Charter vs. District Systems

By NASA’s Aqua/MODIS satellite (http://visibleearth.nasa.gov/view_rec.php?id=6204) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Neerav Kingsland looks at the recent findings on professional development via the TNTP Mirage report and the Rand Corporation study, and comes to the conclusion that “Professional development only seems to lead to student achievement increases in charter schools!”

I noted in a recent post that in the TNTP study, teacher effectiveness and growth was notably more observable in a CMO, and I hypothesized that this could be attributable to some charter networks having more tightly managed systems of assessment, curriculum, teacher practice, and observation.

But to suggest that this is an innate quality of charter schools is questionable. There is absolutely no reason for a district school not to be in possession of such qualities, and indeed, many do.

Kingsland argues for NOLA-style systems, in which the government merely regulates, rather than operates, schools, with the idea being that the private sector can conduct operations more efficiently and effectively. But there’s a potential, and possibly critical, issue with such a system: a lack of coherency.

Within a well-managed district, on the other hand, there is potential for greater coherency. A state or central office can provide specific direction on operational shifts via policy that all district schools would be expected to adhere to.

Kingsland asks, “is it more likely that we can achieve major gains in districts or scale highly effective charters?,” I think he’s created a false dichotomy. I think the more interesting question is, “How can we achieve major gains by leveraging federal, state, and district policy to implement effective and coherent systems, content, and practices across all schools?”

A NOLA-style system might be able to make swift initial gains, due to well-managed networks putting into place strong systems of assessment, feedback, and practice. But it’s certainly feasible that a well-managed district system can make even bigger gains over the longer haul.

I disagree, therefore, with Kingsland’s position that charter schools are inherently superior in enhancing teacher effectiveness and promoting student achievement. In fact, I charge that a NOLA-style system may ultimately run up against its innate incoherency, at which point, large-scale gains would stagnate.

I could be totally wrong on this, of course, and admit that this is conjecture and based on my own values. It may be that a NOLA-style system may end up leading to greater coherency in operations due to competition, and thus, best practices evolve through demonstrated gains in one organization and subsequent adoption by those who are attempting to compete.

I may also be overstating the ability of district schools to establish coherency, given constraints in operating within often volatile political contexts.

The problem is, of course, that while NOLA has demonstrated significant academic gains on tests since moving into a private sector operated system, it’s still purely conjecture as to whether the same benefit would transfer to any other district simply due to a  structural change. It’s also still conjecture that those gains can be solely attributed to a structural shift to private sector operation, rather than the simple mechanism of distributing students across geographical boundaries.

But let’s assume for the moment that Kingsland is correct that a private sector operated school system is the optimal system. I would still argue, even in such a case, that this doesn’t mean that such a system will necessarily scale effectively into different social and political contexts.

In the face of great complexity and uncertainty, we can hedge our bets by planning for robustness, rather than optimality.

The question therefore becomes: what is the most robust? A school system operated by the public, or a school system operated by the private sector?

Perhaps the answer lies somewhere in between.

Structural vs. Operational Education Reform

New Orleans, LA, January 17, 2008 — The repaired school & branch library building. FEMA funding is helping to rebuild schools damaged and destroyed by flooding after Hurricane Katrina. Photo by Manuel Broussard/FEMA.

Neerav Kingsland has a thought-provoking piece entitled “The Complexity of the New Orleans Reform Effort Might Actually Make It Easier to Scale” up on his blog.

He argues that the large effect size shown by a recent study on the New Orleans reform can be attributed to the fact that the reforms were largely structural in nature, rather than programmatic, and that structures are easier to scale and replicate.

My guess is that because New Orleans took on a structural reform, and not a specific programmatic reform, the effort might actually be easier to scale. 

Often times, interventions that show the largest effects, such as labor intensive pre-k programs, require a lot of specialized expertise, high fidelity to implementation, and significant resources.

The confluence of organizational talent, strategy, and implementation is very hard to replicate.

But the New Orleans reforms were not particularly operational in nature. There was no multifacteded curriculum that had to be adopted, no teacher coaching model that required years of training, no wrap-around model that necessitated the coordination of numerous agencies.

This made made me remember a passage from Richard Kahlenberg’s book on Al Shanker, Tough Liberal*, specifically Shanker’s reaction to the Bundy proposal for Ford Foundation funded pilot community control district in Ocean-Hill Brownsville. Shanker’s position could be framed as a suitable counterclaim to Kingsland’s position:

Fundamentally, Shanker argued, the focus on governance changes were a distraction. ‘The tragedy of the Bundy proposals,’ Shanker said, ‘is that they take us away from the question of why children won’t read, why they can’t write, where is the money going to come from and what can we do for these children,’ focusing instead on whether board headquarters should ‘be a little closer or a little further away.’

“Whereas Shanker had supported the Ocean Hill-Brownsville pilot as part of a deal to get more money for [More Effective Schools], the Bundy proposal was education on the cheap–a way to be for change while also balancing the budget.”

