The Character School Option: Charter School Supporters Believe Sustainable Educational Success Occurs School by School, Not through Mandates from the District, State or Federal Level

By Patterson, David | Leadership, September-October 2002 | Go to article overview

The Character School Option: Charter School Supporters Believe Sustainable Educational Success Occurs School by School, Not through Mandates from the District, State or Federal Level


Patterson, David, Leadership


Over the last five years, California has created a high stakes environment in K-12 education. In this new environment, educators are desperately seeking different and more powerful approaches, methods and organizational structures in order to meet the challenge of achieving high levels of student performance.

Why did the Legislature and governors create this high-stakes environment? Consider this: According to the 2001 statewide STAR test results released last year, fewer than a third of California public school students were deemed proficient in English and language arts. Results were much worse for the state's poor students: fewer than one in five children were rated proficient or above on the standards-based test. California did no better on the NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress).

By several different measures, the overall performance of California's students ranks among the poorest in the nation. California's elected officials came to the conclusion that after years of "reforms," the academic performance of California students was not improving, or improving very slowly.

In response to these unacceptably low levels of student performance and the failure of previous ad hoc "reforms" to significantly improve student achievement, the previous and current governors and state Legislature have passed a number of new laws they hope will result in significantly higher student performance.

The state laid out five building blocks to increase student achievement. These building blocks include the state's adopted content standards in the core academic areas; a system of statewide assessments including the STAR, the new High School Exit Exam and Golden State Exams; extensive teacher training in phonetic reading and mathematics instruction; recruiting and retaining more qualified teachers; rewards for schools that are improving and a system of sanctions for low-performing schools.

At the same time, with much less fanfare and virtually no funding, the Legislature created charter schools.

These state-level reforms have created a framework for improving public education. For the first time in California, there are standards for what we expect our children to know and do, there is a statewide assessment process to measure student progress, and there is an emerging process for requiring achievement and putting sanctions on schools that are not successful.

Now the challenge faced by educators is structuring schools and school districts in such a way that they can be successful in educating students to meet the demanding standards that have been set.

Since 1993, one option educators and communities have had is to create a charter school. In the 2001-2002 school year, California had approximately 350 charter schools operating, serving more than 120,000 students. Nationally, there are more than 2,400 schools in 34 states and Washington, D.C. that serve nearly 580,000 children. About 374 new charter schools opened their doors in September 2001.

Unlike other school "reforms," charter schools are a change to the fundamental structure of schools. The charter school concept has at its core three basic concepts: they operate on and must be judged on the basis of (student academic) performance rather than rules; they offer choice--both for families and educators; and they create and operate in a competitive environment.

Charter school supporters, like many (but not all) educational reformers, believe deep and sustainable educational success occurs school by school, not through mandates from the district office, and certainly not through micromanagement from Sacramento or Washington, D.C.

This is not to say that some school districts, especially urban districts that had been spiraling downward, have not made significant improvements by aggressively instituting district-wide reforms. …

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