Skip to content

Tag: alternate pathways

Pathways-ED: Charter Schools – "A View from the States"

written by Ben Riley, Director of Policy and Advocacy, New Schools Venture Fund

I’m tremendously excited that Stuart asked me to offer my “View from the States” on New Zealand education policy. For reasons I’ll explain in a future post, I am keenly interested in New Zealand’s education system and I’m eager to learn more through this partnership. Let’s dive right in, shall we?

Recently, Stuart blogged about pending legislation to create charter schools (or as you are calling them, “Partnership Schools Kura Houora”). Given that the organization I work for, NewSchools Venture  Fund, has funded charter schools for more than a decade, I thought it might be helpful to share my perspective on US charter policy in the hopes of informing New Zealand’s nascent interest. I’ll begin with three general comments and then offer a few specific observations on your pending legislation.

First, pay careful attention to authorizing and oversight of charter schools. The basic theory behind charter schools is that you offer greater flexibility in return for higher accountability. That accountability, however, turns out to be trickier to establish than many expected when charter laws were first introduced. It turns out that parents are not always “well informed consumers” when it comes to selecting schools for their children; as a result, we see low-performing charter schools continue to operate in the US longer than a pure, market-driven choice model would suggest. Similarly, we’ve also learned that it’s just as difficult to close low-performing charter schools as it is to close their non-charter counterparts. Schools serve as cornerstones within our communities, thus to close one – charter or otherwise — almost inevitably results in controversy and political strife. The key is to ensure the charter authorizers are independent and empowered to make tough decisions — the National Association of Charter School Authorizers offers good guidance on this subject.

Second, make sure charter schools have equitable access to the resources they need – school facilities in particular. In the US, charter schools are supposed to have equal access to public resources as those provided to traditional schools. While that aspiration remains unevenly realized throughout the states with respect to funding, an equal if not bigger challenge is ensuring that charter operators have access to public facilities. Obviously, it’s very hard to provide quality instruction if you’re struggling to find physical space to teach children.  

Third, create clear paths for innovation and success within charter schools to translate into change within the entire education system. Perhaps my biggest disappointment with the “charter movement” is that new innovations and successful school models within the charter sector have, with rare exception, remain isolated from the traditional school system. Despite a growing body of evidence demonstrating that good charter schools can provide a high-quality education to our most challenged students, the practices common to these schools are considered “unique to charters” and thus irrelevant. And this prejudice flows in both directions, by the way: There are many interesting innovations happening in the traditional sector that charter operators never discover.

To address this, the Gates Foundation is investing US$25 million in seven “City Compacts” to promote local collaboration between charter schools and traditional schools, in the hopes that this will lead to the spread of good instructional practice. This model is one New Zealand should consider from the outset to ensure the charter sector remains connected to the larger education system.

With those general observations as background, I have read through New Zealand’s Cabinet Paper and Regulatory Impact Statement on developing a charter school model. On the whole, the vision accords with what we’ve learned in the US and strikes the right balance between autonomy and accountability. Moreover, as I am only beginning to understand how your system works, I hesitate to offer any suggestions without knowing the local context. That said, I flag two items for further consideration.

To begin, I would caution against permitting for-profit operators (or “sponsors”) to run charter schools. The reality is that any for-profit business must be run as exactly that, a business, with a fiduciary obligation to maximize profits. One problem with that, however, is that if a charter school runs out of resources in the middle of the school year, it’s supposed to shut down – with the brunt of real harm falling upon displaced students and irate parents. Just as importantly, allowing for-profit operators to operate charter schools inflames the suspicion of some that the charter movement is a cover for “big business” looking to profit and privatize public education. Perhaps this tension is not as vibrant in New Zealand as it is here but at least in the US, many people still don’t understand what charter schools really are or what purposes they serve.

Similarly, the proposed legislation allows faith-based organizations to serve as school sponsors/operators. In the US, mixing public funds with private religious instruction results in spectacular political fireworks. We are about to revive this highly contentious debate over what we call “vouchers,” which provide direct payments to parents that they can use to send their children to schools of their choice, including private religious schools. New Zealand policymakers might ask themselves – are they prepared to provide public funding to a school devoted to, say, promoting Creationist theories on the origin of humankind? In my opinion, the whole thing is a massive distraction that takes away focus on instructional quality. Better to scrap this and spend the bulk of political capital on developing clear guidelines on what’s expected of charter operators, and holding firm on accountability to ensure quality.

