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Originally published Thursday, September 30, 2010 at 3:21 PM

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Guest columnist

Urgent education needs demand bold new thinking

It might be time for Washington voters to reconsider their ballot-box rejection of charter schools, writes Tom Stritikus, the University of Washington's dean of the College of Education. A new documentary, "Waiting for Superman," explores the possibilities of alternative-school approaches.

Special to The Times

Waiting for Superman

"Waiting for Superman" opens at selected theaters in the Seattle area Friday. For more information, go to:

WHEN Davis Guggenheim, director of "An Inconvenient Truth," began work on "Waiting for Superman" he may not have intended to focus his movie on charter schools. But somewhere along the way, that's exactly what happened.

As a Teach for America corps member and dean of the University of Washington College of Education, I fully support alternative schools and charter schools. I know firsthand that many of today's youth aren't getting a quality education. But can charter schools alone fix this problem?

Though Washington voters have previously rejected charter schools at the ballot box, it may be time to reconsider that decision as part of a larger agenda for improved education. But we need to keep quality teaching and strong school leadership in the forefront of the discussion on how to improve student learning.

The evidence regarding charter schools is mixed. While some charters have had success, others have failed to yield promised gains for students. The shining stars are very bright in this arena, such as Geoffrey Canada, founder of the Harlem Children's Zone and a focus for "Waiting for Superman."

When the College of Education welcomed Canada to our campus for a visit last year, we wanted practicing teachers, principals and superintendents to engage with Canada in real, honest discussion about the cracks in our educational system. The reason? Charters and alternative routes breed innovation and force us to critically examine our own role in solving the intractable problems of education.

Yet this debate must extend beyond charter schools and alternative certification — it must focus on how to train and hire quality teachers for every classroom in the United States — charter, Teach for America, College of Education or any other alternative.

Today's reality of multiethnic, multicultural and high-poverty schools demands radically new educational approaches. Our very own Columbia City is among the most diverse neighborhoods in America. That neighborhood is emblematic of our diverse state, where young learners speak many languages and represent a vast array of cultures. If we want today's students to succeed, we must take care that their teachers bring that understanding of diversity to their classroom practice.

Teachers must arrive at schools ready to navigate the most challenging classrooms. They must have the skill set to adjust curriculum for a diverse array of learners. They must be ready to use evidence and adjust their practice on the fly. They must understand what children need to learn and how to help them do that. Every teacher-preparation program — alternative or traditional — must ensure that future teachers have these skills.

Furthermore, teachers in training should be exposed to environments to help them see children in a broader context. UW Teacher Education Program students begin their teacher-certification program in local, community-based organizations, like El Centro de la Raza or the Vietnamese Friendship House. Working with learners in informal settings broadens their understanding of students and develops their skills to reach all of the students in their classrooms. This prepares our students to teach children from diverse racial, ethnic, language and class backgrounds.

Every child deserves a transformative education and only through rigorous, evidence-based practice can we create an educational system deserving of today's bright youth. The failure of education to serve our most disadvantaged students cannot be tolerated in a just society.

Tom Stritikus is dean of the College of Education at the University of Washington.

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