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Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Wrong Questions?

The Wrong Questions?

Dr. Ryan Donlan
Assistant Professor
Department of Educational Leadership
Bayh College of Education
Indiana State University

I received a postcard last week, inviting me to attend a local seminar to consider sending my children to a “tuition-free, on-line, K-12 public school.”  Because I’m keenly interested in the etiquette of how educational folks from out of town introduce themselves (and admittedly, I’m a people-watcher), I wished to attend, yet the mailing arrived a day after the event. 

What I would not do, however, is consider taking my children out of their most-excellent elementary school. 

I have been asked a number of questions lately regarding choice, competition, and school quality -- in particular, “Are charter schools or traditional schools more effective?” 

Before not answering this question, I’ll begin with some working definitions, as I use them here.

Charter schools: State-funded entities that partner with charter authorizers, such as (but not limited to) higher educational institutions, school districts, or state agencies, to educate children for a fixed term renewable upon performance agreement.  Charter schools to which I refer are public schools.

Traditional schools: State-funded entities that have historically educated children within particular geographic regions. They are what most conceive of and refer to as “our public schools.”  Traditional schools have been the backbone of our country’s prosperity for 150 years.

About that question:  “Who is more effective?” in my opinion, is now the wrong question to ask, as the notion of a dichotomous, “charter thing-versus-traditional thing” has lost luster.  Further, in some cases, it doesn't make sense.

Let me expand through a particular comparison, one of many.

School district A operates a regional educational center with an alternative education program and an area career-technical education program. Each program has a local-area advisory board that helps set policy and provides oversight.  The programs have autonomy, and the local community supports its decentralized leadership structure.

School district B operates a regional educational center with alternative programs and a career-technical education program.  It is comprised of a collaborative of charter schools (one cosmetology, another career prep, another alternative education), each with its own policies and methods of oversight. The programs have autonomy, and the local community supports its decentralized leadership structure. 

Since these school models are nearly twin entities in very similar communities, wouldn’t the “right” questions pertain to why each is structured as it is, how these decisions were made, and what are the benefits and costs of these arrangements?  After all … smart folks, just like you and me, created both.

The same question could be asked regarding Montessori models, fine arts models, back-to-basics models, Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) models, and a host of others who are currently structured both as traditional schools and as charter schools (J. Goenner, personal communication, February, 2012).

In the last few years, the notion of chartering -- in some circles still an edgy conversation-starter -- has evolved into a wider-reaching option for autonomy available to all  allowed under statute, even traditional school districts. Interestingly, Albert Shanker, former United Federation of Teachers President, played a key role in charter school history when advocating that teachers should have more empowerment, free from stifling bureaucracy.

One of my graduate students shared a good book with me a few weeks ago, where inside I found the following, offered by Henig (2011):

I used to think that a critical question was, “Are charter schools better than traditional public schools?”  Now it is clear to me that the differences among schools within the charter and traditional public school sectors are greater than those between the typical schools within each sector.  In the early days of the charter school phenomenon, key organizations on both the Right and the Left decided it was politically savvy to frame the two as distinctly different sectors in a head-to-head battle to determine the future of American education … Missed at that time was the recognition of charters as descendants of a long line of efforts – outside and inside education – to decentralize public-sector decision making and loosen the shackles of bureaucratic sameness. (p. 68).

So in asking questions about charter and traditional schools, wouldn’t it now make more sense to reframe our inquiry in a way that better teaches us how we can provide more opportunities to students? 

Such as …

1.  Does X-type of program (such as those mentioned above) have better potential for success under a charter structure or traditional structure?  After all, both structures are available now to many local superintendents.

2.   To extend Question #1 -- Are local schools supportive of the idea to charter their own programs, or are they hesitant?  Why or why not? 

3.  Why does it seem that much advertisement pertaining to new educational opportunity originates from those who neither shop in our local grocery stores nor sponsor our Little League Teams? Can this tide be turned?

4.  Finally, what must communities and schools do to ensure that educational needs are addressed locally?

Given the challenges we now encounter as educators just trying to promote success amidst complexity (where achievement seems no longer defined by learning, but rather by test scores), doesn’t it make sense that when we spend our hard-earned time pondering questions that impact our children’s futures, we target our efforts to get somewhere productive?


SPECIAL THANKS to the outstanding scholars in ISU's EDLR 710, Social Foundations of Leadership, for the direct and no-nonsense critique of this article prior to publication.  You helped me to think clearly!  Ryan Donlan

Dr. Ryan Donlan is particularly intrigued by today’s perspectives both inside and outside the charter community on how ALL are taking part in guiding our children from where they are to a better place.  He can be reached for comment at or at (812) 237-8624. 


Henig, J. R. (2011). Ideas have sharper edges than real phenomena.  In R. F. Elmore (Ed.), I used to think … and now I think … : Twenty leading educators reflect on the work of school reform (pp. 65-70). Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

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