Tuesday, February 7, 2017

The NJ State Board of Education Chooses Low Risk-Low Reward in New Charter Proposals

Earlier this year Gov. Christie made several modest proposals intended to tweak our twenty-seven year old charter school law. One of those proposals was that the state create a pilot program to allow a few of the highest-performing charters in the state to hire teachers and principals without standard certifications. After all, the traditional route to certification is onerous and not necessarily tied to effective instructions. For example, see here for the two-pager from the DOE that itemizes the traditional steps to become a supplemental instructor for K-8  English Language Arts and Math which include "a minimum of 60 credits in “any college major such as philosophy, history, literature, sociology, science, mathematics, or world language that is intended primarily to provide general knowledge and to develop an individual’s general intellectual capacities to reason and evaluate," passing a poorly-regarded Praxis test, and fulfilling a "Physiology and Hygiene Requirement."

Christie proposed that the top charters in the state could hire teachers and principals without these standard steps; instead, schools could make hires based on experience teaching at community colleges, on expertise in a field, and the judgement of administrators.

That’s the whole point of charters, isn’t it?  That famous talking point of “laboratories of innovation” where experiments, if proven successful, could be transferred to the traditional sector. Or at least that’s the fallback of those who worry that charters are proving too attractive to families, especially those of color in historically low-performing districts.

In this case, the Governor proposes a low-risk experiment with a potentially high reward: allow highly-accountable and highly-performing charter schools to hire teachers through non-traditional routes and see how this pilot affects student learning. If successful, we could widen the pilot and, potentially, loosen the hiring strictures on traditional districts.

But the State Board of Education said “no.”

This is what kills me about those who rail against charters and fall back on the old saw that “they’re just supposed to be short-term laboratories of innovation!” How can they be laboratories if we don’t let them experiment? How can we improve traditional practices without a willingness to step outside of that tight box? How can we improve student achievement without a commitment to breaking free of the  firmly-entrenched and dysfunctional status quo?

The State Board blew this one.  Its short-sightedness represents a missed opportunity not only for NJ’s best charter schools but our entire public education system.

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