There’s been a lot of talk about the lack of quality education in our public schools, and the phenomenon of charter schools. According to statistics, charter schools are closing achievement gaps, especially in lower income communities.
One person who can speak about this subject matter is Nina Rees, President and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. She knows all too well about the lack of quality education for today’s kids and makes it her job to encourage quality education for all. She also explained in our interview that while many people have heard about the charter school movement, they might not necessarily know the difference between charter and non-charter schools.
“Charter schools are independently managed public schools that offer folks in different communities an opportunity to start new schools,” said Rees. “They are schools of choice so parents have the option to enroll their children in charter schools. Most of the schools have focused their attention on areas that parents are most interested in, so STEM is certainly one of the fields that has grown in the charter school space.”
Rees’ organization is what she calls the “advocacy arm” of the charter school movement.
“We work with state charter school associations and other organizations that have direct connections to charter schools to represent their best interest in Washington, D.C.; in the halls of the Capital and the White House. We also advocate for charter schools in states that don’t have a charter school law, as well as states that have a very weak law or no state association presence.”
According to Rees, Washington, D.C. is a hotbed for charter schools with more than 40 percent of the student population in the D.C. area attending one. “We interact with these schools on a daily basis and we just held an event for members of Congress at one of these schools. It was an event to talk about a piece of legislation that’s been introduced in the House to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.”
STEM is a huge topic of discussion on Capitol Hill as of late, with President Obama himself speaking as an advocate of STEM education in our nation’s schools. There is massive need for STEM education in the U.S. due to the large of number of STEM jobs, and very few Americans having the education and skills to fill those jobs.
The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools recently conducted a survey that found at least 20 percent of charter schools are focused on science, technology, engineering and math.
“It’s an interesting data point because usually when people talk about STEM, they tend to think disadvantaged communities and minorities are not interested in the STEM field. The fact that a lot of charter schools are focused on STEM in these neighborhoods indicates that families, regardless of their income level, are interested in making sure that their children are getting a solid education and that STEM is an area that they are interested in,” said Rees.
Many firms in the Washington, D.C. region are involved in movements and organizations they deem important to the community. Education is one of those subjects that has the support of the business community, due to the incentive of being able to eventually hire those well educated individuals. Rees told us she has seen the business community show interest in the charter school space and talked about how businesses could get involved in the charter school field.
“Marriott has a hospitality charter school that they have here in the area. To the extent that the business community is interested in education, one of the best ways to be directly involved is by sponsoring a charter school or helping build a charter school with resources the children are ultimately going to need,” said Rees. “I would encourage visiting our website (publiccharters.org) or contacting the D.C. Public Charter School Board, which is the entity that authorizes new charter schools in D.C.”
“The fact that a lot of charter schools are focused on STEM in these neighborhoods indicates that families, regardless of their income level, are interested in making sure that their children are getting a solid education and that STEM is an area that they are interested in”
Charter schools may seem like a new trend, but the fact is they’ve been around for a little more than two decades. Rees told us that over the past five years about 450 new charter schools have opened every year in the United States.
“I think the reason for this is shared dissatisfaction with the quality of education that some children are receiving, but I also think as the movement has grown, we are also noticing a need and a desire by the communities to [bring successful schools to] their neighborhoods. Some of it is just the reflection of the success that charter schools have had in different communities.”
Rees revealed that the biggest misconception about charter schools is whether or not they are public schools.
“I think, to this day, there is a lot of confusion about their public status. As a public school, they also come under the same standards, testing and accountability regime that apply to traditional public schools. They also have to serve all students; regardless of their background and disability status. They are open to everyone. If they are oversubscribed they have to conduct a lottery to serve students on a random basis. They are public in every shape and form.”
She explained another misconception of charter schools.
“The other misconception is around performance and the types of students they serve. In terms of types of students, they definitely are serving a larger portion of minority and low income students when you look at national data,” said Rees. “In terms of performance, there have been over 200 studies done on charter schools. We found that 14 out of the 15 studies over the past few years demonstrated that charter schools were closing the achievement gap and raising student achievement. The data is definitely pointing in the right direction, but unfortunately a lot of people are misguided about the impact of charter schools on student achievement.”
Due to national requirements, Rees told us schools are now mandated to focus more on science and math as a part of the curriculum.
“I think more and more schools are seeing how they can better integrate a strong math curriculum into their curriculum. Ultimately, you have to start with math to build the foundation for science. I think because of the data pointing to the need of creating a workforce that is knowledgeable about STEM, a lot of schools are focused on STEM more than ever before,” said Rees. “What’s different about charter schools is that they have the freedom and flexibility to start new schools and to push the envelope on the innovation side. There is a huge opportunity for even more charter schools to focus in the field of STEM so that ultimately, we can share this information with the traditional public school system and export the learning to the larger population outside of the charter space.”
One of the issues with a lack of STEM education is the lack of STEM trained teachers. Rees credits charter schools with figuring out an answer to that problem.
“There are two venues that charter schools have pointed us to; one is using alternative routes to certification so that you can bring professionals and college professors who are teaching in these fields into our school systems rapidly; rather than sending them back to a teacher education college in order to become certified teachers,” said Rees. “Using these alternative routes are things that you can do immediately and charter schools have definitely pointed the way toward ways to attract highly qualified individuals who may not be certified through the traditional means.”
She continued, “The other venue is using technology to convey instruction. The policies that encourage the delivery of content online through a high quality curricula and instruction will definitely address the teacher shortage issue in this area. Of course the Obama Administration is a big advocate of attracting more STEM instructors and paying them more. This [teacher shortage] has been an issue since the Bush Administration and it’s not something that you can solve overnight.”
Rees explained that the quality of teachers does not change if those teachers use the alternative routes she mentioned.
“You have a situation right now where a college professor who is teaching physics cannot easily go into high school and teach high school physics. Through alternative routes, we are able to bring these types of individuals into the classroom without bogging them down with additional years of teacher training.”
Rees discussed her thoughts on what STEM education means to the future.
“I think the data is very clear in that 70 percent of the fastest growing jobs in our economy these days require subject matter mastery in STEM. The workforce and people who are employing individuals today can tell you this right now. Our K-12 system needs to respond to this crisis as fast as possible and the best way to do that is to expose students to math at an early age – starting in pre-K and to make sure that students have exposure to STEM in elementary school and outside of school; summer schools and after-school programs.”
Rees also thinks it’s important to dispel the myth that women and minorities are not attracted to STEM fields.
“I think part of the reason why we think that girls and minorities are not interested is because they are not exposed to these subjects in a way that resonates with them,” said Rees. “Part of the task is exposing them to these fields and making sure that they master math and science at an early age, so that they can develop an interest and major in these fields once they go to college. The other issue also is you are probably going to have students attracted to business schools rather than engineering schools and I think that’s something that the market will have to address if it really wants to attract our smartest students to the field of STEM.”