Teaching in Charter Schools (Part 1)

Charter schools are three decades old. Advocates for wider parental choice of schools lobbied state legislatures and local school boards to authorize a different way to organize a tax-supported, independent public school with its own school board and a charter that included the freedom to create innovative organization, curriculum, and instruction. Accountable to its independent board, charter schools have enormous latitude in what they can do insofar as school culture, organization, curriculum, and classroom lessons. This flexibility and the charter mandate to innovate, advocates claimed, would create constructive competition with regular public schools. Having charter schools, then, would lead to a general uplifting of performance for both types of schools. That was the heralded promise of charter schools thirty years ago.

Beginning in the early 1990s, state after state began authorizing charter schools and charter management organizations that operated clusters of schools. By 2020, nearly thirty years later, there were 7500 charter schools with over 200,000 teachers teaching 3.3 million students. Charter schools have become established institutions mostly in urban districts (58 percent) and have slowly expanded into suburbs and rural districts.

What has become obvious in this 30-year history is that charter elementary and secondary schools have far greater flexibility than regular district schools in altering what happens in classrooms and buildings (think of charter school organizations that have built unique school cultures such as: KIPP, Aspire). Yet even with that mandate, separate governance, and the charge to innovate most charter schools have replicated the traditional age-graded organization. Ditto for the curriculum since accreditation–a must for any newly organized school–requires abiding with state curriculum standards and skills that must be taught (see here and here)

Does that replication of regular school organization and curriculum extend to the classroom? Does teaching in a charter school with its separate governance and flexibility harnessed to a mission to innovate, differ at all from teaching in a non-charter school? This post offers an (but not the) answer to that question.

I have observed dozens of charter school classrooms over the past decade. I have seen both extraordinary, ordinary, and yes, a few disastrous lessons. While I can not vouch for what students learned in the lessons I have observed, I surely have seen some charter school teachers give their all.

Consider Kate Goddard who teaches world history at one the Summit Charter high schools in the San Francisco Bay Area.

The young, slim teacher stands on the chair in the middle of the classroom to be heard above ninth grade students clustered in the four corners of the portable classroom. The students are chattering about the reasons they agree or disagree with the statement Katie Goddard, the teacher, put on the “smart board.” The statement students considered–“There is no single group responsible for the crime of slavery. African rulers are equally as guilty for for slavery”– drove them to different corners labeled “strongly agree,” “agree,” “disagree,” “strongly disagree.” The teacher asks students in each corner why they agree or disagree with statement. After a few students give their reasons, some classmates change their minds and migrate to different corners making the classroom a swirl of movement.  This activity occurred in the middle of a 95 minute block in World Studies where Goddard was introducing a new unit on Imperialism.

Goddard had begun the 95-minute class with a Warm Up question: “Should the U.S. pay reparations to black Americans whose families have been slaves?” and, after telling them to put away their cells and Chromebooks, gave them two short op-ed pieces on opposite sides of the question. One op ed argued that who should pay and who should receive reparations for enslaving Africans were contested and confused. The other op ed argued that the British should pay reparations to Kenyans for what they did in colonizing that African nation.

She asks the 24 ninth graders to “read and chunk the text” for each opinion piece. She reminded the class to read each paragraph and write a one-line summary of each paragraph and indicate whether they agree or disagree with the op ed. As students write in their notebooks, Goddard, holding a clipboard, walks around the classroom of 13 tables, each seating two students facing the “smart board,” answering questions and checking to see what students are writing. Goddard asks students to hold up fingers indicating how much more time they want to finish task. Some hold up one, others two and three. For those who had finished she offers two options for them to do.

She then asks students to share with partner their summaries and opinions. As students start talking to one another, Goddard interrupts and says: “Remember in working together you need to turn to your partner, move your body to face one another and listen carefully to what your partner says.” Students resume talking.

When she sees that nearly all students have completed the task, she asks students for their summaries of the two articles and which one they agree/disagree with most. Students are initially reluctant to commit to a position but as a few offer their opinions, Goddard teases out the reasons embedded in arguments for and against reparations. And this is the moment when the teacher asked all the students to take a position on the statement and go to a corner of the room: “There is no single group responsible for the crime of slavery. African rulers are equally as guilty for for slavery.”

This Warm Up and debate about reparations were initial activities in the lesson introducing Imperialism. By starting with the contentious contemporary question of reparations for slavery, Goddard would move to instances of European countries colonizing the Congo in Africa and India in Asia in the 19th and 20th centuries and consider the human costs of taking over these countries.

The agenda for the day, written on the white board, listed the sequence of topics for the hour-and-a-half session:

  1. Reparations
  2. Slavery op eds
  3. Criteria
  4. Imperialism op eds
  5. Exit ticket

After the Warm Up and during the four-corner debate, Goddard gets deeper into the reparations question by introducing statements such as: “slavery ended a hundred years ago so the U.S. government should not pay any money to African Americans now.” One student points out that the U.S. government has already paid reparations when they gave sums of money to Japanese Americans for being in internment camps during World War II. Another points out that the money went to those who were still alive. Voices are raised and tone becomes adversarial among students agreeing and disagreeing. Goddard interrupts and says: “Remember our norms. The second your tone becomes combative, you don’t listen. Our goal is to listen to one another.” After more restrained back-and-forth in which the teacher specifically calls on students who have heretofore not entered the discussion, Goddard asks class if they want to shift corners.

