I see two kinds of charter schools out there that have attractive elements: The classical variety and the experiential learning model. (The charter schools that simply adopt public school models on a smaller scale leave me cold.)
One of the classical variety puts their approach to education this way:
"The classical approach to education can be described as a journey to meaning. It begins with students acquiring knowledge through a wide familiarity with literature, history, science, math, music, arts, people, and places. Liberty's purpose is to lead young people on an odyssey of the mind and heart, which will steer them towards self-reliance." -- Liberty Common School in Fort Collins.
Here's a more free-flowing experiential type of school:
"Skyland's vision for educating one student at a time can best be understood based on The Five A's: 1. Academic vigor – student learning is in-depth, engages at a high level, and challenges them to learn new skills and knowledge; 2. Active learning – hands-on work leads to a product that reflects the student's level of effort; 3. Authenticity – student work reflects real-world learning and application; 4. Adult relationships – students work closely with adults (teachers and mentors) who help them pursue their passions and interests; 5. Assessment – student work is evaluated against professional standards, aligns to state model content standards, reflects a body of work, and includes student reflection." -- Skyland Community High School in Denver.
A Third Way.
Classical schools are great for bringing the Western tradition to students; progressive schools emphasize things like relevance, relationships and authenticity. I think there is a need for both. The problem is that most people seem to see this as an "either/or" proposition: one is for tradition or for progressivism. This is, of course, an ideological reduction.
Someone who recognized the need for a holistic education was Luigi Giussani (see recommended reading elsewhere on this blog). In The Risk of Education he discusses three elements necessary for education to be truly "an introduction to the whole of reality":
1. Tradition as a proposal or hypothesis of meaning. All teachers do this consciously or not. What we say or fail to say communicates our approach not only to the "subject" but are approach to life itself.
2. This tradition becomes a problem for the student and creates in him or her a "crisis." What Socrates, Buddha or Jesus or Marx or Freud or whomever might have said years ago is reduced to trivia if the student does not encounter for himself or herself the problem posed. The tradition must become existentially relevant for the student.
3. The student is entrusted (yet accompanied by the teacher and others) to verify the hypothesis of meaning that his been proposed. The student moves to seeing tradition as a problem but is given the freedom to say, "Yes, what I've learned is true" or "No, it's garbage" or "I'm not sure." In any event, the student learns a method for approaching life that does reduce problems to ideological categories.
This is only a rough sketch of his approach to education. Please see http://crossroadsnyc.com/files/giussani_education.pdf for a transcript of an address Giussani delivered in 1985. It is The Risk of Education in an abbreviated yet very accessible form.