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Do charter schools have all the answers?

By Steve Young Do you ever wonder why they don't make entire airplanes out of the same material they use to make the indestructible "black box"? It's an old standup comic line that always gets a laugh and makes people pause to wonder, "Hey, why not?"

By Steve Young

Do you ever wonder why they don't make entire airplanes out of the same material they use to make the indestructible "black box"? It's an old standup comic line that always gets a laugh and makes people pause to wonder, "Hey, why not?"

Similarly, I've wondered why the public school system isn't built like the best charter schools. But just as with the black box and the aircraft, the nature of charter schools prevents the same principles from working for an entire public school system.

For example, there may be selective procedures applied to a charter school's student body, even if lotteries are supposedly required. The involved families who search out the best environments for their children make for better students, delivering better results for the charters. No Child Left Behind handcuffs teachers in the crowded traditional schools more than it does in the smaller charters. And charters can select talented teachers and mentors who may not be fully credentialed, but are fully capable and enthusiastic.

Moving better students into better schools is obviously going to benefit some, but only while producing a divide between the best and worst schools that's as wide as the chasm between the wealthy and those on welfare. The victims will be not only the children with the least means, but also society as a whole.

Philadelphia schools Superintendent Arlene Ackerman's "Imagine 2014" plan calls for closing up to 35 chronically underperforming schools and turning them over to outside organizations. That suggests that Ackerman believes she and the school district have no idea how to turn these schools around. Shuttling such schools and their students out of the system is just as wrongheaded as shuttling all the best students off to charters.

Unless we revamp how we approach teaching those students who are so seemingly resistant to learning, Ackerman's plan just relocates the problem without solving it.

While the charter school black box may be too small to fit around the present public school system, the system can build its own black box to fit every student. The good news is that building that box is no great mystery. The mystery is how a system filled with smart people has missed the obvious for so many years.

Bloom's Taxonomy, the foundation of much of our educational system since the '50s, says students must first be capable of "receiving" - paying attention to what is being taught. If the student doesn't pay attention, learning cannot take place. You engage students' interest in learning by learning what interests them. Yet, instead of establishing this step, we assume it.

Central to a good charter school's effectiveness is its willingness to teach around a student's strengths and interests. Each student's interests and talents may not come in a neatly wrapped package, but we need to tap into the place where the child's fire and comprehension lives, and build from there. Better to start with what they understand than what they don't; with what drives them, not what pushes them away; with what changes them for the better, not what inhibits their desire to learn.

In most cases, our present educational process makes an effort to teach the same thing in the same way to every student - using the same techniques and expecting the same result. Changing that will take reform and compromise by teachers' unions and districts, but it will benefit both. And the greatest beneficiaries will be the students - gifted, at risk, and in between.

Most important in any teaching proposition is establishing the proper place to start - each student's place of knowledge and comfort. Of course, what is comfortable for the student may be uncomfortable for a system encumbered by a teach-to-the-test mentality and standard academics. But after so many years of causing discomfort for students, it's only fair that the system take on a little of its own.

Today, we may need to tap into music, sports, video games, and even the street to reach some students. It's on the foundation of what they're familiar with that we can begin to construct a complete education and expand it to other subjects, including the academic ones.

The public school system black box should not be about embracing incompetence or lowering standards, but about having students recognize their own strengths - no matter what they are - and using them as a jumping-off point for a quality, well-rounded education. That's a black box built not only to survive the crash, but to prevent it in the first place.