In an effort by government officials to improve the US education system, the controversial idea of school choice has recently been brought up by the current Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, a Pro-Trump government conservative who is well known for her least qualifications of the very role she plays on the decision-making table of the US government. DeVos claims that school choice will be the solution to the rising numbers of segregated, and poorly funded schools in the country.
I have always had a vague idea of what school choice means, but I knew for sure that it was proposed to provide more choices and fewer restrictions on families to choose what school they send their children to. Up until the point where I watched a documentary titled “Most Likely to Succeed,” I was oblivious to what school choice meant. “Most Likely to Succeed” is a documentary that was produced by Ted Dintersmith focused greatly on school choice, and specifically on what is called “Charter Schools.” As a foreign student in the United States, my curiosity grew even stronger since I have never heard of charter schools before, nor have I ever known that they are considered part of the public schools’ program either. So, I decided to dive into the history of charter schools even more.
Charter schools were first created and introduced publicly in 1988 by the education reformer and the president of the American Federation of Teachers, Albert Shanker. According to an article written by Richard Kahlenberg and Halley Potter titled “Restoring Shanker’s Vision of Charter Schools,” Shanker created the idea because of the raising funding issues of public schools, the growing issue of segregation, and “teaching for the test” problems that teachers were facing due to the harsh assessments that were merely based on their students’ grades. In Most Likely to Succeed, The Executive Producer Ted Dintersmith, focuses on a particular charter school that he selected after touring around the country and amongst varies communities, looking for successful charter schools to cover. The school that Dintersmith focused on is called High Tech High charter school, located in San Diego, California. According to High Tech High’s website, the school follows a new education system that works primarily on peoples’ skills, not test scores that could be beaten by a computer, but skills that only humans could learn and master. So, I will be looking to answer the question: how has the vision of charter schools changed or remained the same from Shanker’s original idea in 1988 to the vision expressed in High Tech High charter school today? The answer to this question will help me understand whether if DeVos’s decision on implementing charter schools is a good idea or not.
Firstly, according to Kahlenberg and Potter, what Albert Shanker had in mind when he first created the idea of charter schools was that they be a form of public school that—in exchange for autonomy—would be highly accountable “…these schools would be given a charter to try their fresh approaches for a set period of time and be renewed only if they succeeded.” Mention Kahlenberg and Potter. Shanker envisioned charter schools to be schools that are publicly funded and independently managed. He viewed implementing charter schools as an experiment for a new type of schooling that is not necessarily permanent and would only be allowed to continue if it would prove to the public its effectiveness and shows positive progress towards a better quality of public education. (Kahlenberg & Potter, 2014). According to Shankers vision, implementing school choice in the system will not only give the freedom of choice to the families and their children to choose where they want to send their children to school at, while not having to worry about that being predetermined for them by their zip code, but also it will give a louder voice for teachers in the school system, while allowing them to implement their creativity in classrooms freely.
In a study conducted by Dr. Gary Miron, a Professor of Evaluation, Measurement, and Research at Western Michigan University, he laid out, in the form of a prepared testimony before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, what the original goals of charter schools were when Shanker first proposed the idea. Goals like; enhancing opportunities for parent involvement, creating new opportunities for school choice with open access for all, developing innovations in curriculum and instruction, enhancing professional autonomy and opportunities for professional development for teachers, and creating highly accountable schools. (Miron, n.d.)
While keeping in mind what Shanker originally wanted charter schools to do, and after almost 30 years of this developing type of schooling, it would be interesting to see what High Tech High’s vision is nowadays. According to the official website of the mentioned school, “High Tech High is guided by four connected design principles—equity, personalization, authentic work, and collaborative design—that set aspirational goals and create a foundation for understanding our approach.” The approach of HTH, that was displayed in “Most Likely to Succeed” documentary, towards providing the best education to children is teaching them what machines cannot learn and that was simply described in the documentary by one of the teachers at HTH as “Soft Skills.” A teacher at HTH explains that by teaching soft skills, elements such as collaboration, teamwork, showing up and producing something while being passionate about it, were the main goals and objectives of every teacher on board, “skills like these will stay with them, they are not going to forget them” says the teacher (Most Likely to Succeed1:15). Since HTH’s main mission is set to address the four main components mentioned earlier, equity, authentic work, personalization and collaborative design, the school has been trying to address these four points in every way possible.
According to the program description of the school on their website, HTH says that “Our schools are intentionally diverse and integrated”. HTH prioritizes providing an equal opportunity to students from a different background, race, class, and genders through making their admission model, a lottery model, where non-biased admission is guaranteed, and integration is most likely to happen. This strategy helps the school avoid any issues related to zip code admission while providing the best quality of education through having students from multiple different backgrounds work together. The school believes this type of environment enhances the students learning experiences since it is parallel to Vygotsky’s theory of having children of different ages, backgrounds, and cultures, work together to better improve their abilities and cognitive development.
