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Charter School Teacher Dines With Union President

Last night I met Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis at a Teach Plus roundtable discussion and sat right next to her at dinner. Lewis is a fascinating figure, a former high school chemistry teacher whose humorously blunt personality helped catapult her to the union's top spot in 2010. She prides herself on being brutally honest, which she said caused her to get famously cursed out by an angry Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

When a friend of mine at dinner asked her how Lewis envisioned charter and district schools working together, she responded, "I want to unionize charter schools." That's when my tendency to apply reverse logic kicked in. I thought, If the teachers' union president started her own charter school, what kind of school would it be? She actually told us that she once wrote a proposal to start a school but it didn't go anywhere.

"The business community understood it immediately," she said, "but the bureaucrats just couldn't get it."

Based on the ideas Lewis floated about education during the roundtable and her subsequent conversation over dinner, I have put together an overview of the kind of charter school I believe Lewis could believe in. These are my words, not hers, based on the philosophy of education she expressed.

As she stated, this charter school would be unionized. In fact, the teachers at this school would wear red on Fridays as a show of solidarity for the union. The principal would not able to bully teachers; unlike other charter school teachers, her teachers would have real say without being overworked and underpaid. This charter school would not accept any money from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation because the foundations' motives are suspect at best. Class sizes would also be small, and students would be taught art, music, and languages weekly. The primary goal would be to build critical thinking skills. This school would not have grade levels; students would be grouped based on their interests and/or ability levels, not by age. Students would not receive letter grades, but if they had to get a grade it would be based on their effort, not their achievement. And they would never take standardized tests. In fact, state learning standards would not even be used to guide instruction. Students would be allowed to learn at their own pace, and their learning would be measured by "how happy" and enthusiastic they were about their school experience.

When it came to evaluating teachers, Lewis admitted that she would have a more difficult time structuring this. She would take the context of the school into heavy consideration. Are the children living in poverty? Are their parents involved in their education at home? And the context of one teacher's class in her school verses another teacher's class would also be weighed. She said she would use the students' level of joy for learning as a measure of teacher effectiveness. In essence, she would know good teaching when she saw it. She would trust her teachers, and would use professional development as her primary tool for growth and evaluation. Student's value-added, or growth, scores would never factor into a teacher's evaluation. Afterall, students would never take a standardized test.

Lewis repeatedly made it clear that there is no silver bullet to solving the question about how to identify quality teaching. There are a myriad of factors that reveal quality teaching, and test scores are not one of them, she said. The true formula evades us all.

"If someone tells you that they have the answer, they're selling you something," she said.

Putting the teacher jargon aside, I told Lewis that as a parent I'm not sure I'd want my child in her philosophical school. While I am all for innovative education programs, I also respect the role of mandated learning standards. They serve as a guide for what my 4th grade daughter, for example, should know; it also allows me to hold my child's teacher accountable for helping her reach a particular academic designation. Moreover, standards should prevent 3rd grade teachers from teaching students from the best-selling marriage counseling book The Five Love Languages, which is what one of my former colleagues did in her class. In my view, students everywhere in the state of Illinois should to be learning the same basic content while also getting the extras that make for fond childhood memories. And while I don't over-emphasize standardized tests as a parent, I appreciate having something quasi-objective to see how my daughter measures up on basic reading, writing, math and science. Unless my child has a severe learning disability, I think it is reasonable.

Lewis argued that an arbitrary cut score on an unfair test is meaningless, and that the standards and tests keep changing. While I am also frustrated with the changes (as I wrote about in last week's blog post), I am hopeful that, despite making my job harder, the Common Core Standards are a change for the better, designed to ensure that students who want to go to college are better-prepared.

Balancing my view on education as both a teacher and a parent has helped me think more deeply about my own philosophy of education. I realize that some things that make my work as a teacher more difficult can be best appreciated when I look at it through my lens as a mom.

What about you? Would you want your child to attend a charter school built upon Lewis' philosophy of education?

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The opinions expressed in Charting My Own Course are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.
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