Educational innovation I: Charter Schools – lean, mean, life-changing machines?

A global perspective on some of the challenges facing South Africa’s schools…

Education in the United States is at an interesting junction after an unprecedented amount of experimentation over the past twenty years. The public system there has faced increasing pressure to change the way schooling is carried out, with a shift to teachers and students working longer days, schools having greater autonomy and technology playing a growing role in ensuring all students have access to quality education. As South Africa thinks about its own challenges in educating its youth, trends in the US may hold some value if thoughtfully and contextually applied.

 When my wife and I arrived in North America three years ago, we were somewhat skeptical that the US public education system would hold any clues to the South African education puzzle. Given our experiences with North American cellphones (expensive and clumsy), internet banking (our first “internet transfer” involved a bank mailing a check to another bank across the country!) and bewildering tax returns (ah, for the simplicity of online SARS!), we were increasingly dubious of the famed US innovation. And besides, what problems could a wealthy country like the US share with a country in transition like South Africa?

There is a lot of talk about the “crisis” in US public education, but it wasn’t until I stumbled across some figures that I began to take the talk more seriously. Despite having one of the highest per-pupil spends among developed nations, the US ranks in the bottom half of OECD countries in performance. More disturbing is the degree of disparity in results between white and non-white students (commonly referred to as the Achievement Gap), with black and Hispanic students lagging their white counterparts by at least two grade levels on math and reading test performance. For a country that prides itself on the ability of anyone willing to work hard to achieve “the American Dream”, the differences between ideals and realities have been hard to swallow and have resulted in a myriad of initiatives aimed at improving student achievement.

Among these are “charter schools”, public schools funded with government money that function with a greater degree of both flexibility and accountability. The theory was that if schools could be given more autonomy and were held accountable for their results, this would drive innovation that would eventually spread to the public system. Interestingly, the vast majority of charter schools serve low-income, minority students that were not being served well by the traditional public system.

While the results of studies comparing charter school performance with regular public schools have been mixed, some schools seem to consistently excel. The KIPP network (66 schools in 19 states), IDEA schools (a rapidly expanding network of schools in some of the poorest parts of Texas) and Green Dot schools (12 schools in urban Los Angeles) are among those that seem to find ways to ensure their students outperform those in even much wealthier districts. When one examines these successful networks of charter schools there is remarkable agreement around a clearly articulated set of principles that drive their success:

  • High expectations. All students are expected to achieve at high levels and go on to college, despite the disadvantages of their backgrounds.
  • More time. Days are extended to provide additional instructional time as needed.
  • Focus on results. Data guides strategies and support.
  • Choice and commitment. Parents and other stakeholders are engaged in the success of the school.
  • Power to lead. Teachers and leaders are given flexibility to act swiftly and decisively.

South Africa has many fine schools that offer all this and more, but it’s a worthwhile exercise for parents, policy-makers and educators to reflect on how their local schools match up against these five principles. Do our students know that success is expected of them and that their school will enable them to achieve this by providing them with the requisite time to learn? Are teachers, students and parents regularly informed of student progress so that appropriate action can be taken in a timely manner? Are parents and teachers engaged in the school’s success? Do they have the ability to remove their support if the school consistently fails to perform? Finally, to what extent do school leaders have the authority to make the critical decisions about resources that affect student learning?

These principles are not rocket science, but – as the US is experiencing – implementing them across a broad range of districts and schools is a challenging task. While the issues in South African education may be far more complexly tied to our history (with our achievement gap more akin to a chasm!), our schools should be encouraged to focus on a similar set of principles that enable all students to succeed, regardless of language, background, resource constraints or race.

This is the first of a two-part series examining US educational innovation as it applies to South Africa.


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