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Charter Sector Needs Infusion of New Ideas, Center for Education Reform Says

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By guest blogger Michele Molnar

Cross-posted from Marketplace K-12

Washington, D.C.

The Center for Education Reform, a longtime charter school advocacy organization, says innovation and momentum within the sector of independent schools has slowed, and needs an infusion of new ideas that incorporate new strategies drawn from education technology and other areas.

At a forum held in the nation's capital Wednesday, the center released a set of recommendations for how the charter school movement can, in the organization's view, right the ship and develop new strategies for improvement. The center is emphasizing its priorities by incorporating a tagline: "Innovation + Opportunity = Results."

But the promise of ed-tech, itself, is not a complete answer. The pressure to "go digital" is shocking to David Levin, president and CEO of McGraw-Hill Education, one of the panelists at the event, because "people don't know what it means." More important is the persistence and tenure needed by great leaders and teachers to create a school culture to support change and results, he said.

Attendees talked about how charters could take ideas from the business community, and from other constituencies, including parents and students.

Jeanne Allen, the center's founder and CEO, opened by juxtaposing the early days of charter schools with where they stand today. Allen argued that the charter school advocacy movement "accomplished more in the first nine years of the education reform movement than we have in the past 16 years."

Between 1991 and 2000, for instance, 36 laws were enacted governing the creation of new charter schools and two creating new full school choice programs. But by 2008, the reform movement's unity and results were both dwindling, according to the organization. (My colleague Arianna Prothero chronicled the 25th anniversary of charter schools with videos and articles, including "The Evolution of the Chartered School.")

Allen said reformers have become "our own worst enemy." An agenda that the group said was once seen as bold and all-encompassing now comes across as "narrow, hollow and hostile" to the idea and ideals of public education, she said. The movement has become known more for what it's against than what it advocates for, she said: "Even with more money and muscle behind our movement, we struggle every day to defend what already exists."

To right the course of the movement she helped found, Allen wrote a white paper emphasizing innovation and opportunity called "IO: The New Opportunity Agenda", and invited a group of people from various educational constituencies to learn about it at a luncheon at the National Press Club here today.

Recommendations for Change

In a report issued with the event, Allen put forward four ideas to expand and improve charter schools. She indicated it's time to:

  • Convene discussions and engage those who support or are simply interested in the concepts put forth in Ed Reform IO;
  • Leverage the media to build momentum, track new advocates and work with partners to solve problems together;
  • Launch the "Innovation in Opportunity" project, an effort to integrate education technology into our schools, testing the best innovations to ensure the best impact on students and families;
  • Work in tandem with colleagues to educate the next generation of education leaders and reformers, arming them with the historical knowledge to support change.

To highlight various views on education and reform, Allen invited panelists from three points of view to explore the topic: John Engler, president of the Business Roundtable and former Republican Governor of Michigan; Levin, president and CEO of McGraw-Hill Education; and Donald Hense, chair and CEO of Friendship Public Charter Schools and a member of the center's board of directors.

Promise, Pitfalls of Ed-Tech

When an audience member questioned teachers' abilities, Levin said "it's a bit of a trope to point to the weaknesses in the teaching force." He said superintendents are on a treadmill and "must demonstrate progress in a short time" because their average tenure is less than four years.

"One thing you can do is send your kids home with a shiny box and say, 'I've taken my district digital,'" he said. "The fact that there's no structure, no pedagogy, no content--that goes by the wayside."

Hense, too, said technology must be used more effectively in education. "We cannot expect that every child learns at the same pace," he said. "That is a damning quality of our school systems. Kids learn at a different pace," he said, emphasizing the need for individualized learning.

McGraw-Hill is spending up to $200 million to build more software for adaptive learning engines. For now, this educational technology is geared toward higher education, but he said they will "inevitably and inexorably come to the K-12 world," Levin said.

Priorities for the Future

"Today, there is global competition for talent," said Engler. "We have to be able to win that competition." He pointed to this country's $650 billion annual investment in public education, and questioned why only 36 percent of 4th graders are performing at or above proficiency in reading, according to the Nation's Report Card. "I think teaching children to read is Job One," he said.

Levin of McGraw-Hill agreed that literacy and numeracy are the fundamentals that should be top priorities.

Allen asked Engler "what we can learn from the business community." He took a "best practices" approach in his response: "Today, if we simply use the best of what we know how to do somewhere, and used that everywhere, we'd make a quantum leap forward."

Leadership is a major difference-maker in the quest for success, Levin said. "There are great charter schools, and great district schools. Leaders are the difference. When you empower them, you get greater outcomes," he added.

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