Thursday, June 05, 2008

What's Wrong with Charter Schools?

Charter schools are proposed as fixes to poorly running public school but they don’t work out that way. I briefly taught in a charter school. Though I met dedicated, hard-working young teachers and lively, likable students, the big problem was lack of understanding of high school English curriculum. Teachers and students don’t choose curriculum but administrators do.

I was hired by a junior college in Los Angeles, and then asked to teach freshman composition, the writing class for all freshman in the nation, to high school students at the Charter School. Since during my last semester in high school I taken two classes at UCLA, I at first thought it good to give college classes to high school students.

I showed up to the Charter School and met my very small class of seven, and they weren’t 12th grade seniors but to my surprise 10th graders. They were very good in grammar but I was teaching not grammar but writing. At first their writing was with simplistic sentences and vocabulary, not like college freshman—but like 10th graders! Very bright 10th graders but still 10th graders. Naively I thought that if they and I worked hard, their writing would improve a lot. One student who was straight-A did improve but the others didn't.

I was told that Charter School was a new high school of about 300 students and the highest grade was 11th grade; they still hadn’t a 12th grade senior class. I was also told that when Charter School developed a 12th grade, they would have few or no 12th grade classes on site. The students would do an independent project and be encouraged to take college-level classes while in high school. My freshman composition class was part of this promise.

For the first month I had to learn how to deal with school sites at once: where the parking was, where to put in paperwork at both schools; etc. Then, I discovered my students were already taking 10th grade English, and my class, held after-school, was their second English class they were taking that semester. They were a little hungry and tired in my class, but I thought that normal as they had already put in a full school day.

What my 10th grade students writing lacked was 11th and 12th grade. While they took freshman composition in their 10th grade, I have first finished all my high school classes in 11th and 12th grade English and history before taking freshman composition at UC Berkeley. At a Fairfax High public school I had taken 11th grade American history, American literature, and an introduction to British Literature; in 12th grade I took Advance Placement European history, Senior Composition, and then a choice in my last semester to take World Literature class in high school or at UCLA but I choose UCLA. These classes give any student a vocabulary and knowledge of historical cultural terms—what is the Industrial Revolution or the Age of Enlightenment? who is Shelley?—invaluable for all university-level social science and humanities classes. I had this background before I took freshman composition as a freshman at UC. My Charter students lacked wide exposure to history and literature from 11th grade and 12th grade classes they hadn't taken. The curriculum had given them a class they weren’t prepared to take.

I was told that most of the 11th graders at Charter School had flunked the previous college-taught composition class. What the administrator was doing was given these students inappropriate college classes setting them up for failure. The administrators seemed to be well-intentioned but had no understanding of English curriculum.

Let me explain. Universities want students who can write essay. I learned in my 12th grade Senior Composition class and learned vocabulary and ideas in my World Literature. UC gives students an English placement test, and for all of the 20th century about 60-70% percent pass, taking freshman composition, while 30-40% fail, taking “remedial” composition. The remedial composition is taught at most colleges as two classes; remedial 1 goes over 10th/11th grade grammar, paragraphs, and simple writing; remedial 2 is supposed to be equivalent to 12th grade Senior Composition focusing on the essay. When taught at colleges, the college instructors have little time to focus on literature , forced to quickly teach grammar and writing as these are speeded up classes. Most students don't find grammar interesting, and now they had to learn grammar very quickly. Hopefully the student is taking other college class learning vocabulary, concepts etc.

What the Charter School had done is given Remedial 1 to 11th grade students, promising it was a college class. It wasn’t. It was college instructors teaching 10th /11th grade grammar/writing in a speeded-up style inappropriate for 11th graders. What should the Charter School have done instead? Teach the best 11th grade history and English classes and add 12th grade history, literature, and senior composition. Without 12th grade classes Charter School is shortchanging it students as the school is not preparing them for universities at all. There’s a certain wisdom in the tradition developed over decades.

However, I’m also for innovation. If Charter School wanted innovated they could have had creative writing as an after-school project—something different and fun—with the students producing their own literary magazine. Or the students could take journalism.

A month ago my almost-fifteen year old niece showed me her articles for her school newspaper—she said and I could see that her writing had improved tremendously by that old high school standard, writing articles in journalism class for her school newspaper. She was spending extra hours on fun kind of writing about her trips to New York or about independent record shops. She was learning writing was fun and her published articles were getting her recognition both in the school and the community. It would have been damaging for her to be forced to do Remedial 1—all that extra grammar would have bored her silly as it probably did Charter School students. Journalism was so much better.

Charter School should junk the “so-called” college English classes as they were inappropriate for the students. It wasn't the students fault nor the teachers' fault but administrators had made a mistake. The Charter School’s curriculum was much worse than my public school curriculum at Fairfax High School.


Maggie May said...

interesting subject...i did a charter school with my son for his fourth grade year and it was a middle of the road experience.

i'm looking over your other posts..i'm a writer in san diego,
good to find ya!

California Writer said...


Why was your son's charter school a middle of the road experience? Also, what's the writing scene like in San Diego?

Sunlight said...

I have gone through the charter school expirance but I decided that it was not the best option for my child. Charter schools look for good students, leaving the children that have dificulty learning behind. Specially if they have learning disabilities. Although I do admit that their teaching is set at a higher standard than public schools. They are certainly not for everyone. I was also shocked when my son was told that he couldn't say bless you if someone sneezed. He had to take bottled water and was not allowed to drink from the schools water fountain although they rent rooms from a functioning LAUSD school who allows their students drink from the water fountain. He got deducted points for forgetting to take bottle water. To me its more important that my son doesn't get heat stroke. And last but not least, my son was in the principals office for the school day because he forgot to take his belt, even though I asked the principal to given detention or extra homework as punishment. I think if you child suffer from ADD or other disability charter schools are not the answer. My son is very frustrated and I see that he is depressed. That is why i will go back to a regular public school.