This isn’t a direct counter to Kingsland’s take, but an interesting counterpoint in the sense of stressing the importance of funding, resources, and interventions over that of governance.

In my view, both facets are important. We need the hard work on the ground and the necessary funding for cultivating and implementing effective programs, but we also need coherent and consistent systems that connect to and organize that work.

Kingsland also makes an interesting claim about governance and structure as a critical strategy in coping with complexity:

“. . . the fact is that the New Orleans model is predicated more on layering in a structure and strategy over a complex system than it is on executing an operational heavy, resource intensive intervention.

In the long run, this is exactly why I think the New Orleans model has the potential to scale.”

This is a claim I find compelling, given the acknowledgement of education as a complex system. I’m just not sure I’m on board with the notion of turning an entire school system into a CMO. While this research is promising, I’m not so sanguine about the replicability of the New Orleans experiment, given the extreme variability of conditions and contexts.

What do you think about transforming an entire public education system into a privately managed system?

*I just happen to be reading it at this moment. Excellent and essential reading.

Keiretsu and School Ecosystems?

By Luinfana (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
The Rise of the Ecosystem

The third feature of the modern economy is that firms are increasingly finding that their competitive advantage comes from collaboration with other firms and individuals rather than solely through their own efforts. This is where all the talk about “ecosystems” comes from.   But once again, although it may be getting more popular as an approach, it is not something entirely new. Japan has had keiretsu for a long time.   What’s more, the fact that companies may obtain competitive advantage through building ecosystems doesn’t change what the competitive advantage is that they obtain from building them: either the ecosystem enables their differentiation or generates a cost advantage.

–Roger L. Martin, “There Are Still Only Two Ways to Compete” on Harvard Business Review

Endangered Species Watch: Louisiana’s Public Schools Going Extinct

It’s hard to believe that it’s been seven years since Hurricane Katrina laid waste to Louisiana and the Gulf Coast. At the time, the devastation was so overwhelming that it was impossible to zero in on any one aspect of the destruction and hold it in focus. Certainly, I gave little thought to the effect Katrina would have on Louisiana’s public schools. Not for a moment could I imagine that by 2010, a mere five years later, a Democrat-appointed Secretary of Education could call Katrina “the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans.”

That Arne Duncan quote is old news now. But the wholesale destruction of public resources in Louisiana remains very much on the agenda. On June 1, The New York Times reported that the state is bidding to privatize its public schools and “preparing to shift tens of millions in tax dollars out of the public schools to pay private industry, businesses owners and church pastors to educate children.” Public funding, The Times reported, will be offered to some schools that teach “bible-based math” and others that refuse to teach evolutionary theory because “all those things…might confuse our children.”

What does any of this have to do with ecosystems? Only two years after a disastrous, British Petroleum-funded oil spill ravaged the physical and economic well-being of the Gulf Coast’s poor and working-class, it’s hard to take seriously the idea that private companies are better suited than public schools to care for children. More than that though, many of the religious institutions that would receive government funding under the Louisiana plan have declared war on science itself— a frightening prospect for anyone interested in sustainable environmental policies. The Times described conditions and curricula at various schools eligible for funding under the privatization plan:

“The Upperroom Bible Church Academy in New Orleans, a bunker-like building with no windows or playground, also has plenty of slots open. It seeks to bring in 214 voucher students, worth up to $1.8 million in state funding.

At Eternity Christian Academy in Westlake…first- through eighth-grade students sit in cubicles for much of the day and move at their own pace through Christian workbooks, such as a beginning science text that explains ‘what God made’ on each of the six days of creation. They are not exposed to the theory of evolution… 

Other schools approved for state-funded vouchers use social studies texts warning that liberals threaten global prosperity; Bible-based math books that don’t cover modern concepts such as set theory; and biology texts built around refuting evolution.”

As I read these descriptions, I was struck by how miserable these school environments sounded: students sitting at cubicles or in “bunker-like” buildings without windows. For all of their rhetoric about standards and innovation, is this the future that corporate-minded education reformers envision for public schools? (If the connection with corporate-style reform seems like a stretch, keep in mind that Michelle Rhee and her StudentsFirst organization have been working with Republican governors around the country to promote school voucher and privatization plans.)

Shortly after Hurricane Katrina hit, Adolph Reed wrote a brilliant piece in The Nation that described the roots of the Katrina disaster. Reed wrote:

“We have to be clear that what happened in New Orleans is an extreme and criminally tragic coming home to roost of the con that cutting public spending makes for a better society. It is a shocking foretaste of a future that many more of us will experience less dramatically, often quietly as individuals, as we lose pensions, union protection, access to healthcare and public education…and as we are called upon to feed an endless war machine. ”

Seven years later, as Louisiana’s government sends the state’s poorest children to study bible-based math in windowless barracks, Reed’s words seem prophetic.

