First he was a private school teacher in New York City. Then, briefly, a public school teacher. After that, Sam Chaltain spent years studying schools across the country trying to determine what qualities were common to the very best.
In Washington, D.C., his current hometown, Chaltain got an unusual opportunity to examine two vastly different models up close. For nine months, he observed a new charter program struggling to get off the ground, and contrasted this with the daily ebb-and-flow of life at a 90-year-old neighborhood school. The result is “Our School: Searching for Community in the Era of Choice.”
Chaltain, 43, insists that he never intended to compare and contrast the schools in order to anoint one better than the other. Rather, he strives to present on-the-ground realities in each, with a mind toward suggesting a path forward. As Washington state prepares to open its own charter programs next year, his experience may have particular resonance for public school parents faced, for the first time, with a choice.
Q: As you know, Washington is set to open its first charter schools next year. Can you share any lessons learned from your observations of a first-year program in action?
A: I’d say get away from the false notion that the solution relies on either more — or less — charter schools. Charters and public schools need each others’ strengths. What districts need most is a greater sense of innovation, the ability to think in new ways about old problems. Charters have all those things in spades — by design, everything is up for re-creation, all the way down to report cards.
So ask: How can you ensure that not everything is up for reinvention? Are there structures that can connect district schools and these autonomous charters?
Q: You were a teacher yourself. Why did you step away from the classroom after six months as a public school educator? What was unworkable there?
A: In a word, everything. But it was less about that school than my realization that teaching is really unsustainable work. What made it unsustainable were inefficiencies that overwhelmed any sense of reward you got from the kids. We were so clearly undervalued. Think about it. First, there are the pressures of trying to be a good teacher, 180 days a year, five presentations a day, working with 100 to 200 students. Add their parents into that, and it’s managing up to 200 relationships. Teachers are being asked to do things that they’re not fully equipped to do.
Q: You knew a lot going into your year-long school observation project. In the end, did anything surprise you?
A: Yes, the degree to which schools are almost entirely staffed by young, single women who had basically accepted the idea that the way to solve our problems in education was with a disposable work force. That’s insane. You would never have Doctors for America, doing two-year stints as a pit stop on the way to some other career. Yet in teaching we accept this. Part of it has to do with the ongoing misogyny of our culture. Teaching is still seen as women’s work, a sub-profession. Not only is that incorrect, it’s a horrible strategy for dealing with the one institution that offers the closest thing to a silver bullet that we have in American society.
Q: What’s common to good schools — whether publicly or privately funded?
A: The truth is most schools are pretty good. Very few are truly great. But among those you see again and again that they create a culture among the adults that is collaborative, transparent and empowering. Kids pass through. Adults are the keepers of the culture. The way that you make lasting change is by valuing and supporting the adults, the educators. We may give lip service to this, but we lack sufficient examples of how to do it well. The reality is, we’re still more likely to be persuaded by the illusory hardness of the quantitative proof — test scores — even though there is an overwhelming consensus that reading and math scores are not enough.
Q: You seem to be advocating that we take a few breaths and decide, first, how we define success. Then, how to measure it. But isn’t the glacial pace of innovation part of the problem?
A: The question is not: Are charter schools the answer or the problem? It’s not even, how do we close the achievement gap? The question is, what does high-quality teaching actually look like? What all of us need to do is spend some time thinking about what are the old habits that we need to let go of in order to let new ideas come into being? It’s about being clearer in the questions we ask.
Q: About the national picture, are you optimistic? Worried?
A: All of the above. I’m optimistic that we’re starting to shift from the job of the kid is to adjust to the school, and toward the job of the school is to adjust to the kid. After that, I’m worried. We overvalue the things that we can quantifiably measure. We continue to speak in oppositional, two-dimensional terms about one another. You’re either working for the righteous or the damned. But it’s not about pro- and anti-. It’s about to-what-end?