While the National Alliance for Public Charter School’s annual conference in Music City started with a celebratory 25th birthday bash, attention quickly turned to deeper questions surrounding our education reform work: What have we learned? What can we do better? And, what do our children need?
Secretary of Education Dr. John King delivered a major address in which he asked charter school stakeholders to rethink how they deal with student discipline and school climate and to be leaders in innovations that create safe and positive school environments:
“So my challenge to you is this: don’t get caught up in battles about whether charters are a little better or a little worse than average on discipline. Instead, focus on innovating to lead the way for the sake of our students. We know that, in every school, no matter how successful, there is more we can do to reach the students who are not yet succeeding and more we can do to equip students with not just the fundamental academic skills, but the socio-emotional skills needed for success in life.
“As we reflect on the kids who we are most concerned about, we have to return to the original meaning of “No Excuses.” It was never about no excuses for kids, it was always about no excuses for ourselves, as educators – no blaming parents, no blaming neighborhoods – and asking ourselves, what could we, the adults in schools, do differently to change outcomes?”
King implored charters to lead and to contribute to the U.S. Department of Education’s National Charter School Resource Center work on school climate and discipline. We should note also that Democrats for Education Reform is a member of the Steering Committee guiding USDOE’s #RethinkDiscipline campaign.
Our children will need the skills and mindsets to work collaboratively across different groups. Charters can show the way in diversity in leadership, educational models, and Diverse by Design schools. (I was disappointed not to hear any references to the tragedy in Orlando – and the need for our schools to explicitly extend respect for diversity to our LGBTQA students, teachers and families.)
Personalized, creative, and collaborative learning was stressed. Sugata Mitra, TED prize winner from Newcastle University in England, shared his fascinating experiments showing how a group of children can learn anything by themselves, and gave insights to how schools should change practices to keep up with changes brought by technology.
- World-famous tennis player Andre Agassi was pulled out of school in 8th grade to focus on tennis. Because of that, he made a promise to himself that if he were ever successful, he would do his best to help children who also had no choice to attain an excellent education. He – and the Walton Family’s $250 million Building Equity Initiative – wants to make it so that the $2.3 billion spent annually on charter school facilities gets redirected to teaching and learning.
- “We’ve grown up” explained Shelby County Schools’ Director of Policy & Planning Natalie McKinney. McKinney’s first job at the Tennessee district was to push back against charters. Now, thanks to Race to the Top, she is leading the work on Shelby County’s district-charter compact, which seeks to create shared agreements and lessen conflicts between the sectors.
- I’m a fan girl for civil rights activist and education reform advocate Howard Fuller. He told us we must fight every single day for “the poor, disinherited, and dispossessed” who are “living a heavy life” with their backs up against the wall. He cautioned that if we’re not vigilant, we’ll no longer be reformers, but protectors of the new status quo. Echoing Dr. Martin Luther King, he reminded us that it has to be a struggle because if there is no struggle, there is no progress.
- “In the charter school movement, I’m continuing the work of Dr. Martin Luther King,” said Wyatt Tee Walker, hero of fights for racial equality and education reform (and one of the first to send the message that the movements complement each other), as he accepted NAPCS’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
The charter school movement follows Dr. Fuller’s warning: “We must tell no lies and claim no easy victories” by being self-critical and motivated to continually improve.
As a part of Democrats for Education Reform and Education Reform Now, I’m inspired to work alongside those who think deeply about purpose. I look forward to seeing what can be accomplished and how we can continue to improve students’ lives in the next 25 years.