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One of the most significant educational movements that have recently occurred in the United States is the implementation and expansion of alternative schooling. The term "alternative schooling" refers to nontraditional public and private educational approaches created to provide choice to parents and students within local school districts. These programs, ranging from actual schools to programs within schools, began to develop during the late 1960s. Over time, alternative learning programs grew from a few isolated innovations in local communities into an educational reform involving millions of students. These alternative schools provide three characteristics which distinguish them from traditional schooling: voluntary participation, small school size, and customized curricula or personalized instruction. By the year 2000, an estimated 15 percent of the students enrolled in public education in the United States were attending a public school of choice ("Alternative Schooling"). Three of the fastest growing learning alternatives are charter, magnet, and virtual schools.
Charters represent an expansion of public school choice, offering free, publicly funded educational alternatives to traditional public schools. One relatively unexplored research question concerning charter schools asks whether charter schools are more efficient suppliers of educational services than are traditional public schools. The prospective effectiveness advantage of charters in comparison with traditional publics is one of the mechanisms that support the suggestion that charters could improve performance for their students while using the same or fewer resources, and that the systemic effect of charters could lead to improved outcomes for traditional public students without requiring an increase in education sector resources. Findings suggest that charter schools are able to produce educational outcomes at lower cost than traditional public schools.
Competition and choice will inspire schools, charter and traditional, to be more innovative, which in turn will lead to better student outcomes. Educational innovation is defined in terms of practices of relative commonness in a local district environment. Hence, a charter school is innovative in its use of a practice if the traditional public schools in its local school district are not using that practice. Parental involvement is the prime characteristic of charter schools that significantly predicts variation in levels of organizational innovativeness between the charter school and its traditional school competitor.
Home visits are common, if not mandatory, in charter schools. By contrast, some school districts prohibit public school teachers from visiting students at home for liability or contractual reasons. This practice, conducted once or twice a year, is just one of many ways that successful charter schools have modified the learning and teaching experience, often with positive results. Some charter schools have opened in neighborhoods where the community feels let down or underserved by traditional schools. In such cases, visits can help to establish trust and build parent involvement. Ideally, these visits send a clear message to parents that teachers take their work very seriously.
Charter schools have two advantages over most traditional schools, autonomy and a mission. Having a focused mission or school philosophy, and the autonomy to make the decisions to put that philosophy into practice, is what sets charter schools apart from regular public schools. In many districts, each school is required to use the same curricula. Under this approach, all teachers might, for example, use a reading curriculum that follows an explicit phonics and comprehension program. Charter school advocates say their site-based autonomy allows teachers to be more creative and responsive to the needs of their students.
"I feel really valued in what I know about teaching," says Erica Amachi, a first grade teacher at KIPP Philadelphia Elementary Academy (Rix, "Lessons from Charter Schools"). She recalls that at the traditional public school in Atlanta where she taught for five years, "we had a scripted reading instruction program that broke our students into groups for us, based on data that hadn't been gathered in our classrooms." Amachi, who works with a co-teacher at KPEA, says that reading assessments at KPEA are conducted both school-wide and on a class-by-class basis. The assessments are given at regular intervals and look at all aspects of reading. "This way we can help kids who haven't met the baseline as well as push kids who have already mastered the skill," Amachi says (Rix, "Lessons from Charter Schools").
Charter school principals can make a number of decisions to tailor their schools to students' needs. One is working within the school to build curricula that will best suit the student body. Another is the ability to lengthen the school day. In Chicago, school days are longer at UNO's network of 11 charters than at the city's public schools, to provide more instructional time. Over the course of the year, students at UNO schools are in class for 1,330 hours, compared with 977.5 hours for their counterparts in traditional public schools (Rix, "Lessons from Charter Schools"). Many children, say researchers, benefit from a longer school day.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, as of the 2008-2009 school year, magnet school enrollment was actually higher than charter school enrollment (Fleming, "Magnets Adjust to New Climate of School Choice"). However, charter enrollment has steadily risen each year while magnets' enrollment, though still high, has been more variable. Similar to their charter school equivalent, magnet schools not only strive to raise academic achievement options for students traditionally left behind, but they also create strong schools that promote diversity.
While the term "magnet school" has changed over time, traditionally it referred to schools whose curricula were linked to thematic or content-specific subject matter and whose enrollments remained unbound by neighborhood lines. They have typically relied on lottery systems to determine enrollment; and while many magnet schools still use luck-based lottery systems, other districts have shifted to heightened academic requirements as a way to decide who can attend their magnets.
Magnet schools grew out of changes in desegregation policy in the 1970s (Blank & Archbald, "Magnet Schools and Issues of Education Quality"). The first magnet schools were based on models from specialty schools in public education, such as the Bronx School of Science, Boston Latin School, and Chicago's Lane Tech, which have offered advanced programs to selected students for many years. Such specialty schools admit students by examination or other measures of performance or ability and tend to serve highly gifted students. The idea of a magnet school, however, was to attract and enroll students based on their interest, not ability level, in either a particular subject or career, such as science, art, or business, or to attract students because of a different instructional approach, such as an open school or a multicultural school.
Today, many districts have a variety of special schools and programs that enroll students from throughout the district: vocational schools, gifted and talented programs, GED programs, juvenile offender programs, schools for pregnant girls or young mothers, specialized professional schools, and others. These are generally not considered customary magnet schools because they serve no formally established racial integration purpose, as magnet schools were intended to do when launched. Although these specialty schools do not meet the original condition for a magnet school, sometimes they are labeled as magnet schools.
A smaller reform in traditional education is virtual schooling. Digital technology is becoming increasingly commonplace in K-12 education. Many researchers argue that it will save money and transform schools into more effective situations.
Although, debate is simmering over how well they perform and whether all students should be eligible to "attend" them, online K-12 schools are multiplying nationwide and student enrollment in online courses is souring. As of 2010, at least twenty-seven states had at least one entirely full time, publicly funded online school, including high schools and schools serving pre-kindergarteners through twelfth grade. While enrollment numbers are hard to find, researchers estimate that more than 150,000 K-12 students nationwide attended virtual schools full time in the 2009-2010 school year (Clemmitt, "Digital Education").
Virtual schools originally were set up to accommodate students facing illness, pregnancy, bullying or some other issue, but they have since begun to accommodate those who, for whatever reason, wish not to attend a brick-and-mortar institution. Advocates of online courses say virtual schools are not much different from courses in brick-and-mortar schools. "There is still a live teacher. It may be at a distance, but that teacher is still instructing and interacting with the student," said Susan Patrick, president of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, a membership group for public and private entities involved in online education (Clemmitt, "Digital Education").
Alternative schooling has become a fundamental element of public education in the United States. Developments in educational approaches have evolved from a grassroots effort by parents and educators experimenting to discover better ways to educate school-age children and integrate educational ideas that accommodate our fast-paced modern society. Alternative learning provided by charter, magnet, and virtual schools are not only proving themselves effective in teaching all types of students, but are also highly desired by parents and students. Furthermore, the practices developed in these nontraditional educational institutions contributing to local, state, and national efforts to improve public education throughout the United States. Growth and expansion of schools of choice like charter, magnet, and virtual schools are likely to continue and pave the way for schooling methods throughout the twenty first century.