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

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:   


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.**


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.        


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, 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” 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.


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.


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

* 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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  • geomeo

    Oh, boy where should we start?
    First of all thank you for a really well written and optimistic piece of slick and maybe neive propaganda.
    It is almost as if you actually believe that the new “Charter” model is not run or I should say endowed by politicians who care little about education. From Jindal (elected)to White (appointed)to Kira Jones W.(elected) to S. Usdin(elected)..all have been blessed with huge $ political contributions from the Bloomberg and other deep pocketed regimes.
    Now, I don’t see this as a bad or good trend (trending). I have seen trends come and go in education for a long time. These trends reflect where the public tax dollars are spent and most importantly who is chosen to be enriched by public money. So to claim that your brand of charter is a pollitically free utopia where great learning is liberated from the sticky hands of control and corruption is astounding . Whose CHOICE is it ?
    To achieve the Utopia as you describe ,free from the dredges of Fed. And State mandated paperwork and oversight you would have to change ;The Law.
    1. Use of tax payer money funding vouchers for private schools with no high stakes ,standardized testing requirements( this will set a trend in the future for a no accountability in place ,for the New Charter model as a non-profit or for profit entity.
    Jindal sold this deal throughout the state by awarding vouchers to some really questionable private schools in various parishes. Votes = pork. Not to mention Jindal’s ambitions for a National profile and a willingness to accept campaign contributions for favors.
    2. The big one is school accountability ;
    regulations through high stakes testing scores. We don’t want those new charters with those bright eyed and bushy tailed TFA team leaders to suffer failure by loss of Charter.
    The Jacobs plan( not all States have this stringent regulation) accomplished high drop out rates, larger prisons ( these can now be included as privately tax payer funded market rated businesses), teaching to the test, there by losing and teaching or student creativity and finally State takeover. It almost seems planned. I have personally watched students so frightened during testing that they become physically ill.
    So for this model to succeed we will have to ditch High Stakes testing. Good riddance!

    Here comes Common Core on line.

    I do not mean to be cynical, but to state this is not a political movement is disingenuous.

    Now, I have been teaching in New Orleans public schools for a long time,before and after Katrina. I also went to a N.E. boarding school as a child; a great experience. I sent my child to a N.O. Private school.
    Let’s face the fact that there are no jobs for College Grads. Wall Street is played out on toxic mortgages (also bailed out banks on the backs of tax payers) so Public Education is ready for Market.
    We have here a failed Democracy and are now governed by a Socialist State or better a Nationalist State or somewhere in between, where all work for the State by the State and supported by our tax dollars. In essence if you work for a tax funded entity you work for the Gov.
    The fight here will be over enrollment. To balance MFP dollars per head to class size, CHOICE is the operative word. The more heads the more State dollars you receive.
    Is is your agenda to destroy private schools by raiding their student bodies for per-head State $ by Choice ?
    And for our local and greatly endangered African American youth , who have no Choice,
    a large portion of which are 4th generational, State enabled ,public school educated ,minimum wage entrapped work force ,the operative phrase to describe the Charter movement would be Poverty Pimp. There heads will be tax $ counted for Charter Schools and Prisons.
    I have no doubt that a rural Mississippi school could be receptive and successful.
    These are the kids that should be funded to go to elite N.E. boarding schools. No matter how hard you may try to reach these kids during the day, they still have their home life to return to!
    You have to remember that I witnessed a degradation of student hope through the enactment of the politically motivated Big Ideas, High Stakes Testing( no matter what your average GPA would be if you did not pass the test you were held back, totally unfair for students with different learning styles. Cookie cutter style learning is so unfair ) No Child left Behind( all left behind), Reach for the Top, linked student progress to teacher profit, what a trap!
    I am not judging the method as bad or good and I actually support the agenda but I have to speak up when a fluff piece of blatant propaganda, unless you actually believe that politics are not a consideration here, is presented in a public forum.
    My next question would them be as you create a public profile then will you run for a Senatorial seat or become a Superintendent of public schools somewhere or really stay in New Orleans and teach and really put your mouth where your money comes from ;student head count or Wall Street.

  • Margaret Davidson

    @geomeo: Where should we start? First of all, thank you for your lengthy and thoughtful response to the piece by
    Folwell Dunbar, which—as you state—is well written. It is also provocative, which I am sure is not unintentional. That it is a piece of “neive [sic!] propaganda”, as you also write, well, I am not so sure I can agree with you.

    Dialog is an important part of learning, understanding and leading. Dialog is what I understood from Dunbar’s
    piece that he was after and you have responded. Kudos. We have a dialog.

    That private schools hone their pupils and students differently is a fact. That private schools cost differently is also
    a fact. But in my experience, and I have had a very good deal of it, what Dunbar writes strikes home true.

    What I take from his piece is not what the title proposes. I don’t like the title, actually, but that is part of its provocation. It is the SHARING of knowledge, experience and know-how that I would stress; as well as the ability/willingness to recognize good ideas and practices and invest in them. But this is also at the core of Mr.Dunbar’s message, as I read it, and right on target. Your cynicism is understandable, but misplaced here.

    Like you and Mr. Dunbar, I was fortunate enough to attend an elite New England school—not in high school, but in undergraduate college. My middle and high school was in rural West Virginia, a school where grades 1-12 were all under the same roof. My BA is from a Seven Sister college in New England. My graduate degrees (M.A. , Ph.D.) are from Tulane University-yes, private colleges and universities, institutions with great outreach and engagement and
    support for their students, but also with high expectations and rigorous demands for a completed degree. Most of my colleagues were on scholarships and various forms of financial aid, many with full financial support for their studies through committed funding sources. These are choices that institutions make, and choices that families and individuals make. Those of us at my undergraduate college were extremely privileged:privileged to be there and privileged to receive an education among the best in the world. But we most definitely didnot all come from privileged backgrounds.
    I worked hard for my choice.

    Choices: this is one of the compelling points of Dunbar’s piece. We have choices, all of us. We don’t all have the same starting block in the race, but we all have choices. And we all go home to our families and roots in the process, or we don’t and break with those bonds in some ways. But these are our choices. And making choices often requires risk and courage—for politicians, businessmen,teachers, students, for anyone and for all of us.

    To politicize Dunbar’s piece as you do, misses—in my view—the spirit of his message. Without passion for learning,
    for teaching and for the “mission” of education, where are we and what can we pass on to the next generation to inspire striving for knowledge, understanding and “connecting the dots”? When we have received these things ourselves, we know it, and we WANT to pass them on, don’t we? Be it fishing, planting crops, putting up preserves or professing Plato. And when we want to do these things, we do them also voluntarily,because we believe in them. Choices, passion, responsibility, accountability, mentoring, volunteerism—I read these things in Dunbar’s piece and I say: Thank you, Mr. Dunbar, we need to hear it more often. These things are not utopian.

    By the way: tea-parties were weekly events at both of my private schools and easily done at charter schools or any other schools. Nothing wrong with promoting civility and building character, not in my book, and sharing tea can
    help—whether you have one cup or three.

  • Shelly W


  • jonathansmith

    Well written post. Such situation is happening to all the schools that are recently growing to growth.

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