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Fixing How We Learn

Topic: Reforming our schools

Zeke Vanderhoek: The two things that come to mind initially is I would invest a lot more in teachers and I would intensify schools to do so but the ultimate goal of expanding the talent pool. And the second, and obviously I’m biased because I’m running a charter school, is I think charter schools are phenomenal vehicles for innovation and right now there is sort of inequity in funding for charter schools. Charter schools which are public schools get less money than traditional public schools. In particular, they don’t get facilities, which is a huge barrier to growth. So those are the two things that I would do if somebody somehow put a crown on my head and said you can go do whatever you want in education.

Question: Why do charter schools work?

Zeke Vanderhoek: I think charter schools work and in large measure the reason that they work is that when they don’t work they are allowed to be closed. So I think one of the great things about the charter school model is there is a mechanism for evaluating schools. The schools that are great continue. The schools that are not should be shut down. It’s very hard to do that in the traditional public system. There is no real mechanism for shutting down a traditional public school in a way that makes a lot of sense. I’m sure they are sort of restructuring those schools but that’s very different from shutting it now. So I think one of the reasons charter schools work is not that they are all successful but that there’s a mechanism for evaluating whether the school is successful. You know, there are phenomenal charter schools out there. There are a lot of charter management organizations that have had great results, keep achievement first on commons schools or three that come to mind. There are a lot of mom and pop charter schools out there that have been very, very successful. I don’t know because I don’t really believe anything I read until I walk into a school so I’m not the best person to say, “Oh, this is the best charter school and this is the charter school management organization.” But clearly, there are a lot of charter schools that are doing things that are right.

Question: What’s your take on standardized tests?

Zeke Vanderhoek: I think standardized tests have their place. I am sort of a moderate on this point. I think that one of the good things that they do is they can really help pinpoint when a school is really not being successful. A standardized test that test basic reading where half the kids in the school fail, that’s a huge problem and it exposes that problem and I think that’s a very important part of a standardized test. The flip side is a standardized test is not why we go to school and you know it’s limited in its uses. Schools are places that should be about much more than bubbling in answers to series of questions and I think any grade school that you walk into doesn’t have the feel of a standardized test exam factor and we all know what that feels like, the feel of a great classroom, the feel of excitement in the classroom. So, you know, the issue of standardized test again I think that they can expose problems better than they can sort of show greatness.

Yeah. I think one of the challenges is we need to find other mechanisms for schools to show their success. Standardized test has been the dominant mechanism right now. I don’t think that’s going to go away until we sort of a culture embrace other means. The writing portfolio is a good example. Every subject has its own sort of other ways of demonstrating success. If you’re in music and you play a musical instrument, can you perform in a concert? Can you sing? Can you sight-read? Every discipline has its own ways of demonstrating mastery. I think the challenge is not to say, “Oh, we should get rid of all standardized tests.” But really to complement standardized test with other more creative and more meaningful ways to assess whether students are learning.

Recorded on: June 30, 2009

We asked Zeke Vanderhoek, founder of a revolutionary public charter school in Manhattan, how he would reform the U.S.


education system.

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