“Chartering was introduced to provide the opening for innovation; to let public education generate new schools with different approaches to learning. But about 2004 it was turned to raising scores in traditional school. Now chartering should return to its focus on innovation.” –Ted Kolderie

The original charter school ethos was fundamentally rooted in the principle of innovation.

Yet, with the advent of No Child Left Behind, charters’ experimental ethos gave way to a single-minded focus on achieving elevated standardized test scores.

Ted Kolderie, policy guru on matters of public education and one of the first advocates for charter school experimentation, argues in his new book, The Split Screen Strategy: Improvement + Innovation, for the return to innovation in the charter school movement.

The Standardization Model

According to Kolderie, the shift toward testing began in 2004, when the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools was created and foundation support for charter schools dramatically increased. At this time, charter school legislators moved away from policies that encouraged teacher agency and school-wide modernization and instead pushed a model of standardized test scores to measure improvement.

Whereas innovative teaching methods would allow for new ways to enhance public school accountability, the emphasis on achieving certain standardized scores has left K–12 education beholden to management, state politics, and the elevation of students’ standardized performance.

Furthermore, this pressure for charter schools to “perform well” separates schools into two categories: those that succeed and those that fail.

“Failed” schools are left to close, while “high-performing” charter schools see the focus shift to the simple, narrow metric of high test scores, rather than any innovation that the school might actually be pursuing.

The move toward standardization has done little to address the systemic problems that exist in schools due to a lack of creativity in the public education sector.

How Do We Talk About Charter Schools?

Kolderie explains the unfortunate shift in language surrounding public education reform that represents this transition from innovation to standardization.

Whereby “chartering” began as a verb—using innovation to mold the public education system—it is now defined as an adjective. The “charter school,” states Kolderie, implies a certain kind of education system that re-emphasizes the very standardized K–12 model that needs reform.

Instead of focusing on the success or failure of the charter school model as a whole (measured, of course, through standardized testing), Kolderie suggests education administrators and legislators should look at specific examples of innovative tactics—such as giving teachers increased room to collaborate, lead, and experiment—that have been proven to address systemic ailments.

I’ll Have What They’re Having

Just as my colleagues Richard Kahlenberg and Halley Potter call for in their new book, A Smarter Charter, Kolderie believes  a return to innovation in charter schools is the best way to enhance teach voice, promote diversity and—upon sharing learned teaching techniques—better the public school system as a whole.

Kolderie reminds us that to ask the question, “Are charter schools better than district schools?” is to distract from the point that—much like when deciding whether to eat-out or to stay in—it depends on the desired dish.

For Kolderie, Kahlenberg, and Potter, the best way to ensure a tasty meal is through innovation and experimentation in the charter school kitchen.

About the Smarter Charter Series

This series highlights ideas for promoting effective charter schools that empower teachers, integrate students, and share lessons with other schools. For more on these ideas, check out A Smarter Charter: Finding What Works for Charter Schools and Public Education, by Richard D. Kahlenberg and Halley Potter.