Memo to charters: Steal, pirate, plagiarize the private school playbook

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A detail central to Raphael's famous painting: "The School of Athens."

Teachers are unapologetic thieves. And, that’s a good thing. It wasn’t always that way though.

Back in the Chalk Age, sometime between the late Paleolithic and about 25 years ago, most educators spent an entire career cloistered behind closed classroom doors.  There, they cut their teeth, honed their craft, and hoarded binders filled with their accumulated professional wisdom. At the end of 30-plus years, they packed it all up, took it home, and hid it away in a cool, dry place. As a result, the wheel of “institutional knowledge” had to be constantly reinvented.  

Today, things have changed. That institutional knowledge is being actively collected, analyzed and parceled out like No. 2 pencils. Teachers are encouraged and sometimes even required to share the wealth of their insights. They now beg, borrow, buy and steal* “best practices” from near and far. Obviously, the Internet has accelerated this process. Sites like Curriki, Shmoop, and Digital Is make it easier than ever to get “good” stuff from other folks. The profession is fast becoming a veritable, albeit virtual, Edutopia.  

The charter school movement has played a role in this process. Back in the late 1980’s, Ray Budde from the University of Massachusetts and Albert Shanker of the American Federation of Teachers envisioned charter schools as Petri dishes for new ideas. Autonomous, but accountable for results, these schools would pioneer innovative, breakthrough strategies – strategies that would ultimately help America’s failing traditional schools succeed.

A detail central to Raphael's famous painting: "The School of Athens."

A detail central to Raphael's famous painting, "The School of Athens."

Not surprisingly in this post-chalk, open-source age, charter school leaders quickly turned to, well, piracy. Taking advantage of an increasingly “flat” world, they looked to businesses that had grown from good (or bad) to “great” and adopted or adapted turn-around strategies that could be applied to the un-businesslike world of k-12 public education. But while some of these innovations came from outside the world of education, many were actually pilfered from private schools, ranging from the School of Athens to Phillips Andover. The following are just a few of the bigger “borrowed” ideas:   

Governance

Most private schools are overseen by a small, select board of trustees. Members are not elected or paid. Instead, they are chosen to volunteer based on their skills, knowledge, experience, connections and, most importantly, passion for the school and its mission. Their job is a fairly simple one: to hire the school leader and to hold him or her accountable for results. The better boards don’t impose restrictive policies and they definitely don’t micro-manage. They allow their leaders to lead and their teachers to teach.    

Traditional school districts, especially those still trapped in the eraser grooves of the Chalk Age, operate (sometimes dysfunctionally) in an alternate universe. They are overseen by elected officials who may be better skilled at politics and career-building than education. Their priorities are generally those of their constituents, and do not necessarily align with those of the schools. As a result, consistency or clarity of vision may become blurred. At the extreme, hogtied with red tape and unnecessary paperwork, school leaders can’t lead, and teachers can’t teach. 

Given a choice between these two paradigms, not surprisingly, charters picked the path of least resistance.**

Culture

I grew up in a backwoods community in southeast Louisiana. My parents, frustrated by the lack of quality schools (both public and private) at the time, decided to ship me off to a small independent boarding school just north of Boston. The experience changed my life. When people ask me what it was about the school that made such a difference, I always respond, “The culture.” For the first time I was surrounded by people who were truly passionate about education. They all knew their subject areas incredibly well—one teacher had actually written our Latin textbook—and, more importantly, they were all serious (and excited) about learning. And, there was an expectation that we would be as well. They set out to accomplish this in a number of ways: from requiring us to wear coats and ties and attend Saturday classes to staging rich discussions about ethereal topics and—my personal favorite among these old-school rituals—tea parties with opposing teams after sporting events. (At my previous school, we were more prone to fight!) And through it all, the focus was always on learning. 

The better charter schools*** also strive from the get-go to establish a strong learning culture. “We stole that lesson from Catholic schools,” a New Orleans principal once confided. “Our kids gotta be ready to learn.” To accomplish this they employ a myriad of strategies, many of them drawing heavily from the private school playbook. From strict codes of conduct and ubiquitous core values to daily shout-outs and morning meetings, all are designed to forge and promote a positive and productive learning environment. Such schools constantly remind “scholars” why they are there and what it’s all about.  

College Prep

For many if not all charter schools, “what it’s all about” is outcomes. As education pundits are apt to point out, they have a laser-like focus on student achievement. Or, as one charter school leader told me, “Our true north is college.” Visit any high-performing charter and you’ll find posters for Harvard, Stanford and Duke wallpapering the hallways. You’ll see motivational quotes dangling from ceilings and goals plastered to the walls that read, “100% of our scholars will…” With names like Achieve, Success and Aspire, it’s not hard to figure out what these schools are all about. 

At my high school and others like it, it was a given that every student would go on to college. (There’s a reason they call them “prep schools.”) The campus, its buildings and classrooms, were designed to look like prestigious universities. Instruction was rigorous and expectations were high. There were AP courses, opportunities to study abroad, and numerous college visits. Advisers, teachers and coaches were always asking, “How is your GPA? Have you been studying for the SAT? Where do you think you’ll apply?” The focus, while not as obvious as that of charter schools, was definitely on the future.        

Talent

To meet those high expectations, charter schools realize they need an army of educators with the right stuff—whether seasoned veterans or bright-eyed, bushy-tailed newcomers with the brains and drive to make up for their lack of experience. As one New Orleans school leader puts it, “We have to have bandwidth.” Today, the better charter schools set a high bar for hiring. They draw from Teach For America (I once visited a charter school in the Mississippi delta where 90% of the teachers were TFA) and the New Teacher Project. They also draw from mid-career professionals in the law and in business who want to give back. They use LinkedIn and idealist.org, looking high and low for the best and brightest.

