Searching for Community in the Era of Choice

By Sam Chaltain

Teachers College. 192 pp. Paperback, $26.95

In Washington, D.C., about 43 percent of students attend charter schools, and only 25 percent attend their assigned neighborhood schools. Washington parents have choices. What does all this choice mean for public education, local author Sam Chaltain wonders in his new book, “Our School.”

“In this new frontier,” Chaltain asks, “will the wider array of school options help parents and educators identify better strategies for helping all children learn — strategies that can then be shared for the benefit of all schools? Or will the high stakes of the marketplace lead us to guard our best practices, undermine our colleagues, and privatize this most public of institutions?”

Chaltain spent a year closely following the fortunes of two Northwest public elementary schools, Mundo Verde Bilingual Public Charter School and Bancroft Elementary School, in an attempt to come to a real understanding of how they work. He found caring teachers and administrators in vibrant schools who struggle to meet new standards with little guidance and at times little support.

‘Our School: Searching for Community in the Era of Choice’ by Sam Chaltain (Teachers College Press)

Chaltain writes vividly and with great detail about the schools and makes a compelling point about teacher training: “One thing every medical school shares is the belief that a strong professional training is built on a dual foundation of two courses: Anatomy and Physiology. In education, no similar consensus exists. . . . Most programs give short shrift to the two most important things a teacher needs to know: how children learn and how they develop.”

Based on what he discovered during his year in the school trenches, Chaltain highlights the daily struggles and triumphs of the people most affected by all the chatter about improving schools. “It will always be true, in teaching and in the natural world,” he concludes, “that not everything can be measured, just as it is true that there are ways to measure aspects of teaching and learning that go a lot deeper than basic-skills test scores. The challenge is to find the balance between the elusive but evergreen art of teaching, and the emerging but illustrative science of the brain. We can do both.”

— Moira E. McLaughlin