Forget traditional schools vs. charters; quality must grace all schools

There is a false debate in Lansing today among traditional public schools, charter and other alternative educational options. The only adjective that truly matters before the word “school” (be it traditional or charter) is quality.

When it comes to our schools, we need to move beyond political rhetoric – whether from the left or right – and put the focus on teaching, learning and children, not power, control, or adult politics. When we do – good things happen for our children.

We need to support quality learning regardless of from where it emanates.

Traditional schools, charter schools, EAA, e-learning – all have a place in the educational framework as long as they are preparing our children for the hyper-competitive, disruptive, technological and knowledge-driven global economy where ideas and jobs can and do move around the world effortlessly.

Having recently returned from China, let me assure you that they are not slowing down while we indulge in ideological fights.

In spite of public schools' past achievements, the current system is leaving far too many children behind.

Efforts under way to "fix" or help existing public schools are laudable, but more can and should be done for the students and their parents – not for the district or the system.

Neither charters nor traditional schools are a panacea. There are strengths and flaws in both.
Charter advocates, like traditional school apologists, need to agree that both options offer the good, the bad and the ugly. Simply claiming a school as a "charter" does not automatically make it good any more than all traditional schools are bad. President Abraham Lincoln captured this concept well when he declared, "How many legs does a dog have if you call the tail a leg? Four. Calling a tail a leg doesn't make it a leg."

Twenty years ago I wrote an article where I characterized charter-school advocates into three main categories that remain true to this day:

  • Zealots and Ideologues: These people tend to view charter schools passionately as a way toward "the truth," or at least an intermediate answer to public education's problems until they get a voucher system in place. Their enthusiasm and devotion to the cause blinds them to complexities. Their belief system contains these homilies: Private is always better than public, the market system is inherently superior to the public system and unions are always the problem. This group is on a mission – beware!
  • The Entrepreneurial Scoundrel: I could care less if someone makes a profit operating public schools, but that profit margin must come after the bottom line is met: children getting the education they need and deserve. If someone can develop a method of educating young people that is effective, innovative and inclusive – and makes money – more power to them. Profit motives should not be the focus. The focus must be on the vultures circling our schools with no real regard for the educational outcomes of the children; a group with slick presentations and proposals that look good on the surface. In the long run, prospects for real beneficial change for the students are limited. The motive is money – not learning. Look out for these so-called "entrepreneurs" in education.
  • Student, parent and teacher-centered reformers: There are many people who believe strongly in the value of public education yet realize it is flawed and, in some places, past the breaking point. These individuals realize that real changes will require bold risk-taking. To these reformers, charter schools are not anti-public schools but pro-child and they offer real quality alternatives. These reformers realize that not unlike how Apple changed the computer culture and foreign automobile makers prod change in domestic car quality, they too can provide the productive tension needed to spur innovation in children's learning.

As the old Chinese proverb says, "When you open the window -all the flies can come in." Yet, we have also shut the window, trapping far too many kids in failing schools.

The focus must be on establishing quality screens – not to keep charter schools out – but to assure quality is built in to all educational opportunities for our children.

A lousy education, regardless of its source, does not prepare our students for life on the world stage.

So stop the ideological fights and place the focus on appropriate oversight and quality education regardless of its source – for the sake of our children and our collective future.

False ideological debates never educated a single child. Quality teachers and quality schools – both traditional and charters – do.