Additionally, HTH takes pride in its personalization approach, which is focused mainly on identity development and personal growth. Things like being a caring person and having a mutual respect for teachers and adults in the community, are on top of the list for HTH. The school achieves those goals through “…program design elements such as small school size, small classes, home visits, advisories, and student collaborative work” (“High Tech High,” n.d.). Moreover, the hands-on experience that HTH focuses on, and the engagement strategy that it follows to educate its students is an essential element of the school’s values, described as authenticity in work, HTH school projects “…integrate hands and minds and incorporate inquiry across multiple disciplines, leading to the creation of meaningful and beautiful work.” More on that point, Most Likely to Succeed backs that up by showing students working individually on their own projects while learning the same principles and skills they would if they were in a traditional classroom and school, however, the way they do it at HTH is fundamentally different. The documentary shows students in art and engineering class working on a group project that consists of multiple individual projects assigned to multiple small groups. The project would only be done when every group have finished their part of the final piece, and have that part aligned perfectly with everyone else’s parts. In this particular example, students in this class were working on a project that shows the evolution of art using their engineering skills to make a wooden machine that illustrates the evolution mentioned earlier. After finishing this project as a class of multiple groups that worked together, students had to present their work at a big fair at the end of the school year, where community partners, families and friends came to see students of HTH present the projects that they worked on all year long for varies classes. This type of learning model is what Ted Dintersmith talks about in his co-authored book with Tony Wagner “Most Likely to Succeed, preparing our kids for the innovation era.” Dintersmith gave an example to show the essence of the hands-on experience that students get exposed to at charter schools like HTH, in comparison to the learning experience they would receive at a traditional classroom and school, “if we took kids to an amusement park instead of spending months working on integration techniques, they’d develop a better understanding of essence of integrals and derivatives.” Dintersmith goes on even further than that to show a picture of a roller-coaster that explains concepts of math like the slope, the positive and negative derivatives, and integrals.
Shanker’s idea of charter schools has more to do with experimental learning than teaching for the test type of learning, teaching students that a grade doesn’t define their abilities, nor would it be an indicator of how hard they, or their teachers, worked. And that is what HTH goes by too, more qualitative education and assessments rather than quantitative, that showed clearly in Most Likely to Succeed when teachers assigned students to work on ideas that they [the students] brainstormed and came up with, to illustrate Malala’s story with the Taliban troops in Afghanistan. How did students get assessed and based on what? Well, students had to perform a play in front of parents and community members on the final day of the school year. The teachers then gathered after that day with the students, parents were invited too, however, it was optional for them to attend, and then teacher talked with each student that participated in the play about what they thought they learned and achieved through this experience. Realizing that students and youths growth would benefit greatly from a qualitative assessment rather than quantitative one that only shows number as grades, teachers do their best to help the student reflect back on the experience they have had, provide them with thoughtful feedback and support, and what the students gain out of this whole experience is what one of the teachers, that was highlighted earlier in this paper described it as “soft skills, what machines can’t learn”.
Reinforcing teachers’ creativity through giving them enough freedom, away from grades assessments, to flourish in their classrooms while creating their own curriculum of their own design, is what Shanker envisioned, and that is what HTH is doing too. HTH believes that this strategy will open-up space for teachers to teach and focus on building the three C’s that Dinterdmith highlights in his book and those are; critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creative problem-solving. “we are not suggesting that these skills be taught instead of content knowledge” says Dinterdmith, explaining that teaching critical thinking without engaging students in rich and challenging academic content is not what he is suggesting, “the goal must be to choose the academic content selectively so as to create the required foundation for lifelong learning” so basically, it is not up to the content to decide what the students need to learn to live a better life, it is up to the students to learn about their needs first, then utilize the content they think best serves those needs. That’s when the learning happens when learning experimentally teaches the application of science and math in the real world without letting the coverage of the content overwhelms the development of core competence. (Tony Wagner & Dintersmith, 2015).
To conclude, Shanker’s vision and High Tech High charter school’s vision are not any different after all. One important thing to consider while looking at DeVos’s proposal of school choice is that not every public charter school is like High Tech High charter school. Some of them have different approaches towards education, and in fact, they could be in an opposite direction of what Shanker really wanted out of charter schools. Therefore, I think it is safe to say that my understanding of school choice has improved considerably, while my support of the implementation of school choice, considering the change that have happened to the original vision of so many of these type of schoolings like charter schools, I remain opposing to the idea of letting any school whose approach on education is not anywhere close to High Tech High approach, to be allowed to operate freely in the community under the title of school choice and closing the gap of the many problems we have been having with our education system in the US.