Are Charter Schools Really Innovative Anymore?

The major selling point for charter schools, which receive public funding but operate independently of the school system in which they are located, is that they can experiment with new ideas to discover what works and what doesn’t.

As President Barack Obama put it three years ago when acknowledging the contributions of charters to American education: they “serve as incubators of innovation in neighborhoods across our country. These institutions give educators the freedom to cultivate new teaching models and develop creative methods to meet students’ needs.”

But there aren’t really too many charters actually trying “to cultivate new teaching models and develop creative methods to meet students’ needs” anymore. This innovation specialty might not be something charter schools have anymore. According to an interesting new piece over at Fast Company, charter schools aren’t really so good at trying out interesting new ideas:

Charter schools’ early champions believed that the sector would spark innovation across K12 education. Allow charters to experiment, or so the argument went, and then support the knowledge transfer of their best ideas to mainstream classrooms. But over the last decade, the education landscape has calcified into pro-charter and anti-charter blocs, leaving little room for collaboration and saddling charters with pressure to produce consistent results or risk damaging the sector’s reputation. Moreover, charters face challenging economics—for one, they typically pay to rent space—further reinforcing market dynamics that favor scale and standardization. As a result, today’s system is largely dominated by charter school networks that adhere to the “no excuses” school model, with its high academic expectations, structured lessons that are timed down to the second, and strict discipline.

“No excuses” has been shown to deliver strong results in math and reading—witness the impressive standardized test scores at Success Academy Charter Schools, among others. But in a world where personalized instruction and socio-emotional learning are gaining traction, the idea that students should be memorizing math concepts by singing in unison—a tactic made famous by KIPP, a charter school pioneer—is beginning to look archaic. Individualization is in, and individualization has not been charters’ strength.

“No excuses” is popular because the philosophy is usually affiliated with higher math and reading schools. And that’s a good thing, but it doesn’t allow for much more experimentation.

Charter schools, and a particular type of charter school, are actually the status quo in many cities now. It’s not really that novel. Charter schools are just another way things work normally in cites, like having professional fire departments or people living in apartment buildings.

That’s fine, because no excuses sort of works, but for educators and reformers who want to try something else, to teach using a historical or technology or scientific focus, for instance, charter schools mostly aren’t too receptive to new ideas. Furthermore, because they face relentless pressure to remonstrate high achievement, or lose funding and students, they’re not really all that interested in trying out new ideas, even if those new ideas might ultimately result in even higher performance.

As they say of government in general, eventually the revolutionary becomes the establishment. What happens when a reform achieves its goals? Can it keep getting better? Not easily, it appears.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer