Once again the uneasy relationship between the city administration and charter school advocates was on display last week as dueling positions were taken with regards to how to interpret the latest round of state test results.
To observers outside the city and state, our educational politics must look like an endless war between radically different views on how best to educate children. But the truth is that all of us working in education, whether in district, charter, parochial or independent schools, and especially the educators who work directly with our children, agree on far more fundamental things than we disagree on. We all want better schools, more innovative schools and more inclusive schools to help prepare our children to be productive and succeed in a time of uncertainty. And if we could frame the educational conversation around the bigger picture, we might be able to rise above the bickering and posturing that’s damaging the prestige of our most important profession.
However, when the discussion is framed around testing we find ourselves like cats tossed into a pillowcase. Competitive testing is a zero-sum game in which someone wins only when someone else loses. While putting our schools into competition over test scores has perhaps raised numbers, it has also turned schools and districts into adversaries rather than collaborators. We boast and bully over numbers that, to be sure, have some statistical significance, but are fundamentally narrow indicators of our children’s academic and emotional health.
The testing conundrum is truly problematic for charter schools because the existence of charters is largely predicated upon producing improved measurable outcomes. If we don’t rock the tests, we’re likely to lose our charters and, as long as that’s the case, we cannot be faulted for self-preservation. We’ve all had to up our testing game. Some charter schools, especially those in the charter networks have become especially proficient. For others, especially those that are trying to implement more progressive or innovative models of teaching, test scores, especially in early years, may lag. And when charter authorizers write these schools up for “underperformance” there is tremendous pressure to forego experimental design and go back down the pathway of textbooks and test prep—a regression to the norm that is at odds with the original purpose of having a charter to begin with.
The schools in our coalition are, without a doubt, among the most innovative public schools in the city. Some member schools focus on the needs of English language learners; others serve over-age, under-credited youth. We have schools that cater to students on the autism spectrum, and others that model every classroom to be inclusive of students with special needs. Some of our schools focus on visual arts and others on environmentalism, health services or choral music. Seventeen of our schools have contracts with the UFT. But, despite this breadth of teaching models and outreach to the most vulnerable student populations, and despite the fact that we represent half of the charter schools in NYC, we remain an unknown story within the city at large because our schools do their work diligently and without much fanfare in their communities.
So, we were greatly cheered by Mayor de Blasio’s commendation that some of our schools are “in fact, more inclusive than the dynamics within their district.” We thank him for that recognition and choose not to treat him as someone who is out to destroy the charter sector. To be sure we are dealing with an administration that is far more skeptical of charters than the previous one. But we prefer to see that as a challenge, not a call to war.
What we would really like to do is to work with the administration on broader metrics for judging student achievement and school accountability, something strongly aligned with Chancellor Fariña’s agenda.
If we can work with the administration in raising the discussion from the zero-sum game of testing to the greater vision of “where are we going and how should we get there” – maybe we can actually get some of the district-charter collaboration that was also one of the original goals of the charter movement. Wouldn’t that be grand?
Steven Zimmerman is co-director of the Coalition of Community Charter Schools