Thursday, July 2, 2009

The Debate on Charter Schools in Iowa

In case you missed it, Chad Aldeman had a guest editorial in the Register about charter schools in Iowa on June 17. In the article, Aldeman laments that Iowa caps the number of charters to 20 and allows them only to be run by public school districts. In an effort to encourage naysayers to relax the reins, he argues that charter schools should have to face very tough accountability measures or be closed, as well as have a mechanism to share what works with public districts.

I won't go into a full discussion on charters here, nor of Iowa's firm anti-private charter history; the basics of the debate are already well known. Aldeman writes an article that avoids some of the worst stereotyping that other pro-charter advocates do, such as blaming teachers or deploring our schools as worthless. And in that respect, it is a good piece towards a healthy discussion.

In my mind, what is at the essence of the debate is the notion of innovation. More specifically, what is the best way to bring about innovation? Magically, that seems to be the universally agreed upon variable. Superintendents lament the amount of NCLB oversight and budgetary limitations that keep them from doing innovative things in their district. Teachers grumble about intrusion into their classroom. The DE and AEAs champion innovative schools as models for the Iowa Core (which are ironically charter schools). Even parents and students are magnetically drawn to innovative teachers... ask them who their favorite is and you'll see the correlation.

The problem is, everything we do outside of that lip service stifles innovation. Everything is tied into the term "researched-based", which to me seems at direct odds with "innovative". "Researched-Based" is a central tenant of the Iowa Core, which means we will be looking for instructional practices that have withstood the test of time. While at the same time trying to change our schools for the 21st century.

The national debate around 1:1 laptop initiatives is a good example. Critics (fairly so) argue 1:1 initiatives are driven hard by technology companies like Apple and HP, which cherry-pick research to show effectiveness. The critics then use other studies showing no effect. Perhaps the critics are right, perhaps not. But for the districts using 1:1 computers in Iowa, that's a moot question. Innovation is more important. They are conducting their own research, rather than relying on out-of-state studies that are very possibly skewed by an agenda.

That's where we are with charters in Iowa, as well as other topics, like online education. Perhaps they are effective, perhaps they are not. But we have to be honest with ourselves: the research we are waiting for the rest of the nation to complete on charters will be skewed on way or another, depending on the agenda. If there are elements of charters that seem to bring about innovation, we should agree to try ways to implement those, for the sake of conducting our own action research and seeing for ourselves if they work or not.

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