Thursday, November 26, 2009
What is a laboratory school?
In an interesting and worthwhile guest commentary in the Denver Post, Spencer Weiler an assistant professor of education at the University of Northern Colorado, argues that charter schools are not laboratories for public schools as many have asserted.
Professor Weiler's arguments are interesting and worth taking note of, but because he does not define what a laboratory school is supposed to be, his arguments also raise many questions. I'll deal with a few.
First, he assumes that a laboratory school must have the same demographics as the average for the state of Colorado to be a laboratory. I hope that it's pretty obvious that this is not a valid argument. The fact is that very few districts mirror the state average. Using Weiler's logic, most districts in the state are not good laboratories for public education. An average is a mathematical calculation that says very little about the individual schools and districts all over Colorado. For, example, The Classical Academy in Academy School District 20 has very similar characteristics to the rest of the district. Many other charter schools are around the state mirror their districts, including those in areas with high non-Caucasian populations.
Second, he makes an assumption that appears to be racist (although I'm sure he does not intend it to be). He cites the percentage of white population as one piece of evidence that charter schools are not laboratories. Does that mean that non-whites learn differently or can't learn in the same way as whites? Certainly there are ELL students who need special consideration. What that consideration is must be thought out. I am not an expert in this area, but I do know five Russian teenagers who have been adopted to families in different areas of the U.S. I have not researched what their schools are doing for them, but they are (in some cases as short a period as six months) doing very well in English. I highly doubt that they have teachers and specialists who are fluent in Russian at their schools. Another issue with this comment is that simply because a school might only have a 5% non-English speaking population does not meant that school can't or is unlikely to develop a good ELL program. In fact, it might be easier for such a school.
Not directly related to Weiler's arguments is the issue that there are many reasons to have charter school beyond the laboratory argument. School choice is one of those. For many of us, there are inherent advantages to school choice that do not need further argument.
For now, it suffices to say that until someone can define what an adequate educational laboratory looks like, we can't say whether or not charter schools are adequate laboratories. In my mind, it makes much more sense to look at the methods of successful charter schools, try them in other schools (charter and otherwise), and see if they work in larger populations. Then we'll know whether charter schools are laboratory schools.