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Charter vs. Public: Examining Innovation vs. Status Quo in Education

We’re in the middle of a “charter school war.”

That’s according to a recent editorial by Ron Wolk, founding editor of Education Week, and a current board member for the district-charter school network Big Picture Learning.

Wolk’s war pits traditional public school advocates against charter and school-choice backers. The result, as he explains it, is an environment where absolutism and antagonism on both sides stands in the way of compromise and innovation. Where charters were originally scoped as proving grounds for new learning approaches, he says, many have become extensions of the traditional public school model, with minimal changes.

Wolk suggests a return to the original concept of charters, where they were selectively established as “laboratories” intended to inform work in “traditional” public schools.

Wolk’s argument makes a lot of sense. After all, creating a process for experimentation and innovation in public schools seems like a good way to fuel classroom innovation.

But one of his main points rings false to me—and, from the looks of the comments thread, other readers as well. That’s the idea that public schools are incapable, or seemingly uninterested, in making change.

As Wolk writes:

“And yet, most traditional school districts either ignore or actively resist innovation. And their processes are so ingrained that one significant alteration would inevitably lead to systemic change or even a total redesign. Few public educators can imagine, let alone undertake, such dramatic change.”

No doubt, plenty of schools struggle with innovation. There’s a lot that can get in the way of change: budget shortages, poverty, or enrollment increases or declines.

But districts across the country are finding ways to experiment and to innovate. Not only because they want to stay competitive—which they do—but also because it’s the only true way to ensure students are continuously challenged.

Every week, we hear about public schools that are leading new approaches to education through strong partnerships, new approaches to instruction, and education technology.

Concepts such as customer service and branding—once the province of the business world—are also working their way into school operations.

Last week, we wrote about Federal Way Public Schools in Washington and the work of the director of equity and family engagement, Trise Moore. Moore’s outreach to parents and students encourages dialogue between area schools and families. And those conversations serve as a catalyst for change there.

As school choice options grow, both locally and nationally, districts are learning fast that they need to adapt, or risk losing students.

Public schools want to innovate. A lot of them already are. It’s up to school leaders and faculty to continue to explore new ways of thinking, teaching, and communicating.

What steps are your schools taking to foster experimentation and innovation? Tell us in the comments.

Want more ideas on how to increase market share in your district? Read 3 ideas to help stay competitive in the age of school choice.