Action Items: Innovating Education

Dr. Ting Sun and Dr. Robert Nelsen discuss how public education is advancing to better serve students

Despite California’s charter school movement now being nearly 25 years old and the fact that the state has about 1,200 of these schools, much confusion remains in the public sphere over charter schools and how exactly they differ from — or resemble — traditional public schools.

On this episode of Action Items, Sacramento State President Dr. Robert Nelsen and Dr. Ting Sun, executive director of the Natomas Charter School and member of the California State Board of Education, join host Tre Borden to discuss K-12 public education, and college and workforce preparedness.

Just What is a Charter School?

Anyone can start a charter school — a parent, teacher, community member, nonprofit organization (but not a for-profit company in the state of California) — and they do so for many reasons. Perhaps to create a dual-language campus or a performing-arts academy. The process involves gathering signatures and petitioning the local school district, which the school board then approves or denies (a denial can be appealed).

All charter schools in California are public schools and must be non-sectarian, tuition-free and open to all students (if a school is full, a public lottery is held). Teachers and administrators have to be credentialed in the same way as those working at traditional public campuses.

One area of controversy and confusion has been the involvement of for-profit companies within the charter school movement. What’s happening, Sun says, is some schools contract with for-profit companies to deliver curriculum or back-office services — an arrangement that “happens all the time in public education.” For instance, she says, districts pay millions of dollars to for-profit textbook companies.

The main difference between charter schools and traditional ones: flexibility and site-based decision making. “Charter schools are an organizational innovation — they’re not an educational innovation,” Sun says.

Students for the Future

But traditional schools can also be sites of innovation, both Sun and Nelsen agree. Public school curriculum is shifting more toward critical thinking, STEM and looking at the whole student to teach the appropriate knowledge and skills for future careers.

Nelsen says one of the biggest advancements in public education has been dual-enrollment, which refers to high school students taking college courses while in high school, making them more likely to graduate college in four years. “If they come to college with 10 credits or 15 credits, they’ve already got one semester going for them,” Nelsen says.

Nelsen says companies nowadays want applied knowledge — not just theoretical — where students entering the workforce can come in and get right down to work. The business world wants “students who can do things,” so companies can spend their time not on training new employees, but on developing them into teams.

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