Open Classrooms v. Charter Schools (VIDEO)

What exactly is a regular public school, as opposed to a charter school? Is there such a thing? For that matter, is there a typical charter school?
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What exactly is a regular public school, as opposed to a charter school? Is there such a thing? For that matter, is there a typical charter school?

Waiting for "Superman" paints a flattering but false picture of charter schools. About 5,000 charter schools are now operating, with an enrollment of about 1.5 million students, but one reliable study indicates that only 17 percent of charter schools outperform regular public schools, while 37 percent significantly under-perform their public counterparts. So there clearly is no 'typical' charter school that will save education.

Waiting for "Superman" also uses its broad brush to paint 'regular' public schools as ineffective and hamstrung by union rules. How accurate is that? Is there such a thing as a 'typical' regular public school?

The question is rhetorical, of course. America has nearly 100,000 public schools, 95,000 of which are not chartered. And they run the gamut, from disgraceful 'dropout factories' to stellar magnet schools to 'ordinary' schools that outshine even fancy and expensive private schools. (See our portrait of Mt. Vernon Elementary, for example.)

Because over 90 percent of our students go to something other than a charter school, salvation (if that's what we are pursuing) must be found elsewhere.

We are working now on a piece for the PBS NewsHour about entire districts that seem to have figured out how to educate nearly all of their children. And there are "models" and "approaches" that work, like E.D. Hirsch's "Core Knowledge" schools and "Community Schools."

But I want to tell you about one particular public school, the subject of a lovely film, August to June. It's an "open classroom" school in northern California. The film focuses on one classroom and its teacher, Amy Valens, who when the film opens is in her last year of teaching. She involves parents, does a lot of hugging, and seems to bring out the very best in her students.

"Open classrooms" make sense, she told me in a recent conversation. "Kids have to have a voice. If we want to keep our democratic society, then kids have to get accustomed to using their voice."

The Lagunitas school district in northern California has only 300 students and just three schools, including Amy's. The other two are equally non-traditional; one is a Montessori, the other Waldorf. Amy told me that 'parental choice' is 39 years old and that it began because parents insisted on a variety of educational options for their children. There is no high school.

Because No Child Left Behind and its testing requirements are not very popular there, the district applied for and received an exemption from regular testing (with the backing of 90 percent of parents, Amy said). If parents want their children to take the standardized exams, it happens.

Her own educational philosophy revolves around "nourishment." Teachers, she asserted, need more nourishment. "They need to experience the joy of learning themselves. Most classroom teachers don't really understand how the brain works, and the system doesn't help, with its emphasis on test scores."

She said Lagunitas students do well on the SAT, in high school and in college. Attendance is high, turnover low, and 'feedback' from former students invariably positive. There's no research to back this up, she acknowledged.

Like her classroom, August to June is low key, lingering often on lovely moments. In one way, it's a love letter to Amy, understandable because the filmmaker is her husband, Tom Valens.

My own favorite moment, one of many, involves Amy's memories of her own elementary school teachers. One was hypercritical, telling her she'd never amount to much after she'd made some mistake. The next year she had a teacher who encouraged her to learn from her errors and told her that she was special. That, she said, made all the difference.

It echoed what I've been saying recently: We need teachers who ask "How are you intelligent?" instead of "How intelligent are you?"

August to June reminds us of the truth of W.B. Yeats' observation, that "Education is Not the Filling of a Pail, but the Lighting of a Fire." By contrast, Waiting for "Superman" graphically portrays successful education as a student's head being opened up so that information can be poured in. The pail, not the flame. That is so revealing, Amy Valens told me, because it demonstrates how little the filmmakers know about learning.

Is this school an anomaly? The film says it's not, because it closes with snapshots of other schools around the country that are similar in nature. That's a nice message.

August to June cost about $250,000 in cash and in-kind contributions to make. Including, Tom and Amy told me, at least $25,000 of their own money. They've just begun the distribution process. With luck, it won't be long before you will be able to see it, perhaps on PBS.

What's your fondest dream, I asked them. "We just want to get the message out," Amy answered. "We want to balance the unhealthy message of Waiting for 'Superman'.

August to June [Official website]


John Merrow's new book, Below C Level, is now available on Amazon.
He blogs regularly at Taking Note, where this post originally appeared.

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