In every sense, the economies of scale are already working against smaller schools. It’s harder to afford technology, materials, programs, and services that are built for larger school systems. Beyond that, policy frequently encourages educators in the direction of what we know to be bad pedagogy and practice. For example, in D.C., the charter board accountability framework gives more weight to test results from larger classes (seeking bigger sample sizes). That approach, however, pushes schools like ours away from our very mission—providing a more intimate classroom environment for the type of students who need it the most. Both public schools and charters are encouraged by national tests to go faster and shallower, instead of slower and deeper, into content and key skills, preventing educators from the kind of differentiation crucial to our students’ success. The push for implementation of Common Core State Standards could help, but only if its implementation encourages a fundamental shift towards a skill-based approach over a contest-based race. Annual budgeting, test result frameworks, funders, and other factors encourage small and big charters alike to conform to the same practices as big school systems in large part because it makes for less administrative work in synthesizing and interpreting results.
Charter schools began as a way to encourage innovation in hopes that if given a degree of flexibility, they could find new best practices to apply in the public school system. Instead, policymakers dove into this new world of ever-proliferating charter schools with no mechanism or policy that determines which charter school experiments have worked by objective measures, nor how to motivate public schools to apply the practices that have a track record of success. Even worse, in many cases, policies are encouraging smaller schools, especially alternative ones like mine, towards pedagogical and programmatic policies that we know don’t work. It’s time for policy frameworks that fit the schools they are applied to. Accountability should be rigorous and we need some degree of standardization; but it should also be based less on what’s easiest for those who enforce it and more on what is right for the students we serve.
Scott Goldstein is a social studies and ESL teacher at a D.C. public charter school. He can be reached at scottaudc(at)gmail(dot)com.