In closing, I am excited to see New Zealand pursue charter schooling and direct resources to provide high-quality school options to parents and students living in challenged communities. By addressing some of these issues at the outset, I believe New Zealand will be better positioned to achieve the student outcomes you desire.

Leave a Comment

Talk-ED: When the Apple is the Teacher

Stuart Middleton
10 October 2011

I recently wrote about the loose use of the term “drop out” to describe those few who leave college / university not through the bottom but out through the top because their aspirations take them more quickly to a higher and more sophisticated place.  Such people are “step ups” not “drop outs”. 

A shared characteristic of these people is not that they are failing in education – the key qualification for real drop outs – but that they possess knowledge and skills that quickly make evident to them the irrelevance of what they are doing in college / university.

I used Bill Gates as an example.

The death this week of Steve Jobs brought these ideas to the fore again as commentators freely tossed around descriptions of Jobs as a “college drop out.” I think he was another of these “step ups” with ambitions that went far ahead of college pathways and much more quickly.

In the much quoted Stanford speech he explains his reason to stop attending classes as one of recognising the cost to his family of attending college.

I naively chose a college that was almost as expensive as Stanford, and all of my working-class parents’ savings were being spent on my college tuition. After six months, I couldn’t see the value in it. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life and no idea how college was going to help me figure it out. And here I was spending all of the money my parents had saved their entire life. So I decided to drop out and trust that it would all work out OK. It was pretty scary at the time, but looking back it was one of the best decisions I ever made. The minute I dropped out I could stop taking the required classes that didn’t interest me, and begin dropping in on the ones that looked interesting.

It is interesting to note that although he himself describes his actions as “dropping out” he immediately notes that it wasn’t to get away from college but to do the things he really wanted to do so perhaps he “dropped out” in the Timothy O’Leary sense, the assertion of personal wish over the power of conventional expectations. I would bet that he was confident that all would “work out OK” when he made the decision. And we note that he continued to hang around Reed and go to classes of choice for some time after making his decision. He in fact describes himself at that point as a “drop in”.

Another that I saw recently described as a “drop out” was Mark Zuckerman the founder of Facebook. Of course those who apply this to the likes of Gates, Jobs and Zuckerman conveniently ignore that fact that they each qualified for entry into the most prestigious institutions in the US (Harvard, Reed) and that they had been to prestigious preparatory schools prior to this.

It is a further and perverse reflection of our belief that there is only one pathway for people to follow – elementary school, high school, university – if they are to be successful in life. These genius figures just don’t fit the norms which are what marks them as genius.

Gates had outstanding knowledge of computers prior to completing his primary education, Zuckerman was described as arriving at Harvard with “a reputation as a programming prodigy,” Jobs attended schools in Cupertino where he was later to set up Apple’s Headquarters and while still at school attended after-school lectures at the Hewlett-Packard Company in Palo Alto, California, and subsequently was hired there for the summer. This fellow was no slouch when it came to computers as a result of his growing up in Silicon Valley.

So why would we expect young people with such extraordinary and precocious knowledge to simply fit into the normal track?

Who might we have in New Zealand that fit this “step up” category? Who are the Australian “step ups”?

In New Zealand, Sam Morgan built up and subsequently sold TradeMe (an eBay style site) making him a likely contender, stepping up from university to get on with the things that fired his imagination and for which he had the knowledge and skills. Why continue to move at the pace of those who haven’t?

Daniel Robertson left his engineering course to set up (an internet based shop in the style of Amazon), selling books, music and suchlike. It has grown to impressive proportions both in New Zealand and in its Australian version across the Tasman.

There must be many others – Peter Jackson left school at 16 and started working to his passion for making films comes to mind.

None of these people can be described as “drop outs”. For from it all are educated well past the point that characterises real drop outs and each shares the characteristic of reaching a point where it was clear to them that the conventional track through and out of education systems was not going to meet their goals and aspirations.

No they are different and it is well captured in The Apple Creed written up on the wall of Apple Headquarters in Cupertino (address is No 1 Infinite Loop), well it was when I visited in 2000.

Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They are not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can praise them, disagree with them, quote them, disbelieve them, glorify or vilify them. And the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They invent. They imagine. They heal. They explore. They create. They inspire. They push the human race forward. Maybe they have to be crazy. How else can you stare at an empty canvas and see a work of art? Or sit in silence and hear a song that’s never been written? Or gaze at a red planet and see a laboratory on wheels? We make tools for these kinds of people. While some see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.

Steve Jobs was one of those. That’s why he finished his Stanford address with an exhortation to the young audience to:

“Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish!”


1 Comment