Curriculum and Learning Program

This chapter will provide you with helpful information in planning for the type of curriculum you want for your school. This vital topic addresses the major aim of the Minnesota charter school statute, namely new approaches to schooling.

It can be seen from all six of the purposes of the statute that the teaching and learning of students is at the heart of the reasoning for establishing charter schools. The Minnesota charter school law states that the purpose of charter schools is to:

  1. Improve pupil learning;
  2. Increase learning opportunities for pupils;
  3. Encourage the use of different and innovative teaching methods;
  4. Require the measurement of learning outcomes and create different and innovative forms of measuring outcomes;
  5. Establish new forms of accountability for schools; or
  6. Create new professional opportunities for teachers, including the opportunity to be responsible for the learning program at the school site. (MN Stats 124D.10, subd1)
Every charter school must be designed to meet one or more of the above stated purposes.

In practice, Minnesota charter schools have adopted a very wide range of teaching and learning programs. Existing Minnesota charter schools range from Summerhillian to classical; and from highly student-centered to highly teacher directed. Whatever the decision, the school will be responsible for showing that students learn basic skills and meet state graduation standards.

Charter schools offer teachers unprecedented opportunities to use different approaches to working with students. Under charter law, they do this in an unfettered position free from central office directives and contract restrictions while remaining accountable for results in terms of student learning-a dream situation for the professional educator.

Examples of Learning Programs in Charter Schools
We’ll describe a number of curriculum approaches separated for sake of description, though in practice there may be considerable overlap. For example, even a traditionally organized school may have students doing projects part of the time. The following descriptions are meant to convey a central theme or primary way of learning the school has chosen for its program and described in its approved charter application. All of the following descriptions can be found in existing Minnesota charter schools in a fairly pure form. Considerable information can be found about each type on the Internet.

  • Project Based. Two approaches are used. Teachers determine projects for students to research and report on, or students decide on topics that interest them and seek information from a wide range of sources. In both, students learn to find information on the topic, organize their findings, and make presentations. Most learning is interdisciplinary in approach. Periodically, in many schools, the presentations are organized as exhibitions for the public.

  • Online Learning. Sometimes called cyber schools or virtual schools, students do all or part of their course work via computers over the Internet using the school’s software or vendor services. Students may work at home or at the school site. Tracking systems record student progress, time spent online, and achievement.

  • School to Work. Programs that emphasize work experience, internships and career exploration. One program uses the U.S. Dept. of Labor SCANS research to match student career interests to skills and knowledge needed in the student’s field of interest.

  • Core Knowledge. A national pre-K through grade 8 program began by E. D. Hirsh Jr. with specific knowledge and skills spelled out in considerable detail for each subject and grade level. The program emphasizes the importance of students learning a large body of “common knowledge” that an educated person would be expected to know.

  • Direct Instruction. A national program mostly for elementary grades designed by Siegfried Engelmann with tightly scripted lessons teachers that use to lead students to specific responses. Subject matter is carefully sequenced for teachers who follow detailed scripts. That is, teachers read from manuals and students respond, often chorally.

  • Thematic. These schools emphasize a particular subject area such as math, science or the arts. For example, in an arts school perhaps half of the day will be devoted to areas of the arts (music, visual arts, dance) and the other half of the day will be for the remaining subjects of the usual curriculum.

  • Community-based Learning. These schools take many more trips into the community, thus exposing students to how the world works. The aim is to help them gain greater knowledge and awareness. More time and budget is spent on field trips and bringing resource people into the school. Some schools pursue long-distance trips, sometimes internationally as a way of stretching student understanding and increasing learning.

  • Experiential Learning. These schools exemplify “learning by doing.” Other terms to describe this approach are: hands-on learning and active learning. The emphasis is on students setting goals for themselves and establishing learning experiences that help them accomplish their goals. For example, some schools have their students enter the high mileage car contest with the expectation that students will learn important skills and in the process gained considerable knowledge of physics, mechanics, and teaming. Another school has high school students remodeling homes. Some have students involved in entrepreneurial projects.

  • Sudbury model. Based on the Sudbury school in Sudbury, Massachusetts, students determine their entire learning program. Teachers act as facilitators to assist students with their interests. The schools operate as democratic communities in which each student and each staff member have one vote in making decisions about the program. The Summerhill School in England was one of the famous pioneers of this approach.

  • Traditional or Conventional. These schools are what most of us have experienced. Students are taught in grade levels and the curriculum is organized into specific subjects of language arts, social studies, math, science, physical education, health, music, art, and electives such as foreign language and others.

As schools choose an approach or a combination, clear implications follow. For example, an online learning school needs to decide how students will obtain computers and how the computers will be maintained. An experiential learning school may find it difficult to find teachers trained in that approach and may have to budget quite differently. Some schools using non-course based approaches may need teachers licensed for interdisciplinary learning, not sufficiently provided for by the Minnesota Board of Teaching.

Many of these approaches vary considerably from conventional schools. In fact, most could not be done in a conventional school because parents would not permit it as an approach for everyone unless organized as a school within a school and a choice to be made by parents. Charter schools begin with a chosen model and advertise to attract parent who want that type of education for their children.

Staff Development 
Staff who can successfully implement a model will be the most crucial factor in the operation of a given model of education. It has been said that a poorly-trained, uncaring staff will botch even the best plan for your school’s curriculum. Conversely, a powerful staff will make something out of a poorly planned model. Put as much time into the initial training as you possibly can. Use part of your start-up funds for staff development, say, four weeks prior to the beginning of the first year with perhaps another 10 days or the equivalent during the year. Don’t forget to take about a week at the end of the year to consider what went well; what needs improving and what goals need to be set for the following year. Staff development needs to be ongoing and budgeted into each year’s expenditures. Staff development can take many forms: visits to other schools, presentations by consultants, conference attendance, feedback from surveys and evaluations, team planning.

The special beauty of the charter school law is that choosing to implement one of these models or other approaches does not require a school to change, but rather a school starts with the design from the very beginning and attracts staff with the skills to implement it. The major issue an extreme design faces is whether parents will choose that school, that is, whether there is a market for the model. An unconventional school faces an additional burden: that of proving that it produces the kind of student learning the state and sponsor find acceptable.

For More Information
Existing charter schools provide a valuable source of information about different curriculum models. To learn which models existing schools are implementing, see the Profiles of Minnesota Charter Schools, a directory of charter schools in the state. The Profiles can be found online . A visit and discussion with staff at operating schools will be most helpful in making decisions about the school you wish to establish. The staff at a school you like will be able to suggest resources for further information. Use the Internet to find information on many of the models, particularly nationally known ones. You will find organizations and resources with much detail on a number of the models. See the book: Learning Alternatives for Everyone by Don Glines, available from