What has become obvious in the 30-year history of charter schools is that elementary and secondary charter schools have far greater flexibility than regular district schools in altering what happens in classrooms and buildings.
Yet even with that mandate of separate governance and the charge to innovate in both organization and instruction, most charter schools have replicated the traditional age-graded arrangement. Nearly all charter schools are K-6 or K-8 elementary or 9-12 high schools. Ditto for curriculum since accreditation–a must for any newly organized school–requires abiding with state curriculum standards and skills that must be taught.
Does that replication of regular school organization and curriculum extend to teaching practices? Does teaching in a charter school with its separate governance and organizational flexibility harnessed to a mission to innovate, differ at all from teaching in a non-charter school?
I have observed dozens of charter school classrooms over the past decade. I have seen extraordinary, ordinary, and yes, a few disastrous lessons. I have looked at the few studies of classroom teaching in charter schools. This and subsequent posts take a stab at answering the question in the title.
Consider Katie Goddard who in 2016 taught world history at one of the Summit Charter high schools in the San Francisco Bay Area. I took notes on the lesson I observed her teach.
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 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:
- Slavery op-eds
- Imperialism op-eds
- 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 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, presence of mixed activities, frequent verbal interaction between teacher and students and among students, and finally, a summary of the lesson.[i]
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.
[i] In the half-century that I have observed teachers teach in public elementary and secondary schools, I have developed these criteria for judging a lesson. I know that other teacher supervisors and academic specialists would have different standards and benchmarks but in the interest of transparency, these are the criteria I used. Note that one criterion is absent: what did students learn? As an observer, more often than not, I could not determine what and how much students learned during the lesson. Had I observed a sequence of lessons and seen students’ written and oral work, I might have been able to judge student learning. That was not the case for the observations I describe here.