Monday, December 12, 2011

Structure vs. execution

STOP THE PRESSES!!!  This commentary from a friend (who, trust me, is deeply, relevantly experienced and well informed) highlights an absolutely crucial issue – the subject of a major, ongoing debate in the reform community – about the best way to improve big, broken, entrenched bureaucratic school systems.  Is it possible to make meaningful progress by doing things better (a better teacher and principal contract, better recruiting, training and management of educators, a better system for removing people who suck, a better evaluation, compensation, testing and accountability system, etc.), or is this just fiddling with the deck chairs on the Titantic and is the real solution to adopt structural reforms that slowly and steadily (or in some cases like New Orleans, rapidly) take market share away from The Blob and replace it with something with a VERY different structure?  My friend is clearly in the latter camp, though wasn't always: "I didn't always feel this way, but I've been radicalized by watching the success - which I did not predict - in NOLA and in Harlem, and the abject failure of everything else.":


Here's why I keep bringing this up:  I hear a lot of good, smart people say things like, "I love charters, but _____________." (choose one: not all charters are good, charters are only serving 3% of the kids,  it's not politically palatable to go all-charter).  And then they use that excuse to double down their efforts on fixing the district – an impossible task – and throw tons of resources at those efforts.  The people who say these things sometimes also are very pro-charter in their actions, and sometimes they very much are not fans of charters.  Either way, the result of this mentality is that scarce resources are wasted in pursuit of not the black swan that will prove that not all swans are white, but the black unicorn, which doesn't exist.


We all know that charter schools are not, by themselves, the solution.  But going all-charter is absolutely the quickest – and in some cases the only – way to create the conditions necessary for reform in all schools.  Those conditions:

- No teacher contract

- No civil service constraints

- Can close schools for underperformance relatively easily

- Not dependent on what always ends up being ephemeral political support (i.e., no school board)

- Can replicate successful schools relatively easily by allowing good operators to operate many schools


So instead of doing the hard work of creating an all-charter sector that AT LEAST has all these factors as their baseline, I fear that we'll spend all our time and money trying to create watered-down versions of these conditions in the district – we'll spend our lives trying to get tenure from 3 years to 5, trying to get mutual consent, trying to get 51% of the school board to be pro-reform, and trying to elect (and then keep in office) reform-minded mayors (look at what happened to Fenty and the possible disastrous mayor that could follow Bloomberg).   And we might actually be successful in doing a few of these things.  But we could have had them all if we'd given up our excuses.  (And, by the way, even if we get them all and turn around a few schools, that progress is extremely fragile as it still depends on the union-elected school boards to maintain it.)


I know I'm preaching to the choir here, but I think the choir – all of us – needs to starting singing much more loudly and consistently from the charter hymnal and stop letting reformers maintain that classification if they waste resources chasing black unicorns.  Most of us are too damn sheepish about saying what is absolutely undeniable:  The quickest and most efficient route to having all the necessary conditions for success across the board is to make every school a charter school.   (Please note that I didn't always feel this way, but I've been radicalized by watching the success - which I did not predict - in NOLA and in Harlem, and the abject failure of everything else.)


Let me be clear: there is no easy, obvious answer here, nor is it clear that one must choose one approach or the other – maybe both is the right answer.  But there are tradeoffs, about where to allocate scarce money, political power, and negotiating leverage.  For example, let's say a new reform-minded mayor and/or super have the political power to do one – but only one – of the following: A) A great new teacher contract that allows for the adoption of a strong, fair evaluation system, rewards for good teachers, reasonable ease to get rid of bad ones, an extended school day, and removes seniority bumping rights; OR B) Remove the cap on charter schools, get decent funding, make facilities available, plus a tax credit program that gives students trapped in chronically failing schools "exit visas from hell."  Which would you choose???

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