The first Disciplined Dialogues convening brought together an expert group of scholars, journalists, and policymakers who have a keen interest in what we currently “know” about charter schools and what we do not, the most important questions relative to the topic of charters, and possible implications for future research, policy, and practice. A rigorous and disciplined process of deliberation on topics that are of contemporary importance in education depends not only on well-informed participants who remain open to opportunities to learn, but also on a well-designed learning program that taps history, thoughtful reasoning, and value preferences. Among the many different sessions during the convening, we call attention to four learning opportunities that are aligned to produce rich classroom discourse and community deliberations around charter school issues. These four sets of materials and activities are for teachers or faculty to use as curricular resources in classroom settings in higher education or for community organizers and policymakers to use in programs with their stakeholders and/or the public.
The first session included a broad and detailed overview of the history of charter schools in the United States. The next session tapped the current state of research on charter schools including areas of consensus, controversy, and confusion over what’s still unknown. A third—an authentic study of controversy about whether to approve a new charter school served to highlight the difficult decisions local school board officials and other education stakeholders have to make within the complex web of local education politics. The final session focused attention on a critical underlying question that is so important to decision-making about charter school issues: what constitutes a public school? In the following sections we elaborate the purposes and processes entailed in these four inter-related learning opportunities.
Purpose: This session is designed to illustrate the history of the charter school terrain in the United States. The slide-deck focuses on major inflection points in the ways in which charters have been thought about, argued about, and developed on the ground and from place to place and over time. This opening session affords a longitudinal perspective on the incidence, causes, and purposes of charter schools as well as a clearer understanding of the values backdrop of the charter reform movement and its policy implications.
Process: The slides facilitate a one-hour presentation on the history and development of charter schools in the U.S. They cover the early years of the charter school movement, where and how it grew, and major charter controversies along the way. The session is tailored to provide a solid historical foundation upon which participants can build a shared understanding of charter school issues and controversies right up to the present. The presentation can be followed by a short partnered activity. Partners might start by posing a general descriptive question about the slides such as, “What did you notice or what stood out as being important?” and then move progressively toward more specific analytical kinds of questions such as, “If you were tasked with presenting the recent history of charters, how might you have done it differently?” A concluding task might entail filling in the blanks to this statement: “With respect to charter schools, I used to think _________, and now I think _________, as a result of the charter history slide presentation.”
Purpose: The purpose of this session is to help already well-informed participants identify similarities and differences in their views on what the current state of research teaches us about charter schools. In other words, the session is designed to leverage variation in how participants interpret research in order to advance understanding of what we currently “know” from scholarship on charter schools, what we do not know and, equally important, with what degree of confidence. While research alone cannot provide clear direction about decisions to be made about charter schools, when properly deliberated a broad range of information and varying interpretations of research can contribute to deeper understanding and the creation of better ideas.
Process: The card-sorting activity works best with people who have a solid grasp of the current state of research on charter schools. To begin, each participant receives a set of 8 color-coded notecards with one charter-related question printed on each card (download questions using link below). Working in small pre-assigned groups, participants will first individually, and then as a group, sort the questions that the extant research on charters could plausibly answer into the following three categories: 1) There is a well-warranted answer to this question; 2) there has been lots of research, but to date, there is a lively controversy about what the best warranted answers are; and 3) there has been relatively little research that would provide an answer to this question. The color-coded cards make it easy for everyone to see where there is agreement/disagreement. Allow ten minutes for individuals to sort their cards. Then a facilitator leads the group through the process of comparing/contrasting and identifying areas of agreement and disagreement. Then allow another hour for the group to discuss the reasons they sorted the way they did—both for what they agree on and what they disagree on.
To be clear, this exercise is not designed to create consensus on where to place a particular question. Instead, the activity is meant to illuminate the nature of the disagreements about where to place the question as well as variation in the reasons questions are sorted in particular categories. The facilitator should make note of which questions produced no disagreements, minor disagreements that were easily resolved, and major disagreements that were not resolved in the time allotted. After learning the similarities and differences in how and why participants sorted the questions, discuss what happened throughout the sorting exercise, what was surprising, and the unsuspected reasons why participants interpreted the state of charter school research in varying ways. Although this session is designed as a stand-alone, the card-sorting activity could also work as 1) a primer in advance of 2) reading the research guide which might then facilitate a return to 3) another round of card-sorting and reconsideration of 4) how much agreement and disagreement exists about the current state of research on charter schools.
Purpose: This session is designed to help participants think systematically about the hard decisions policymakers and school board officials have to make within the particularly challenging context of education politics at the local level. Participants assume the roles of advisory council members to a metropolitan school board faced with deciding whether to authorize a proposal, spearheaded by the regional president of the Urban League, for two new charter schools, one for adolescent boys and one for adolescent girls. The school board has commissioned an overview of the proposal and the controversial issues it raised to assist the advisory council in making its recommendations about how best to respond to the request for charter authorization. The session is designed to help participants grapple with the complex and sometimes competing purposes of charter schools. It surfaces tensions between charter schools in theory versus charter schools in practice. And it highlights assumptions about how class, race, and gender influence the development of charter policies and authorization and what this implies for the practice of school leaders.
Process: After reading the facts of the case, participants should be assigned to groups of 4-6, taking advantage of the different views that people generally hold about charter schools. For example, if half of the large group is generally supportive of charter schools, and the other half is not, create groups with an equal mix. Explain to each group that they are in the role of advisors to the schools board, and their task is to deliberate in their small group about what recommendations to make to the school board. While they are in the role of advisors, they are to represent their own views. The group is not expected to come up with a consensus recommendation, although that may occur. Ideally, allow 45 minutes or more for deliberation in the small groups, then another 30 minutes for each group to very briefly report out and then continue the deliberation as a large group.
Purpose: That all charter schools receive public funds and yet some are managed by private education management organizations opens a window for careful examination of key questions about what is or should be meant by “public.” The goal of this exercise is to highlight the ambiguity that surrounds understanding of public versus private goods and to then bring these understandings into sharper focus around the issue of charter schools in particular.
Process: The essential process question revolves around four separate composite sketches of schools. First, participants read the four sketches and determine for each whether it is a “public school” using whatever definition of “public” they hold. Then working with a partner, each participant should briefly share which of the four schools they deemed public and for what reasons, and which are not public, and for what reasons. Then, working in small groups (of 4-6), participants should discuss the question: What is a public school? While the groups may initially focus on the sketches of the four schools, ideally the discussion will broaden to focus more generally on the criteria that should be used to determine whether a school is public. Finally, participants should discuss whether it matters to them whether a charter school is “public” and what implications the multiple and competing definitions of public school have for policy decisions about charter schools.