Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Charter Universities?

For the past several years I've had a foot in two different worlds--higher education reform and the effort to improve public schools. I've been surprised at how rarely those two reform efforts have intersected. Sometimes reformers in both camps adopt the same reform, but without talking to each other (service-learning is an excellent example). In others, reforms go one way in K-12 and another in higher education. So, for example, K-12 is adopting ever more standardized tests while higher education, with a few exceptions, flees them. Whatever the process, it is increasingly clear that high school and college are seriously divided--not just by the age of their students, but by curricula, organization, values, and goals.

Some of my involvement in K-12 reform has been as a board member of two charter schools. The longer I look at the challenges facing higher ed--access, cost, attention to the real needs of real students, diversity, and learning among them--the more I think that there is room for the charter school approach to be applied to higher education.

Charter schools got their start as a way for the parents and reformers to bring about change within the public school system. In a nutshell, charters have the same educational responsibilities as regular state schools, but the have more freedom to experiment with how to meet those responsibilities. Charters tend to be smaller than regular K-12 schools, their teachers do not always come through the education schools, and they often focus their curricula around particular themes.

Charters are not panaceas. But the charters that work best involve parents at a higher rate, attend more closely to the needs of their students, and provide innovative ways of learning. They also attract inspired teachers who like the freedom to get their students to the outcomes the system has created in creative ways. Finally, they have shaken up some school systems, either by attracting enough students (and the funding that accompanies them) to impact the system's revenue, or, more hopefully, by innovating in ways that are later adopted by the broader system.

So, why can't there be charter universities? Certainly some of the problems with mainstream higher ed--impersonal, passive classes, a lack of focus on learning, the absence of a diverse student body, creeping bureaucracy--could be remedied by the charter model.

Think of it this way. What if five faculty members with degrees across the disciplines created their own university? It would be small by necessity--perhaps 100-150 students, tops. The curriculum would be limited, but because the faculty all work together, meaningfully integrated as well. Decisions would have to be made democratically. And a lot of the apparatus that is taken as necessary in higher ed--athletics, technology in every classroom, etc. would be stripped away.

Of course a model like this would be hard to sustain. (This is the case with charter schools as well.) But it could be sustained, not through bureaucratic systems and huge funding streams from taxes and tuition, but through a core of passionate faculty and a relatively small number of engaged students.

It is worth some thought...


Peter said...

Since k-12 is required and has a set curriculum, charters provide options. But in Higher education, the curriculum is not set and schools have to differentiate in order to attract students. Aren't there a number of institutions that offer much of what you suggest? I think so. The only real difference is the way that they are administered.

derek bitter said...

I wonder if you would consider St. John's College to meet some of the needs you talk about. There are about 450 undergraduates, a faculty that is very involved in the college and interacts regularly with the students, and a curriculum that is unlike any other college in the US. And oh yeah, we don't care about technology or tests there either.
So if your main argument for higher ed charter schools is to offer something separate from most higher ed institutions that may appeal to many people, then that sounds good. But my main problem with charter schools is What if the focus they take turns out to be ineffective? I don't know, I'm still figuring out where I stand with charter schools.