When I started helping develop charter schools in New Orleans, I viewed this work as a school level intervention; i.e, students being poorly served in an underperforming school might be better served if we opened an excellent school.
This was a narrow way of looking at it.
Yes, charter schools are a school-based intervention. But, more importantly, they are a governance-based intervention.
Overtime, a sizable charter sector transitions a city’s educational system from a top down, bureaucratic monolith into a system that evolves based on educators on the ground constantly tinkering until they figure out what works.
Here’s another way to think about it: the best practice mindset vs. the evolutionary mindset.
The school intervention mindset is a best practice mindset. District officials and school board members, who constantly promise to adopt best practices, often possess this mindset. The goal is to identify what works and implement it.
Those seeking to change governance models are saying that a decentralized ecosystem of educator run schools will harness entrepreneurship, cooperation, and competition to deliver long-term better system level results. This is an evolutionary mindset.
There is nothing wrong with trying to implement best practices. But somebody also needs to be thinking at the systems level. Someone needs to be thinking with an evolutionary mindset. Someone needs to be saying:
“I’m going to help build a system that doesn’t just adopt best practices but constantly invents new ones. Not because of the strength of an individual school or leader, but because there is a set of schools that are independently experimenting on the ground.”
At scale, a charter school district gives power to educators to innovate, to creatively solve problems, to make mistakes but also to be held accountable if too many mistakes are made.
So, at the end of the day – in terms of a policy tool – charter schools should be understood through an evolutionary mindset.
Implementing the best practices of today is an important goal. But, of greater concern, is the fact that the best practices of tomorrow are currently being held hostage by outdated institutions.
We should hand power back to educators so they can invent, not just implement.