Guidance for the Charter Bound

A Process For Identifying an Appropriate Research-Based Model of Schooling by Frank L. Smith

Successful superintendents create opportunities to exercise their leadership. They become agents of their own fate, not victims of external forces. As the school landscape endures marked change, effective leaders would do well to focus on one key question: What can the public school system learn or achieve in a time of charter schools?

While some school leaders may be hostile to the idea and others may prefer to stay on the sidelines, superintendents can respond to charter school legislation in a way that generates greater public understanding of schooling, creates stronger school designs, and stimulates more empowered communities.

The key is using the charter school movement as an opportunity to involve all of a community’s citizens in the design of all schools. If some citizens are designing new schools, others should help redesign existing schools.

The administrative strategy that I have used, known as the Advocacy Design Center process, is a self-assessment and design process that can be applied to both charter and non-charter schools. ADC was developed as a collaborating team partnership between faculty at Teachers College at Columbia University and the Paterson, N.J., Public Schools, a district whose management was taken over by the state in 1991.

As one of his first major actions, state-appointed Superintendent Laval Wilson vacated four ineffective elementary schools. Through the partnership, he wanted to link school administrators with educational research to strengthen leadership and redesign these failed schools. Wilson realized that state takeover of a "bankrupt district" and the move to vacate had turned all schools into victims. Thus the overall strategy was to engage all schools in continuous self-assessment and thereby build stronger school communities.

Whose Expertise?

By tradition, school governance systems have been built on the premise that the public would be better off if schooling experts designed rules, procedures and regulations to be followed by subordinates, who then would be checked for compliance. Under the guise of scientific management for the protection of the public and for the efficient allocation of educational resources, we centralized and professionalized the process of designing schools.

At the same time, designers made the design process appear to be value-neutral when it was not. Rather, school designs incorporated the values of professional educators and social engineers. Public acceptance of school designs rested on shared values and a sense of community. Citizens once were happy to have school designs managed by "scientific" experts and were accepting of whatever their system produced. This is no longer the case.

Charter schools confront this issue directly. Charters are not just about instruction; they are also about governance. Charter school legislation challenges the assumption about how the public is to be served in the design process and in the reform of schooling. Charter school laws say that citizens are capable of directly designing and governing their own schools.

For superintendents, this raises two questions: first, what role do professional educators play in the charter school design process and, second, what role does the public play in the redesign of existing schools?

Clearly, the traditional version of administrative authority—command, control, compliance—is irrelevant to the design phase of charter schooling. But then neither is command predominant in newer patterns of governance within existing schools, just as it is not the model of best-thinking in contemporary businesses.

Dueling Rationales

Thus, the charter school movement is but one aspect of a major re-ordering of social relations in society. Many citizens are asking that all schools, not just charters, manage themselves as client-centered, learning cultures.

The charter school movement is linked to the impetus to change the managerial system of schooling. The nexus of school design and school transformation lies in the administrative process. Exercising leadership, then, rests with how we nurture design and transformation processes in the charter and operating schools.

Thinking in design terms is a new challenge for most citizens and many educators at the school level. Since they historically have been excluded from the process, they lack a framework by which to create a new school design. At best, school sites have been asked to solve problems or implement projects.

Schools are social institutions, created by society's values, not the product of scientific or economic expertise. Schools as social institutions can only be redesigned through public discourse. Since charter schools are intended to be new creations, they require design.

State law and state departments of education provide some guidelines for designers. Design concepts are often made explicit in the preamble to the legislation or are embedded in the legislation. These rationales are generally of two types: (1) free the teachers and parents from regulations; or (2) build stronger communities. Most follow the "free the teacher/parent" rationale. In New Jersey, on the other hand, the legislation was designed to strengthen the public system of schooling by adding charter schools as newly designed institutions. The state department’s design process includes a series of 75 questions that must be answered by the charter school proposers.

The New Jersey rationale and process are not typical. Interestingly, the questions are heavy on management, but omit questions about adult learning.

Preferred Route

The free the teacher/parent strategy seems incomplete and unwise. It assumes that teachers, parents, or administrators possess design competencies, when few, if any, have ever been asked to design a new school.

While charter school designers do not want to be told what their design should look like, they could benefit from design help, just as home renovators benefit from architects, who help without dictating the character of the design. The Advocacy Design Center process provides a mechanism for extending such assistance, both to groups designing charter schools and to groups transforming existing schools.

