As a veteran education reporter, I have some advice for parents listening to Mitt Romney and Barack Obama debate this issue: Tune out the phony disagreements such as school vouchers (which are unlikely to make a difference) and instead focus on where the two agree: Launch more great charter schools.
Even four years ago a push to ramp up approval for charters, which are publicly funded but independently run schools, would have been somewhat rash. Even the high-flying charters, where inner city kids showed impressive academic growth, had weaknesses: teacher burnout, a shortage of great school leaders and an addiction to foundation funding that impeded rapid expansion.
But recent developments give charter schools a promise that warrants the twinned blessings from Romney and Obama.
For those who believe that quality teaching trumps all other factors -- and these days it is hard to stir up a disagreement about that -- my book research visit to the True North Troy Preparatory in Troy, N.Y., was revelatory. Ever wonder what a school would look like that was staffed entirely by best-in-the-nation teachers, all working together with rhythm, collaboration and purpose? That's True North, a teaching design drawn up by the school's founder, Doug Lemov, author of Teach Like a Champion.
At True North, all the teachers use Lemov-documented teaching techniques, which accounts for the early academic success seen at that school. The point here is not True North's success, but rather the rapid spread of successful teaching techniques pioneered by charter teachers. At last count, roughly 400,000 copies of Lemov's book have been sold, which means "the word" is spreading far beyond charter teachers.
In San Jose, I visited several Rocketship elementary schools. Nearly all their students are low-income Hispanic students, many of them arriving in kindergarten with limited English-speaking skills and no preschool experience. And yet, the academic outcomes for Rocketship students approach those of several white, middle-class elementary schools in Silicon Valley.
Running academically successful schools for poor students, however, is not Rocketship's most important contribution. What matters more is that Rocketship has figured out a way to run great schools on a modest budget, keep its teachers from burning out at high rates and build a leadership cadre for rapid expansion.
At the heart of Rocketship's innovation is its "blended learning" model where students pick up many of their basic academic skills in digital learning labs. True, blending learning, now endorsed by many schools, threatens to become the latest education fad. Inevitably, that will unleash ill-advised practices. (Sticking a roomful of students into a classroom with computers loaded with education software does not blended learning make.)
But that's where Rocketship promises to make a major contribution. Education researchers and reporters can visit Rocketship to learn how blended learning is done at a state-of-the-art level. All schools, charters and traditional, will benefit.
New York's Relay Graduate School of Education is another place where the charter-generated teaching techniques that have proven effective with high poverty minority students get passed along. Traditional teacher colleges that fail to learn from Relay risk irrelevance.
Obviously, Romney and Obama have no shortage of differences, some of them stark. But the shared desire to expand quality charter schools places both Romney and Obama on the right side of the same issue.
How often does that happen?
Richard Whitmire, author Why Boys Fail and The Bee Eater, is co-author, with Gaston Caperton, of the just-released The Achievable Dream: College Board Lessons on Creating Great Schools.