With President Obama asking states to raise the number of charter schools they allow, do you think charter model works, and if so, do you think it will make a significant impact in the U.S. education system in the near future?
Letâ€™s start with the basics. Charter schools are actually one type of public school, but they have so much in common with private schools that many people think of them as being in a separate category. Charter schools are nonsectarian public schools of choice that operate with freedom from many of the regulations that apply to traditional public schools. The “charter” establishing each such school is a performance contract detailing the school’s mission, program, goals, students served, methods of assessment and ways to measure success.
The length of time for which charters are granted varies, but most are granted for 3-5 years. At the end of the term, the entity granting the charter may renew the school’s contract. Charter schools are accountable to their sponsor — usually a state or local school board — to produce positive academic results and adhere to the charter contract. The basic concept of charter schools is that they exercise increased autonomy in return for this accountability. They are accountable for both academic results and fiscal practices to several groups: the sponsor that grants them, the parents who choose them, and the public that funds them.
The biggest debate between charter schools and public schools is that charter schools do a better job of reaching students than public schools because of their unique style of teaching and educating. With virtually one third of the students in the U.S. failing to graduate from high school, itâ€™s not surprising that experimental charter schools are gaining attention.
With Harmony Charter Schools recently under fire in the media, does this change your opinion about charter schools and their ultimate goals for education?
We asked renowned professor of sociology and senior fellow at the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University Professor William Martin his opinion on the matter based from his recent investigation into the charter schools of Texas.
From your article in Texas Monthly, can you comment further on charter schools and their benefits? Why do you think the charter model works so successfully?
William Martin: First, it’s important to note that the majority of charter schools have not proved to be better than public schools. The model shared by KIPP, YES, and Harmony emphasizes close following of students’ progress and quick attention to problems. As one student told me, “They insist that you understand everything you are supposed to learn.” Another key factor seems to be connection with the families of students through home visits and other regular contact.
What could other public schools learn?
WM: The importance of personal attention, close tutoring to make sure students don’t fall behind, paying primary attention to subject matter rather than to state-mandated tests. If students learn the major subject matter, they should be able to perform just fine on the standard tests. As Supt. Soner Tarim said, â€˜if schools are content with simply passing the state tests, they are setting kids up for failure.â€™
What insights did Arthi Satyanarayan (Martinâ€™s intern) offer that helped shape your understanding and perspective when visiting the different schools?
WM: Since Arthi had been to high school just three years earlier, compared to my fifty-three, she had a more current perspective on things in general. By conducting some of the interviews, I think she probably got responses that I might not have. She was a good observer. She also noted the relative lack of AP courses in some of the schools–something the administrations are clearly aware of and are working to remedy.
How do you feel the Katherine Anne Porter School has impacted the “at-risk” students that attend that high school?
WM: It is well known in Wimberley that a number of kids who had had trouble with drugs, problems at home–in some cases, homelessness, and previous failure in school, have been turned around by caring teachers, a more flexible and imaginative curriculum, and an atmosphere that welcomes non-conformity (of a sort often manifested by wearing quite similar “non-conforming” clothes).
You mentioned the recent articles that have casted a negative light on Harmony Schools. You obviously feel the information in the New York Times article accusing Harmony schools of turning their students into Islamist extremists is false. Do you question the other findings as well? Why do you think they are attracting this negative PR?
WM: I do think the charge that the schools are teaching Islam is simply wrong. I do think the Harmony leaders want model a kind of behavior that will display Islam in a positive light, but that is a different matter. I have never heard of any evidence other than that some parents make this charge. The schools also want students, parents, and others to have a positive view of Turkey.
Overall, I thought the Times article raised questions that the schools and the GÃ¼len movement, of which many of the leaders of the schools are a part, need to grapple with in a straightforward manner. If they are helping Turkish people, mostly men, to immigrate and take teaching jobs for which local people are qualified, that’s a legitimate reason to criticize them. I don’t think it is wrong for them to hire Turkish companies to do their architecture, build their schools, or provide their meals–provided they satisfy accepted criteria and regulations.
Much of the construction that occurs at Rice is performed by companies with long ties to the university. A key issue that I see, and about which I have had numerous conversations with people in these circles, is their tendency to deny connections among organizations when those connections clearly exist. While it may be technically true that the various organizations cited in the Times article are legally separate, they also share both ideals and personnel. To deny or even to downplay these connections raises unnecessary negative suspicions.
In a country where Islamophobia already runs high, this is counterproductive, perhaps even dangerous. Transparency is crucial to the continued success of these schools. As for criticisms raised by disgruntled parents, some of these may reflect a possible authoritarian streak in some of the Turkish principals or teachers, especially those new to the U.S.
I know of numerous parents who are quite happy with the schools, so it has difficult to know just what to make of those criticisms without much more extensive research than I was able to conduct. I also know that parents can be unhappy with conventional public schools. Our three children, now adults with children of their own, attended an excellent elementary school, but their middle school was sufficiently disappointing that we pulled them all out and sent them to private schools. I know other parents who did the same.
Harmony Schools posted a statement on their website addressing the article in the New York Times. The letter states that Harmony Schools cooperated extensively with the Times on this story over the last several months, providing all information in good faith. The end result was not as they had hoped. In this statement, Superintendent Soner Tarim also encourages readers to post comments on the article. Tarim’s letter is available here (link opens PDF).
It is unrealistic to expect successful charter school molds to displace public schools, but they may become role models for our education system in the near future. What do you think?