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September 1, 1994
Vol. 52
No. 1

Charters: An Invitation to Change

Wayne Howell was frustrated. An education researcher formerly with the Kettering Foundation, he had developed a general framework for learning that bridges all content areas. The local district used it in a K–5 school last year. Student achievement rose significantly. It may be in another school next year.
“But,” Howell told Phi Delta Kappa's Jack Frymier, “if it's going to grow it has to get outside the bureaucratic framework.”
“You need to know about the charter idea,” Frymier said.
At the University of Minnesota, brothers David Johnson and Roger Johnson have worked for years on cooperative learning. The idea of students helping one another is simple and appealing. But, David said recently, only a tiny proportion of those interested really do it: one in a thousand, perhaps.

Overcoming System Resistance

To overcome the system-resistance to innovation, “inventors” have tried almost everything. Some try coming in from the top, hoping state or district officials will order it done. But changes mandated from the top do not always reach the classroom—or may not be implemented faithfully or consistently.
Others try disseminating their idea directly to teachers. They give workshops, gather disciples. Some look for publishers to promote their materials. Some become publishers. But it is hard to get bottom-up change in a top-down organization: Teachers and schools lack authority, especially over resources. Grants offer hope. Superintendents will often approve what somebody else will pay for. But grants run out. What then?
The problem is in the system. As John Goodlad concluded in A Place Called School, “The cards are stacked against innovation.” A district's success does not depend on whether its students learn. And an organization that can take its customers for granted knows improvement is optional. Opportunities may be lost, but the district suffers no adverse consequences from not implementing new curriculums, methods, or technology. For change to occur, the district must have a reason to do it.

A Reason to Change

The charter idea creates both an opportunity for dramatically different schools to open, and incentives for districts to follow with changes in their own schools.
As Louann Bierlein and Lori Mulholland (see “The Promise of Charter Schools,” p. 34) explain, charters provide an “institutional bypass” around the status quo.
Today when something new is proposed, the district thinks about what will happen if it says yes and about what will happen if it says no. If it says yes, there will be other questions: Where are we going to put it? Who's going to run it? How will we pay for it? If the district says no, that will be the end of the reform.
A charter law changes the calculus. If the district says no, somebody else may say yes—and students will be able to go to the new school if they choose. So the question for the board and superintendent becomes: “Do we want somebody else offering this here, or would we rather do it ourselves?” The answer is likely to be: “We'll do it.”
With the right incentives, improvement will happen.
If you have an idea about new curriculums, technology, or methods, talk to the people forming charter schools, or to legislators interested in passing such laws.
End Notes

1 J. Goodlad, (1984), A Place Called School, (New York: McGraw-Hill).

Ted Kolderie has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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