Curriculum Choice and Charter School Competition

Sometimes the daily news can bring interesting juxtapositions of stories. First I noticed the recent announcement from the BC Ministry of Education that “curriculum changes over the next 10 years mean that 600K+ K-12 students will focus on math, science + creativity” (http://ow.ly/XnmMD). Earlier in the day I read a story from California about a group of parents seeking approval for a charter school that will focus its curriculum on science, technology, and math. The proposed charter school was responding to a growing demand by parents who are unhappy with their local school curriculum emphasis on liberal arts.

There are a number of interesting angles to these two stories. One is that curriculum content is not fixed or universally accepted. That, of course, is not news. People have been debating that question for centuries, particularly between a technical/science oriented focus versus a liberal/fine arts focus. Most would agree that the K-12 curriculum needs to include both but finding the right balance will likely always be contested.

But for me, the more interesting aspect of these two stories is how systems change (or don’t) in response to shifting perceptions of what is important in education. Education systems – and especially public education systems – are often difficult to change. There are many reasons for this inertia and some might make the argument that is a good thing. For example, it would be impossible and inadvisable for public education to be constantly changing at the whim of the latest fad or political expediency. However, the flip side of this argument is that public systems can be too slow to change. The “public” part of education means that the system needs to be alert and responsive to what the public believes education should be delivering and how it is delivered. When parents feel this isn’t the case they will seek the programs they want outside the traditional public system, either through independent/private schools, or in the case of the California news story, charter schools.

British Columbia’s public education system is to be praised for its innovation and willingness to engage parents and teachers in redesign. The recent changes to the BC K-12 curriculum are a result of collaboration between the Ministry of Education, teachers, parents, administrators and trustees even while labour and budget challenges dominated public education news. Many school districts also offer increased choice through a variety of academic options including sports academies, science and technology academies, alternate calendars and increasingly, an emphasis on more individualized learning. These changes are one of the reasons that BC students rank among the very top of international standings.

Many Canadian education leaders have decried the growth of charter schools in the United States and in some parts of Canada. But we need to ask ourselves whether charter schools are the problem or the symptom of a greater problem. When parents feel that the traditional public system is not meeting their needs, when they feel that are not being included and listened to, they will look for or create alternatives. The lesson for public education leaders is clear – innovate or someone else will; strive hard to include parents; respond to differing student needs; and if you feel that independent or charter schools are competition that’s because they are.

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