Friday, April 09, 2010

Our List of Charter School Pros and Cons

In my last post I began discussing our two-year experience with our children’s charter school. In this post I will list some of what we view as the pros and cons we have observed during this experience.

What we like:
  • Dedicated and innovative teachers. The expeditionary learning model encourages (requires) innovation. Perhaps that’s why none of the teachers are union members.
  • Our kids like the charter school.
  • Minimal administration and red tape.
  • High percentage of motivated parents.
  • Mixed grades and mentoring.
  • Collaboration and teamwork are integral.
  • Hands-on learning, including frequent forays outside of the classroom.
  • Comprehensive learning modules (“expeditions”) where learning from all subjects is actually applied. (This doesn’t work well for some students. More below.)
  • Frequent leadership opportunities for most students.
  • Personal ownership of expeditions as demonstrated at public events. (More below.)
  • Opportunities for motivated parents to actually be involved.
  • Quality music band program.
  • No extracurricular sports programs.
Expeditions require a high degree of student responsibility and teamwork. This works quite well for the majority of the students, but some students just don’t mesh well with this model. They end up being outcasts. Actually, some of them prefer it that way. But they miss out on a lot of valuable learning. My wife believes that many of these student would actually fare worse in the traditional system.

Older students and students with more knowledge on a given topic are tasked with mentoring and tutoring other students. This seems to work very well both for the tutors and the learners. You learn much when you have to teach someone else. And there’s nothing like feeling needed and performing a truly worthwhile service.

Once each week, all crews in a pod get together for a short student-led program where a particular crew reviews its progress on its current expedition. Every few weeks the entire student body gathers for a similar program on a school level. We recently attended one of these events where our first grader was one of the MCs. It was very impressive to see how these young kids handled the program.

I am frequently amazed at the depth of knowledge our children exhibit about their expeditionary subjects. Our youngest knows more about arthropods than does the average high school biology student. Our fourth grader can still give details about the Transcontinental Railroad (from last fall’s expedition) that I never learned about before.

Some would say that the lack of extracurricular sports programs is a drawback, but we think it’s a plus. Instead of blowing funds on a handful of jocks, the school is able to use those resources to provide more opportunities for field learning for all students. For example, a few months ago I accompanied our junior high schooler on a SCUBA diving activity. Besides, there are plenty of non-school athletic programs available for those that wish to enroll their kids in sports programs without eating up educational funds.


  • Few schoolmates are neighbors. This complicates friendships. (More below.)
  • Inadequate performance feedback mechanisms. We too often find out about problems only after it’s too late in the term to do anything about it.
  • Commuting.
  • No foreign languages are offered at our school.
  • The kids complain about short lunch breaks.
Let’s face it; the social aspect of school is a big part of life. When our kids attended the elementary school a few blocks away, all of their classmates lived fairly close. Now they have friends that live as much as 20 miles away. Moreover, they don’t share school experiences with the kids in the neighborhood, so they have less in common with neighbors.

The local junior high and high school have individual student web portals where parents can see how a student is performing in any given subject. Of course, not all teachers keep these up to date, but enough of them do so to make it a valuable tool. Our charter school doesn’t have anything like that.

Like most bright junior high aged boys, our son sometimes acts like he’s brain dead. Or he fails to turn in assignments. Or he goofs off in class and doesn’t get his work done. Unfortunately, we usually only find out about this at the end of the term when it’s too late to effect any grade improvement. This is perhaps our biggest complaint. We understand that systems like those used by the school district are expensive to obtain and maintain and that the school has limited funds. But the lack of timely feedback is a problem.

With 10 grades in the school, it is a challenge to efficiently move all of the students through the lunch process. Our kids complain that lunch breaks are too short. Sometimes they feel like they don’t get enough time to complete their meals. (This may be perception. The kids might just be messing around. We haven’t actually spent time hanging out at lunch. Perhaps we should.)

Overall, we have to say that we think the charter school is proving to be a better educational experience for our children than our traditional public schools. And that is saying something, because our local public schools actually rank pretty well. Still, we are considering enrolling our junior high schooler in the local junior high so that we can do a better job of staying on top of his performance.

We have a very positive view of expeditionary learning. Even for those that have difficulty with this model, it may be better for most of them than traditional pedagogical methods. I hope that more charter schools come into being. Different schools with different approaches would allow for more educational experimentation and opportunities to fit students into models that most suit them.


Charles D said...

I'd be interested to learn what the effect of the charter school has been on the regular public school system. I have to assume that the students in the charter school at least have the advantage of parents who care about and want to be involved in their education, but what is happening to the children left in the public system?

Scott Hinrichs said...

There are too few charter schools in my area for there to be any serious effect on traditional public schools. Fewer than 10 charter schools serve a population of over 100,000.

There have been some national studies on the subject. The last one I remember reading about said that the traditional schools saw no effect whatsoever in any subject except for math. In math there was a tiny but statistically significant improvement in math scores.

But overall, the fear that public schools would become even worse due to charter schools has proven to be unfounded. On the other hand, the hope that having charter schools as competition would substantially improve public schools hasn't panned out either.