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Thu, 05/08/2014 - 7:42am
I'm sure I've read a variation on this editorial at least a dozen times (at least it sure seems that many) from Tom Watson in various Michigan publications in the past few years. I don't disagree with what he is saying but it is getting kind of redundant.
Chuck Jordan
Thu, 05/08/2014 - 9:31am
It may be redundant, but he's correct. But schools have always left children behind. What has changed is that once there were more jobs for the undereducated and college was for the elite. As much as I hate NCLB, it has shown a bright light on the inequality of education for the poor and minorities. As charters and school choice has grown, the traditional schools in poor and minority districts have suffered because the students with the means and desire have moved to other schools making the students left more difficult to educate and the schools poorer. So yes, don't make it a fight between charters and traditional schools, improve both, but understand the difficulties that "reform" has engendered.
Thu, 05/08/2014 - 10:36am
This is true, the inequality has just gotten worse, school choice in the Lansing area has decimated the Lansing school district, the contrast between Lansing and the neighboring suburban school districts is profound and disturbing on many levels.
Thu, 05/08/2014 - 10:46am
Sorry, didn't mean to be so dismissive of his editorial with the comments I made, he is indeed correct. I was just having a bad day.
John S.
Thu, 05/08/2014 - 10:50am
Somehow American pragmatism has taken a back seat to adults and their ideological bickering. Perhaps a quality education is not rocket science. Ken Meier's research in Texas provides some ideas: competent, experienced, and stable school administration; parental involvement; high standards, hard work; stable curriculum. No doubt it helps to have well-qualified, experienced, and dedicated teachers. Intelligence matters, but even here things can be done. Young children living in older homes may be exposed to lead, a neurotoxin--get the lead out. There are issues of nutrition, such as the food desert in the city of Detroit. Perhaps schools should offer more nutritious breakfasts and lunches and teach kids what to eat. Then at the high school level students are smoking weed--something that's very bad for the adolescent brain, perhaps dropping IQ by half a standard deviation or more, not even mentioning its adverse effects on motivation.
Thu, 05/08/2014 - 10:52am
For quality teachers and quality schools, we will probably have to look at a more local level, perhaps the ISD. We will need civic conferences about what we do as communities to help our children. The other member at the table should of course be our private schools. When we can see that education is a communal responsibility delivered through multiple channels, we can then begin to learn from one another, as well as hold one another accountable for standards. So long as we think of our schools as existing in silos, or as simply competitors we will miss out on the opportunities for and the celebration of excellence.
Charles Richards
Thu, 05/08/2014 - 3:43pm
I am generally an admirer of Mr. Watkins, but he shows a failure of understanding when he says, " I could care less if someone makes a profit operating public schools, but that profit margin must come after the bottom line is met: children getting the education they need and deserve. If someone can develop a method of educating young people that is effective, innovative and inclusive – and makes money – more power to them." Profit does come last in a market system. It is a residual; it is what is left after all expenses have been paid and an acceptable product or service has been delivered to the customer, in this case, the parents. Of course, this all depends upon parents being informed, perceptive judges of a school's quality. The state can be an invaluable resource for such information by providing a rigorous, easy to understand scorecard for all schools. The Muskegon Heights debacle was a classic example of how not to use charter schools. The company did not have a good track record. And the management company's net income was not a residual collected after a good quality service was delivered and all expenses paid. They took their fee off the top. That was ludicrous.
Leon L. Hulett, PE
Thu, 05/08/2014 - 7:44pm
Charles, May 8, 2014 at 3:43 pm You both seem to be saying the contracts for these services did not contain a required quality level. You say, 'an acceptable product or service has been delivered to the customer.' Why not include a definition of the acceptable product or service in the contract. If it is not present and acceptable, one does not pay. I was at school board meeting, as a Professional Engineer, where they were discussing a contract to build a new school, an 8 million dollar school. I mentioned to them, if they wanted the new school to be ready to open for school that September, they needed to include that in the contract. You put in a 'Liquidated Damages' clause, and the company has to pay so much per day, till the condition is satisfied. They do not like to do that, so they plan more carefully, on getting it done by the date specified. Such a clause is not uncommon with state contracts. They of course ignored the professional advice and their school was only one year late. In their case, they were not even ignorant of the right thing to do, they just avoided doing the right thing. I guess they were willing to tolerate an unnecessary delay of a whole year. When I'm tutoring I try to teach kids about contracts. I have fifth-graders doing contracts, dealing with banks, and quality. It helps them get familiar with how to get things done in the real world.
Leon L. Hulett, PE
Thu, 05/08/2014 - 7:17pm
Tom Watkins, 8 May 2014 Hello. It seems to me, if we take your opening statement to heart; 'quality must grace all schools' that we must expand on just what 'quality' means in this context. Another Guest commentary used the example of Highland Park, a K-12 public school, as an example of unacceptable quality. Their students were given to the Leona Group, a charter school, who seemed to do no better. I would say that was also unacceptable quality. To my knowledge no teachers were fired. That seems to say there is no quality too low to warrant that action, so very common in the job-market. No teacher's union was dissolved for malfeasance, or even chastised. Where is the quality in that? No school Principals or Superintendents fired or chastised, or School Board Members recalled. What quality level are we talking about exactly, when we speak of such 'quality'? The article was also about an ongoing class action suite where 8 students were being represented in the suite. One of those was an 11th grader as I recall, not yet proficient at fourth-grade level. None of these students were proficient, and none were brought up to grade level that same year, per the Constitution. This apparently is not a level of quality, that the state will not tolerate. This is not a level too low to be effectively improved by the state school board and state superintendent. According to a commentary by Phil Power, every governor since Millikan, 1970 has complained that schools do not meet, or have not effectively coordinated education with the job market. Michigan's prosperity has suffered terribly. A judge in the class action, ordered a collection of data by the suite. The state allowed only two days to collect data. Possibly that court will not allow that level of 'quality.' No one seemed to ever ask if students in any schools were at 'grade level' per the Constitution. But on the other hand, the 'quality' we have, seems to remain the same. That same level of quality 'graces' the state. I just happen to have written a set of standards, intended as suggestions from industry to schools. They deal with quality in a different way. One of my standards, is a definition of 'standard' itself: 'A definite level of quality suitable to a specific purpose.' So, 'quality' is tied to purpose. Yes, another standard defines the 'purpose' I had in mind: 'A short range objective one intends to achieve.' And another defines goal as: 'A long range objective one intends to achieve.' Now of all those people I mentioned, who intended to achieve a definite level of 'quality' and did achieve that quality? Now each teacher at Highland Park or The Leona Group was paid, per their contract, so from their viewpoint that 'quality' was met. Now was each student taught to grade level in each grade? No. The purpose of the teaching, from viewpoint of the Constitution was not met. Now, I am not even sure a 'Proficient' student meets that purpose. I believe when we talk about 'quality' we have to include the purpose that makes it all make sense. That is my standard. Now when we talk about education in Michigan, under its Constitution, should we not be talking about 'grade level?' Does it make sense not to? I don't think so. You might get some vague, low level quality level, being tolerated and that might grace the land. Thank you for your commentary.
Thu, 05/08/2014 - 9:55pm
With Mr. Watkins experiences in China and his concern with our school and the students' education if he saw any differences in China that may have contribute their educational successes and how they might differ from what we do here. Mr. Watkins seems to feel we need to do more for the students and parents, I wonder if in China it is all about doing for the students and parents orif there are expectations of the students and parents with regard to education. I wonder if the students in China were expected to study (extra hours, weekends, at special after school classes), to pay attention in class, make extra efforts to take care of the classroom, and had other responsibilities. I wonder if there were any consequences to the students for not fulfilling those expectations. I wonder if the parents were expected to support the school, discplining a child that was disruptive, in school, disrespectful to the teacher or school staff.