They also seek out teachers who are highly effective, not just highly qualified. According to one principal, “We need teachers who get results, with or without a line of initials behind their names.” In other words, they do what private schools have been doing for years.****

Long before Wendy Kopp started recruiting top grads to Teach For America, private schools were cherry picking hot prospects from elite universities and other professions and throwing them right into the classroom. At my little school for example, there were teachers from Princeton, Yale and Harvard; there were Rhodes scholars and Olympic medalists, published writers and accomplished artists. Likewise, private schools have always cared more about proven results (and/or potential) than minimum requirements like certification. They employ talent scouts to vet candidates; and they require prospective teachers to teach a lesson in front of their future colleagues. (A practice adopted by many charters.) They offer only one-year contracts; collective bargaining and tenure do not exist. As a result, students are surrounded by enormously talented people at the top of their games. It makes a difference – a difference charter schools were adept at emulating.    

Choice  

“Choice” is one of the education world’s buzzwords du jour. Especially popular among reform-minded politicians, it’s flung around like mimeographed worksheets. In order to have choice though, there have to be differences and the opportunity to select among them. In the old rock on rock (chalk on chalkboard) system, outside of a few magnet schools and the now dismantled vo-tech system, there were few differences among schools. They were like, well, mimeographed worksheets. Districts had a monopoly on kids, curricula, buildings and teachers. The system was as bland as raw tofu. Throwing charters into the mix brought a degree of competition, or, as an astute superintendent from a progressive district in Louisiana calls it, “coopertition.” This has finally given parents real options. Here in New Orleans for example, there are now schools dedicated to the arts, foreign languages, science and technology, and, of course, college prep. There is an all-boys school and a military academy. There are schools run by local, national and international charter management organizations and there are stand-alone community start-ups. The public school system here has become, as the city is often described, a gumbo.    

Long before the advent of charters, private schools were the competition. And, because they charged tuition and didn’t have a monopoly on customers, they had to really “sell” themselves. In other words, they couldn’t get by serving raw tofu. So, they developed and refined unique offerings, everything from faith-based curricula and advanced placement to boarding schools and career academies. Subject to market forces and operating outside the district safety net, they also had to function as lean, mean, educating machines, squeezing as much learning as possible out of every tuition, grant or gift dollar. Not surprisingly, on average a higher percentage of per pupil funding actually finds its way to students in a typical private school than it does in traditional public schools. (In the chalk system, a large percentage usually gets lodged in the district bureaucracy bottleneck.) These lessons on marketing and efficiency have not been lost on charter schools.

Character

In his book “How Children Succeed,” Paul Tough argues that grit, determination and social intelligence often matter more in life than cognitive ability. Citing the latest brain research and a number of longitudinal studies, he shows that character really counts. Getting kids to fill in the right bubble is simply not enough. Or, as I like to point out, when was the last time you went into a job interview and were asked, “If a train left Chicago for New Orleans at 2:00 p.m. …”  Charter networks like KIPP learned this lesson the hard way. For the longest time, they focused on getting their scholars to college, only to discover that many of them didn’t stay. Their website now reads, “KIPP Through College.” They and other “no excuses” models are now thinking more seriously about educating the whole child. They are developing curricula for character education, hiring counselors and advisers, and addressing issues that don’t just bubble up on high-stakes tests. In other words, they are pulling yet another page from the private school playbook.   

Private schools have always considered how children succeed, hence the famous quote: “The battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton.” It also crops up in films like “Dead Poets Society”  where it’s more important to “Carpe diem!” (“Seize the Day!) than it is to define “iambic pentameter.” At my little school, students attended chapel service five days a week. There, according to the reverend, we would have “fierce conversations” and discuss “scarce values.” We had academic advisers and college counselors, coaches and dorm masters, focus groups and Big Brothers. We also had mentors. (To this day, the one I had remains one of my greatest heroes.) It was the mentor’s job to make sure that we could succeed on more than a test…   

Private schools are innovative by design. Their independence, combined with their customers’ high and varied expectations, has delivered over time a bevy of educational “best practices.”  Charter schools, which similarly accept accountability in exchange for autonomy, were quick to beg, borrow and steal from their predecessors. And, that’s a good thing.

Postscript

Here in New Orleans and throughout the country, successful charters are beginning to compete with private schools, especially those that have been resting on their laurels and/or pedigrees. Like McClellan before Antietam, charters have the enemy’s battle plan. At the same time, they’ve also come up with a few strategies of their own. From utilizing outcome data and feedback loops to streamlining operational systems, they’ve developed their own “best practices.” In response, private schools are having to elevate their own games. In some ways, the process has come full circle – private schools are now “borrowing” from charters.**** This post chalk era is truly a brave new world.

Folwell Dunbar, a former private school teacher and charter school consultant, is the founding leader of Young Audiences Charter School. He and his team are currently borrowing innovations from near and far. He can be reached at fldunbar@me.com

* It’s a tad ironic that plagiarism in schools is still considered taboo?

**The private school/charter governance model has its own inherent flaws – better left for another article.

*** There are plenty of bad charter schools. Usually, they’re the ones that adopt “best practices” superficially. They slap “Academy” or “College Prep” on the end of their name and somehow expect improved results.   

**** Not surprisingly, many charter school leaders spent their formative years in private schools. Throw in a dose (two-year stint) of TFA and “Voila!”

***** Interestingly, Chris Whittle, one of the co-founders of Edison Learning, the largest for-profit charter school operator in the country, is now launching a network of elite private schools. Hmmm?

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