illustrates the first challenge of superficial understanding. In the mid-90s, I studied the missions of the nation’s first one hundred charter schools. Several planned to pursue the Coalition of Essential Schools (CES) model. The CES model is a highly student-centered approach to high school that reduces the scope of the curriculum and redefines students as agents of their learning who are supported by teachers serving as coaches. I discussed my findings with Ted Sizer, who created the model based on his experience as a principal and extensive research about American high schools. I told Sizer about one of the schools I reviewed that sought to combine the CES approach with a very different model—E.D. Hirsch’s Core Knowledge Program. Hirsch’s model stood in stark contrast to Sizer’s model by emphasizing a structured and sequential curriculum. Sizer was incredulous and said something like, “That’s silly. You can’t do that. They must not even know what it means to be a Coalition school!” Ted’s skepticism underscores the risk of people proposing schools with only a superficial understanding of their model. Keep in mind that many founding teams are groups of parents.
Second, child-centered schools also have myriad implementation challenges. In their own unique ways, each of these schools redefines teachers’ and students’ roles. This requires impressive teacher skills, including the ability to evaluate student progress, manage classrooms, track data, help students with potentially unknown material, and more. It also requires that schools adopt effective systems and procedures for staffing patterns, scheduling, and use of space and material—all of which support students and make teachers’ work more sustainable.
Finally, authorizers of child-centered schools must consider what it means to be successful—and it ought to be about more than test scores. Indeed, many child-centered schools may perform below average academically, yet still deliver other highly valued outcomes for students and families. My wife and I, for example, chose a district-run Montessori school for our own children over a higher-performing and dramatically less-diverse neighborhood school. As parents, we were comfortable with our choice. But as both an authorizer and as a parent, I wouldn’t be if a school’s results were terrible.
Despite these challenges, however, charter authorizers mustn’t shy away from child-centered schools. Instead, they should put in the extra work it takes to ask smart, tailored questions that inform the rigorous decisions that these models require. The following seven are a good start:
- Why did they choose this model? And how does it fit with the community?
- What experience do they have with the model? Who is trained in the model?
- What is the proposed school leader’s experience with the model?
- What is the plan for recruiting, selecting, training, and supporting staff in the model?
- What is the plan for community outreach, recruitment, and engagement?
- Have they established partnerships with the groups that help schools implement this model?
- Are there aspects of the model they intend to adjust or change for their proposed school, and if so why and how?
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