Archive for Tuesday, October 31, 2000

Charter schools also imperfect

October 31, 2000

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— The nation's public schools have faced many problems in the past, including lack of funding, overcrowding and low student performance on exams. The early 1990s saw the rise of charter schools, which were based on the principle that only by isolating a school from all other bureaucratic influences can true reform be attained. A community can obtain such a school by submitting a charter to the state and outlining proposed teaching methods and management procedures. If approved, charter schools can open and operate independently of the local school district. These schools are considered public schools and are eligible for state and federal funds.

Recently, however, several school systems have adopted a new method of dealing with their problems. Enlisting the help of such companies as Edison Schools, school districts have started corporately managed public schools.

Edison Schools, the nation's largest company dealing with for-profit schools, was founded in 1992 by Chris Whittle. The focus of this New York-based corporation, now headed by former Yale president Benno Schmidt, is to turn around schools with a history of low performance.

It is currently running 113 public schools around the country with a combined enrollment of 57,000 students. The company runs K-12 schools by contracting with local districts as well as public charter school boards. It takes over the running of the school, the hiring of staff and the academic programs.

Basing its educational design on research conducted by Johns Hopkins and the University of Chicago, Edison students are taught in academies, which are groups of 100 to 180 students of varying grade levels, which are led by four to six teachers. Students have the same teachers until they graduate into the next academy. Students go to school for seven hours a day, 200 days a year, and in the Primary Academy (K-2) they are required to learn basic math and rudimentary reading skills before graduating. They also start taking courses in Spanish.

Edison is only one in more than a dozen groups that have sprouted up in recent years. Other companies include Advantage Schools and the Tesseract Group.

Advantage Schools, now in 10 states, offers education in a more formal environment, requiring students to wear uniforms. There is a "zero tolerance" policy for disruptive behavior and a "Code of Civility" that students must abide by. At an Advantage School, students progress on the basis of skill rather than grade level.

Tesseract (formerly Education Alternatives) currently runs 37 schools in six states and bases its curriculum on liberal arts. Under the slogan of "No classrooms are the same, no school day repeats the one before," teachers at these schools create learning centers in each classroom. These centers are unique to the students in the class. The group had contracts with school districts in Baltimore and Hartford, Conn., however, student performances were so low that both cities canceled their contracts.

The for-profit schools have their critics, who believe that schools should not be run by private corporations and that decisions regarding education should not be made by those who have to factor in profit considerations. The American Federation of Teachers, one of the nation's largest teachers' unions, criticized Edison Schools for "uneven quality and mixed results" on student performance and for exaggerating the increases in student test scores. According to the report released by the Federation in 1998, "If public schools were to use some of Edison's evaluation methods and modes of presenting data, they would look a lot better too."

According to Alex Molnar, the director of the Center for the Analysis of Commercialism in Education, "When you look at the result of the Edison Project ... what strikes a person who's familiar with the performance of American public schools is that they are in no way extraordinary. They've got some schools that are performing well, some that are performing less well. The Edison schools are ordinary. They are in no sense of the word a kind of role model for the reform of public education."

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