Teaching in Charter Schools (Part 2)

I observed a math classroom at another Summit charter school. Here is what I recorded in my notes.

The Precalculus class began at 10:40 and ended at 12:15. Ethan Edwards is in his third year of teaching at Summit. He was a math major at University of California, Santa Cruz and got his credential to teach at the University of California, Davis before coming to Summit. He, like other Summit teachers who have been at the high school beyond one year float to different classrooms in the building; first-year teachers have one classroom the entire day. So at the beginning of the block 2 class, he and a few students are shoving tables into rows facing the front to get ready for his class. Four tables sitting two students each in three rows accommodated the 24 students who arrived. Like all Summit classrooms, there was an LCD projector and screen at front of room that showed slides as the teacher clicked keys.

The agenda for the day is on the screen.

“* Warm Up Analysis

* Essay Overview

*Independent work time + workshop

*Goal: finish paragraph


Since the class will be visiting University of California, Davis for the next two days, Edwards flashes slides of buildings at Davis that they will see. He asked students to turn in forms for trip later in the day. He explains the housing arrangements–4 students to a room. There were ripples of excitement and nervousness about the trip, especially after he announced that there will be four students to each car in driving to Davis. Students look around, start signaling one another to share same car. Edwards says:  “I can feel the tension in the room over who I will be with in car for the trip.” That lowers the murmuring and tension. There were a few questions from students. He reassures students by saying that it is a short car trip to the university. Teacher then segues to lesson.

“I want to talk about how we are going to predict tuition increases through 2020 from the data set I gave you. We will be doing scatter plots and writing different regression equations.” Edwards proceeds to explain the making of regression curves (linear, exponential, and polynominal)–the central point of the lesson–using the white board as he writes down key concepts. He goes over “key features” of such data and equations and how it gets displayed as outliers, intercepts,slope, rate of growth, and residuals. In every instance, he defines them and brings into the explanation particular students who respond to his choral questions (these are questions directed to the entire class and have no student name attached either before or after the question is asked).   Students do contribute. Teacher draws on the white board examples of each concept thereby defining the terms for class. He brings the explanation of what students will work on to a close, saying: “So, I just talked a lot about some high level stuff.” He asks, “Are there any questions?” No one asks a question.

Teacher then turns to spread sheet of data on tuition costs for two schools. “So you are going to look at how to use this spreadsheet to come up with functions to predict increases in tuition costs through 2020.” He passes out data set and asks students to pair with partner to go through the data.

Before students open their Chromebooks to look at spreadsheets and begin work, Edwards goes over with whole group, step-by-step, how they are to create a linear regression equation. Does same for exponential and then polynominal equations. During his explanation, he asks choral questions of class to check for understanding. A few students respond to each query. When hearing one or two responses that match the question, he picks up on the answer and continues the explanation. After he finishes going over the three regression equations, he asks: “are there any questions about how to use the data spreadsheet to create these equations?”

No student asks a question.

He returns to explaining where students should input data. He then directs students to open their Chromebooks.

“I am going to give you guys 30 minutes to start to work in pairs on spreadsheet to make proper equations.” He discusses due date for when they will turn in their work.

For next 30 minutes Edwards moves up and down aisles to answer questions, check on what each student is doing, and help individual students who are having trouble with task. At this point I had leave the classroom because of another appointment elsewhere in the school.

How typical are these two lessons of charter school teaching? Reviewing studies of charter school teaching over the years, I do believe they are typical of the range of lessons I have observed. Were there awful lessons (e.g., teacher had little control of the students during the lesson, the content of the lesson was well below what students could achieve, much incoherence in and ill-organization of lesson)? Not at all. I did see a few such lessons but overall, the level of competent teaching I observed was about the same as I have observed in regular public school classrooms. Keep in mind, however, that charter school teachers have a much larger band of autonomy in which to author and implement lessons in their classrooms. That increased discretion available to charter school teachers surely appeared in some instances but, overall, given my limited observations, less than I would have predicted.

What evidence there is beyond my observations says that with even more teacher autonomy and flexibility in charter schools there is little difference between their classroom practices and peers in public schools. Researchers who examined studies of pedagogy across charter and non-charter schools concluded that:

as charter schools implement innovations in governance, management, and other organizational practices, charter schools are embracing curricular and instructional approaches already in use (original italics)in other public schools that are considered as traditional ‘basic’ approaches to instruction (Goldring-Cravens_2006).

Such findings leave holes in the ambitious theory embedded in charter schools. Like their counterparts in regular public schools, charter school teachers mainly use teacher-centered classroom practices such as lectures, scripted lessons, textbooks, worksheets, homework, question/answer/evaluation exchanges seasoned by certain student-centered practices such as small group work, student discussions, project-based learning, internships, and independent learning.

Keep in mind that when I use the phrase “teacher-centered” and “student-centered” instruction I do not infer that such teaching practices are either appropriate or inappropriate, effective or ineffective. I am reporting what many researchers, including myself, have documented in classrooms.

When one looks at Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) where all 109 elementary and secondary schools in 20 states serving over 30,000 students are charters, teaching approaches are  unmistakably teacher-centered. KIPP is not, of course, representative of all charter schools in its teaching practices. Aspire, Green Dot, and other charter management organizations have schools in their networks where teaching practices vary considerably but still work within the tradition of teacher-centeredness.

Note that these elementary and secondary school charters are geared to preparing children and youth for college. That is their unvarnished mission. College prep begins early in these charter elementary and secondary schools; frontal teaching, direct instruction, extended day, and no-nonsense approaches to student behavior are the norm. So any variation among teachers in different networks of charter schools falls within a narrow band of teacher-centered practices—again when I use that phrase I do not suggest that such practices are neither appropriate nor inappropriate, neither effective nor ineffective.

Until more evidence comes from direct observation of lessons in charter schools, teaching practices in charters and public schools appear more similar than different. To the degree that teaching practices shape student achievement, such results throw doubt upon the effects charter schools have upon students.


Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach

2 responses to “Teaching in Charter Schools (Part 2)

  1. Thank you for this observation and analysis. This is useful. Do you know of charter schools that aren’t oriented toward college?

    • larrycuban

      Only charters I know of that have other goals ( but include college) would be Career and Technical Academies (CTEs). Thanks for comment, Sarah.

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