Mar 2 2013

School Grind

Ugh, is there anything worse than kindergarten admissions lotteries? Robin has been wait-listed for our top choice neighborhood school, Urban Montessori Charter School, so we’re scrambling around examining back-up plans. The most likely one involves keeping him in Peter Pan for another year (for the socialization) while starting home lessons, and hoping something opens up mid-year at UMCS. I also have a tour scheduled next week at a private school that we cannot even remotely afford, I don’t know why we’re even looking, just to torture ourselves I guess. I mean, they do offer financial aid, but if I were running a private school I wouldn’t give us a scholarship: we’re above median income and we don’t check any diversity boxes.

I toured some of the other local public schools, and came away feeling that it would basically be like sending my kid to prison. The atmosphere was just incredibly oppressive and grim. I don’t even put a lot of weight on things like test scores—I’m confident in my ability to provide supplemental academic lessons at home if necessary, especially in the early grades—but I’m not going to send my kid to a frickin’ gulag. Right now Robin loves school and I don’t want him to lose that.

I still think we have a decent shot at ending up with a spot at UMCS. It’s a new school and last year they didn’t end up filling all of their classes. I suspect that a lot of the applicants were regarding it as a secondary choice, and won’t end up accepting a place there. I’m not a whole-hearted believer in “the Montessori method” but they do a lot of things that I like: mixed-age classrooms, multiple teachers to a class, and a focus on small-group learning with individualized lesson plans that give each child a choice of activities throughout the day. The child-led approach does represent a fairly radical departure from a traditionally-structured classroom, which is exactly what I think charter schools are good for—providing venues for pedagogical experimentation.

Charter schools are a political minefield, of course, and most of the “debate” over charter schools has degenerated into sheer tribalism, with teachers’ unions painting them as the work of the devil and reform advocates casting them as a kind of Holy Grail. And of course Republicans have latched on to charters as a way to sneak religious instruction into public education, which only deepens the existing tendency of people to line up on one side or other of the issue based on party affiliation. There was an interesting op-ed in The New York Times recently that spoke to this trend:

Michael Petrilli, a research fellow at Stanford University‚Äôs Hoover Institution and a pro-charter education analyst with the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, worries about this lack of exchange. He recently conducted an analysis of Twitter and the tens of thousands of followers of Ms. Rhee, who is pro-charter, and Ms. Ravitch, who is anti-charter, and discovered that only 10 percent overlapped. Just as conservatives gravitate to Fox News and liberals to MSNBC to hear their preconceived notions and biases confirmed, Mr. Petrilli speculates that those in education are now preaching solely to the converted, a phenomenon known in the media world as “narrowcasting.”

This is absolutely happening, and to an extent that’s frankly ridiculous. Charter critics have very valid points to make, although from my perspective the most substantial of these point toward regulation and reform rather than striking very deeply at the heart of the concept. For one thing, if charters are going to serve as real laboratories for testing possible avenues of school reform, then naturally many of the experiments are going to be failures. That’s why charters should be closely monitored and under-performing ones should be closed quickly. They should not be allowed to substitute “faith based” learning for actual learning. Et cetera.

However, teachers’ unions will fail where they align themselves against the interests of parents, also known as “voters.” Voters consistently and increasingly support charters because parents have a very strong interest in choosing the educational environment that best fits our particular children’s needs. A diversity of options—not just one top-down, cookie-cutter approach to schooling—is something that parents want very much and are willing to fight for, and in many districts the charter system provides the only alternative to factory-style learning and staggering layers of bureaucracy. To me it seems that those who set themselves as categorical opponents to charter schools are simply declaring themselves irrelevant to public policy, as they have been and will continue to be steamrolled by the voters. This is all the sadder because there is no inherent reason why charter schools cannot unionize—and in fact, some have, a trend I find encouraging.

The teachers at UMCS that I spoke to are enthusiastic about the school to an infectious degree. There’s already one Peter Pan family there, so Robin would have friends. At our tour we saw kids happily engaged with the materials, working at their own pace on projects of their own choosing. I’m keeping my fingers crossed.