Don’t Let Charter Enthusiasm Smother Public Schools
No movie in recent memory has had quite the impact or made the same public contribution as “Waiting for Superman.” It has touched the hearts and minds of everyone who has seen it. It has stimulated an important national conversation about the quality of education. And it has given Geoffrey Canada the prominence he has long deserved. He is one of my heroes, and a hero to everyone who cares about improving schools.
Charter schools are an important addition to American education. They give parents choices for their children, and they give the children high quality schooling. The best of the charters outperform traditional public schools that have the same demographics; their graduation rates are better, and their students have a higher probability of attending college.
But the film’s message must be kept in perspective. Traditional public schools are still where the vast majority of children get their educations, and that will always be the case. More to the point, many public schools are very good — and some are truly amazing. The fact that some do a poor job of educating their students shouldn’t blind us to this crucial fact or cause us to lose faith in the entire system. In the drive for educational reform, let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.
I say this as the president of a college that has one of the oldest education schools in the country; Hunter has been sending well-trained and highly motivated teachers into public schools for generations, and all of us at the college are immensely proud of their contributions. I also say it as the mother of a daughter who has been in public schools K-12 and who has received an excellent education there. She has had some truly wonderful, dedicated teachers — an experience shared by countless thousands of other students across the nation every year.
It is right — it is imperative — that we as a nation focus on the parts of the public school system that are dysfunctional and dedicate ourselves to fixing them. But it would be a serious mistake to assume that the system is completely broken. Making that assumption can only lead to misguided policies and poor decisions.
Instead, we need to appreciate the public school teachers who are doing a great job. We need to learn what works in schools, then support it and replicate it. And, as Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has pointed out, we need to keep improving the quality of teacher preparation — a role in which, I am proud to say, Hunter is taking national leadership.
I am especially proud of our Teacher U, a collaboration of several educational organizations — including some top-flight charter schools — that works on the principle that great teaching can be taught. I am also proud of our digital video program that tapes student teachers as they interact with children in classroom settings. The student teachers and their professors can then review what went right or wrong, an invaluable training tool, and many of the tapes become case studies for future student teachers. The list of innovations goes on.
One of the main purposes of charter schools is to create competition for the public system by giving parents and children choices. That’s a valuable contribution, no question about it. But let’s remember that charters will always be a supplement to the system, never a replacement. The goal is to improve public schools, not abandon them. #
Jennifer J. Raab is president of Hunter College.