About one-third of the students move to another corner.

Teacher now asks students to return to their tables and turn to the next question: When are reparations necessary? She asks class to open Chromebooks and come up with criteria to answer the question. She reminds class that there is no correct answer, that you have different opinions but you need examples and facts to support your opinion. Goddard moves around the room asking and answering questions at each table.

After about 10 minutes, Goddard asks students to put lids of laptops down and says that “we are going to study Imperialism and you are going to write an op-ed by the end of the unit. “The question you will answer,” she says, is “do former imperializing countries have a responsibility to give foreign aid to the countries they imperialized?”  She links the earlier discussion of reparations  to Imperialism and then previews the next 12 lessons on the “smart board,” going over each one briefly. She then puts up a slide that defines Imperialism as “the process of taking over another country through diplomacy or military force.” Goddard asks students to come up with their definition of imperialism by using the Playlist of sources (documents and videos)–she gives the class the link–that she assembled for them on the Congo, India, and other colonized countries. In coming up with their definitions, she urges students to talk to their partner. After pairs have come up with their definitions from Playlist, she then asks them to brainstorm what they would need to know about imperialism to determine if reparations are necessary.*

With clipboard in hand, teacher moves through the classroom checking to see which students are unclear about the task or having difficulties in answering questions.

As time winds down to end the class, Goddard summarizes what they have done, connecting discussions on reparations to new unit of Imperialism.

The criteria I use in judging the quality of a lesson are: clear and coherent organization, mixed activities, level of student participation, frequent verbal interaction between teacher and students and among students, and finally, a summary of the lesson.*

In my opinion, Goddard’s lesson met these criteria fully. As I left this charter school World History lesson , I was thoroughly impressed with what I saw and experienced. Was Goddard typical or atypical of charter school teachers I observed in the Summit network of schools?

The next post looks at another charter school lesson that I observed.

____________________

*One criterion missing is what students learned. I had no observable way of determining whether students learned what the teacher wanted in that lesson.

5 Comments

Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies

5 responses to “Teaching in Charter Schools (Part 1)

  1. Your thoughts? Read it carefully. Lots to unpack.

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  2. Dear Larry,

    I LOVED this article! So much to discuss and consider! A few of my reactions:

    -when engineered scrupulously, a block schedule lesson can be very meaningful and engaging; -the talk and turn reminder, the use of multiple sources, the reference to norms, the debatable essential questions, the review of thinking skills , effective use of technology (when to use it and when to omit it) – very impressive orchestration of an array of pedagogies and UBD; -is the norm of not not having an argumentative tone reasonable? Especially with such an explosive question? -your implicit reminder that this kind of lesson could take place in public, private or charter school – that the teacher and administrative leadership matter!

    I’ve started a “charter” school of my own – an Eco-Arts Summer Day camp at a state park which relies on funding from private donations and grants and answers to a BOD. Our emphasis is learning about ecology through scientific observation and artistic expression. Our mission is to foster a new generation of environmental stewards. The instructors have designed scrupulously-integrated field and lab work that promotes inquiry, careful and patient observation and risk-taking. The sessions are open to ages 6-12, so the older campers help guide the younger ones and learn how to teach. The instructors (public and charter school teachers during the academic year) teach their hearts out with the latitude a summer camp can afford them that a regular school day cannot. Science and art teachers co-teach. Each week’s session culminates in a performance – in this week’s session, the kids script and perform a puppet show with puppets they crafted. Parents and park Rangers will be their audience.

    A few photo of the campers. Evan (in the white shirt) is observing a baby starfish. A home-made puppet stage. Willa (in purple) teaches the younger campers, Cole and Evan to use a field microscope. Thomas (in kayak) is trying learning how mangroves trap carbon on a break out kayak trip for the older campers.

    I’ll be writing an article soon.

    Fondly, Louise

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    • larrycuban

      Hi Louise,

      So nice to hear from you and the experience you had in setting up the Eco-Arts Summer day camp. I was struck by all that you combined in the daily schedule. Please send me a copy of the article you are writing. Also your comments on the lesson I observed (and you read) were on target. Thank you for those comments. Continue to take good care of yourself, Louise.

  3. This example looks like an incredible lesson but how is it unique to a charter school? Could it not be done in a “regular” school? When I think of a charter school I think of actions not available to a regular school that is subject to a mass of state regulations and bureaucracy.

    • larrycuban

      Hi Garth,
      I offered the description of the classroom as one example and did not think that it was typical or atypical of charter schools. I have seen similar lessons in regular schools just as often. And if I didn’t say so in the post, I say so now.

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