Unnatural Selection: Darwin and the Business Model

I’ve been thinking about natural selection lately. If schools are ecosystems and students are the species occupying those ecosystems, these student species must be constantly adapting to meet the demands of their environments. Eventually, some of these adaptations must harden into character traits, and these character traits, developed in response to school environments, must form some part of a student’s adult identity.

In a school based on our ecosystems model, we would hope to create an environment where successful adaptations might include taking intellectual risks, supporting one’s peers, pursuing long-term projects, and contributing to the school community outside the classroom. In the end, such adaptations would help students develop into adults who are well rounded, thoughtful, open to new experiences, and compassionate towards others.

Unfortunately, our schools are led by reformers who believe that a corporate model, rather than an ecosystems model, will produce the healthiest adults. What sorts of values do these reformers promote? As The New York Times recently reported, David Coleman, an architect of the Common Core Standards, articulated the business reformers’ values quite clearly last year:

“In progressive education circles, Mr. Coleman is often criticized for his emphasis on ‘informational texts’ over fiction, and his push for students to write fewer personal and opinion pieces. Last year, he gave a speech making that point in strong terms, asserting that it would be rare, in the working world, for someone to say, ‘Johnson, I need a market analysis by Friday, but before that I need a compelling account of your childhood.'”

Under the corporate model, an account of one’s childhood is superfluous fluff, while a market analysis is a text of value. Let’s look at the skills required to produce these two types of texts.

To write a “compelling” account of one’s childhood, a writer must first engage in thoughtful, critical reflection. The writer must identify themes that run like threads throughout the events of their childhood, and must convey these themes to the reader. Using imagery, metaphor, and a variety of other literary devices, the writer must evoke the world of their childhood for the reader, allowing the reader to visualize, empathize, and ultimately experience that world vicariously. Finally, the writer must edit and proofread vigorously, with an eye for both minute detail and broader meaning. The writer’s goal is to share an experience with the reader, to guide the reader through that experience, and to help the reader learn from that experience.

Now, I’ve never written a market analysis, so I did a bit of research to find out what that process requires. Apparently, a market analysis is a text of such complexity and sophistication that it’s written every time someone has a proposal for a new business. Thankfully, unlike with compelling memoirs, the folks at about.com were able to break down the process of writing a market analysis step by step. Here’s are the highlights:

“To define your target market, you need to ask the specific questions that are directly related to your products or services. For instance, if you plan to sell computer-related services, you need to know things such as how many computers your prospective customer owns. If you plan on selling garden furniture and accessories, you need to know what kinds of garden furniture or accessories your potential customers have bought in the past, and how often…

You’ll write the Market Analysis in the form of several short paragraphs. Use appropriate headings for each paragraph. If you have several target markets, you may want to number each.

Remember to properly cite your sources of information within the body of your Market Analysis as you write it. You and other readers of your business plan will need to know the sources of the statistics or opinions that you’ve gathered from others.”

In other words, a market analysis involves doing research on what sort of things different types of people like to buy, putting that information into paragraphs (which you may or may not label with numbers), and citing your sources. Oh, and the purpose of this text? To convince investors to give the writer money.

To be honest, I think Coleman’s crazy for preferring this type of reading to a good memoir. Then again, the business model is a bit crazy. Literally. As The Week reported a few months ago, the business world is “full of psychopaths.” Specifically, according to the CFA Institute (“a global association of investment professionals that sets the standard for professional excellence), one out of every ten Wall Street employees “is a clinical psychopath…compared with one out of 100 people in the general population.” The CFA report describes these “financial psychopaths” as people who “generally lack empathy and interest in what other people feel or think,” and who possess an “unparalleled capacity for lying, fabrication, and manipulation.”

What does all this have to do with our students? Well, when folks like Coleman argue that schools should be promoting the skills and values of the corporate world, they’re talking about a world that’s disproportionately composed of psychopaths. Instead of healthy participants in sustainable communities, reformers like Coleman want schools to produce adults who are incapable of empathy, but skilled at writing market analyses.

Am I being too harsh on the business reformers? Here’s Mayor Bloomberg, champion of the business model, describing the methods he used to achieve success (I’ve added the bold):

“Among old McDonald’s hamburger wrappings and mouse droppings, we dragged wires from our computers to the keyboards and screens we were putting in place, stuffed the cables through holes we drilled in other people’s furniture—all without permission, violating every fire law, building code, and union regulation on the books. It’s amazing we didn’t burn some office or electrocute ourselves.”

You can judge for yourselves, but running electrical cables through a firetrap littered with rat feces in violation of health, safety, and legal regulations for the sake of personal financial gain sounds pretty nuts to me.

In a school system run by people who hold these values, students who display kindness, generosity, or any of the other fluffy virtues that generally fall under the umbrella of “goodness” will be failing to reach the standards. As our schools fall increasingly under the sway of these corporate reformers, is it any wonder that cheating scandals are on the rise? Students, teachers, and administrators are simply adapting to their values of their new, corporate-minded environments. It’s unnatural selection: survival of the sickest.