I’ve been thinking about some of the words used in discussions about public education these days–since the inception of charter schools, and before that, with magnet schools. I taught 6th grade science for the past twenty-two years; I taught 3rd grade for a total of 17 years before that. I was the teacher for the talented and gifted program at my school for three years during those 17 years. All of my teaching was done in a regular, standard-issue public school. And there’s the rub.
When speaking about magnet schools, and charter schools in particular, we struggle to come up with the right terminology to describe the non-charter schools in the mix. Regular schools? That implies irregularity elsewhere. Standard schools? I would guess that there are plenty of non-standard schools out there, but with the focus on “meeting standards” this might not be such a good designation.
The public and edreformists seem to have settled on the designation of “traditional schools” as the term to use when making comparisons between and among charter and non-charter schools. Ya gotchur charter schools; ya gotchur traditional schools. Simple enough. Maybe not.
The more I think about it the more my home school seems pretty untraditional to me. And, nothing like the schools I attended back in the 50’s and 60’s.
My school used to get 6th graders from the same 3 elementary schools. My colleagues and I knew the 4th and 5th grade teachers, and could even identify whether a student had had Miss Smith or Miss Jones. It was a relatively smooth transition.
Since the implementation of school choice, we have had 6th graders from 20-25 different elementary schools every school year–including every elementary school in Red Clay (15 schools), plus kids from parochial schools, independent schools, home-schooled kids, and kids moving in from other states or countries. We had 135-150 kids most years. Trust me, it is quite a feat to bring together so many kids who never knew each other before. The variation in their backgrounds, classroom experiences, and previous topics of study can be pretty amazing. The transition from elementary to middle school is hard enough for most eleven year olds–this is an extra complication.
I have had as many as five different world languages spoken by students in any one year. Spanish, to be sure–we had kids at my school mostly from Mexico and Guatemala. However, they could all speak and write English. There was the year I had three Asian boys–not one of them could speak any English–not even to ask to go to the bathroom on the first day! They could not even speak with each other–one was Korean; another Chinese; and the third was from Japan. And, don’t forget the girl from Ipanema–they speak Portuguese in Brazil! Even though the parents of each of these children spoke fluent English, they pretty much failed to prepare their children, for even the basics.
School today is not like the school you probably recall–fondly or otherwise. I went to the Medill and Jennie E. Smith Elementary Schools in the old Newark Shool District. We all came from pretty much the same middle-class background and housing: tract houses, working fathers, stay-at-home moms, and I recall only one student of color in my entire six years of elementary school. Is that possible? We moved to Hockessin, so I went to the A. I. du Pont Jr./Sr. high School. Far greater variation of student population–it was the only high school in the district and it covered a large geographic area.
One big difference today is the depth and breadth of poverty experienced by students in too many of our schools. If this is tradition, then it is one we can all do without. Many consider the effects of childhood poverty to be the root cause of much of the deficits in school readiness, achievement gaps, as well as drop-out and graduation rates.
I imagine that proponents of charter schools probably consider their schools to be pretty non-traditional. However, I am not so sure that the difference is all that striking these days. If the school leader has greater flexibility in administering school funding, if the school day/school year is extended, if the student body is selected by lottery or other method–does this constitute enough change to qualify as non-traditional?
So, what terminology could we/should we use to name our non-charter schools? Does “traditional” get the job done?