The ADC process is a "build-the-community" strategy. It is based on democratic values and incorporates research on effective and blue-ribbon schools. This research, according to Evelyn Odgen and Vito Germinario in The Nation’s Best Schools: Blueprints for Excellence, concludes that successful schools may be characterized as "vital" or inquiry-based schools, where reflection, self-assessment, and learning are the nature of the total school community, as well as of classroom processes. Vital schools shape and influence events around them and see themselves as agents of their own future.

Given this perspective, the Advocacy Design Center process assumes that charter school design and public school transformation should:

* create advocates who understand and care deeply about their school design;

* recognize that each school has its own character, culture, or belief system. This holistic view of the school should be the focus of structured public discourse. Each charter school needs to create a culture. Operating schools need to assess and, perhaps, transform their culture;

* create functional school communities that establish patterns of collaborative work to nurture the growth of youth;

* include diverse voices in the design/transformation process so that schooling is a dynamic center for democratic governance;

* focus on the school in a holistic way, on the school as an institution, and not on a set of fragmented and disjointed projects aimed at "fixing" the existing model of schooling;

* provide a framework for the public discourse so that professionals and other citizens can express their different perspectives, while playing on a more level playing field and moving toward a shared meaning regarding school design;

* make clear that the choice of a design reflects a group’s values, not solely technical expertise; and

* provide access to research on differing models of schooling, so that there is an informed discourse and a true sense of design choice about and among types of schools.

Comparing Models

Charter design groups and school transformation groups first need to think in terms of models of schooling. Then they need a similar framework for assessing those models.

The ADC process presents research-based models of schooling and invites sytematic design of new models. Some designers, for example, may value highly the emphasis on word analysis in Robert Slavin's Success for All model, while other designers may not value that. (The other models are Henry M. Levin's Accelerated Schools, the traditional/parochial school model, and James Comer's School Development Program.) It studies and compares models in terms of four elements of school design: instruction, organization, governance, and accountability. These elements can be thought of as subsystems of the school as an institution, and they must fit into a coherent design.

For discussion and study purposes, these four elements are considered as 29 specific questions that those involved in school design must answer: 12 questions about instruction (student and teacher work); 6 questions about organization (time, people, space, role of outsiders); 5 questions about governance (who decides and how decision groups are linked); and 6 questions about accountability (how the school, family, and community judge their accomplishments).

Questions about the instructional system include these:

* What does it mean to work?

* What tools and materials are students to use in their work?

* With whom do students work and what is their working relationship with each other?

* What does it mean to know?

* How do students create knowledge?

* How are students to relate their learning to life in their community?

Probing Questions

In the study of models, our process differs from the consumer products approach in the way it assigns values or standards. The advocacy design process asks participants to study the four models of schooling, to compare them using the 29 questions, and to decide which is the preferred model.

This differs from the approach of a popular consumer magazine, which uses a set of shaded circles to inform readers of the testers’ opinion of each product. In the ADC process, the school designers must assign their own value.

It is the use of this analytic design framework (the four design elements with their 29 design questions), the comparative study of research-based models of schooling, and the valuing process that links charter school design and the transformation of existing schools through self-assessment.

By using the design questions, school designers and staff at existing schools can determine how closely existing research-based models of schooling align with their images of what their school should be. Stakeholders in existing schools may not now share a common image. For them, the advocacy design framework could serve as the basis for a self-assessment and vision development.

Public Discourse

In this manner, the process responds to the superintendent’s primary interest: finding a common way for charter school groups and school stakeholders to engage in public discourse about the quality and design of schools.

By using the advocacy design framework as a common tool for design and self-assessment, administrative leaders can point out to the community at large that the school system has one primary interest in the charter schools and in existing schools: stimulating public discourse about the design of schools. If new standards, new technologies, and new demographics are going to force schools to change, then the advocacy design process provides one way to reform school design, moving it from the realm of protected scientific expertise to the arena of public discourse and community development.

While charter school legislation may be presented as a "free the parent and teacher" initiative that sets the charter school supporters apart from supporters of existing public schools, effective district leadership requires finding the mutual interest to foster community building, not divisiveness. Using the advocacy design process for public discourse about school design and assessment is one way to strengthen community. Paradoxically, interest in public charter schools can lead to stronger educational communities.

Frank L. Smith is professor of Educational Administration, Teachers College, Columbia University