Amidst the expanding surplus of over-enthusiasm over charter schools as an answer to Nashville's (and the nation's) difficulties with public education, it's refreshing to read the sensible Tennessean op-ed in today's paper by Jerry Winters of the Tennessee Education Association.
Although it's currently fashionable to accuse teachers' unions of being knee-jerk opponents of reform in general and charters in particular, Winters offers a balanced perspective. "There are some very high-quality charter schools with excellent student achievement," Winters writes, adding that virtues such as smaller class sizes, emphasis on parent involvement and novel teaching strategies are "qualities that make them attractive."
Here in Nashville and Tennessee the public education establishment has bought into the national "choice and accountability" movement wholesale, with limited-to-no serious conversation about its drawbacks or about the important question of whether very small pockets of innovation — like successful charter schools here and there — will ever scale up into significantly improved educational experiences and outcomes for everyone else. This is a conversation happening elsewhere, but apparently not much here.
A good place to start is with the writing of Diane Ravitch, an education historian and former assistant secretary of education (under Lamar Alexander) in the George H.W. Bush administration. In her new book The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education, Ravitch discusses how and why she has personally reversed course and has come to see current reform trends — including charters — as a fraud and a hoax. Here's a brief Wall Street Journal op-ed from last March in which she explains her change of heart. Here's a lengthier excerpt (pdf) from her book.
This is not to say that education leaders here aren't accomplishing anything, and it's hard to fault Tennessee policy makers and educators for being seduced by the "Race to the Top" funding windfall (to which Ravitch argues states should "just say no"). But let's also keep in mind that nationally, serious people are engaged in serious debates about the merits of choice and accountability — charters and testing — and we should be having those conversations here as well, rather than just drinking the Obama-Duncan Kool-Aid on educational reform.