By the Company It Keeps: Nelson Smith

In the early 2000s, I knew Nelson Smith in passing. I would see him at meetings occasionally—he was the friendly, scholarly guy who seemed to just know a whole lot about all things education reform. Soon I would be fortunate enough to get to know him much better.

I was part of a team turning the Charter School Leadership Council into the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. Nelson was selected as the first President/CEO, and I worked for him for the next three years. Turned out he had experience as a charter school authorizer, at New American Schools, at the U.S. Department of Education, and much more. Oh, and he did know a whole lot about all things education reform.

But he was also just a great person to work with. We had fun building an organization together, and there’s no doubt that our conversations about chartering greatly influenced my thinking (which ultimately led to The Urban School System of the Future). He’s urbane (see his JFK quote below), has a great sense of humor, does remarkable impersonations, and not only does he know more about old movies than anyone I know, he’s an accomplished singer and actor himself!

He’s now a senior advisor at NACSA, a lecturer at Harvard Graduate School of Education (well, la-di-da!), and a proud West Virginia resident. He’s written a terrific new paper about the Achievement School District in Tennessee for TBFI, which is the launching pad for our conversation.

Ladies and gentlemen: a scholar, a gentleman, a star of stage and screen! Nelson Smith.

The title of your new Fordham paper on the Achievement School District (ASD) speaks volumes (“Redefining the School District in Tennessee”). Why is the ASD a redefinition of the district and not just another district-takeover effort by a state department of education?

I can’t take direct credit (it’s how the ASD describes itself), but I do think it’s accurate. States have taken over a lot of districts in the past few decades (think Newark, Oakland, Philadelphia) but only since 2004 and the creation of the Louisiana Recovery School District have there been these hybrid statewide districts. They cross several kinds of boundaries: they’re state agencies that function more like LEAs; they can manage schools directly or authorize charter operators to run them. Tennessee adds another flavor, trying to serve entire communities rather than creating a loose array of ASD charters – so they provide neighborhood preference even in their charter schools.

In what ways does the ASD differ from Louisiana’s Recovery School District? In your mind, is one preferable to the other?

Their origins are the key to their differences, so I’d have a tough time choosing. Louisiana’s RSD existed pre-Katrina, but it was dramatically expanded to deal with the urgent task of getting New Orleans schools open after the floods of 2005. It went from 4 schools to more than 100 with the stroke of a pen, and there was quite literally a lot of triage going on. The direct-managed schools were generally less successful than those operated under charters, and the RSD has massively shifted toward the charter option in recent years.

The ASD, by contrast, was part of Tennessee’s winning application for Race to the Top in 2010. It addressed an urgent issue, the chronic dysfunction of some public schools (concentrated heavily in Memphis), but left room for a planning year. And under Chris Barbic the ASD has taken just a modest number of schools each year, and then decided which to run directly and which to charter through a parallel process involving community input.

The other thing they’ve done differently is to set explicit targets: moving the bottom-5% schools into the top 25% statewide—and not in growth, but in absolute proficiency. It’s audacious! It reminds of me of JFK’s comment about the moon shot: “This nation has tossed its cap over the wall of space, and we have no choice but to follow it.”

Do you think (ASD leader) Chris Barbic’s nontraditional background has influenced the development of the ASD? If so, in what ways?

You bet. Getting a thing like this underway requires a special brand of leadership, one that’s as comfortable with people and communities as with accountability spreadsheets.

People forget that Yes! Prep, his Broad Prize-winning charter in Houston, began as a turnaround. I think he learned early on that the first campaign is for “hearts and minds,” that raising expectations and getting people on board with change has to precede any specific plan. So even before the official start of his job, he got out in the neighborhoods, did community walks, and tried to convey the idea that this wasn’t a state agency swooping down but a new kind of opportunity for families and kids. I don’t want to sugarcoat this—there have clearly been some bumps, and some local politicians have made hay out of them. But I think the ASD is better off having someone with Barbic’s background than with a standard-issue superintendent in a blue suit and red tie.

You worked on a project in the 1990s that ultimately called for every New York City public school to be a charter (or charter-like) school. You were also the first executive director of Washington D.C.’s independent chartering board. You’ve been leading this field for some time now—when thinking about the past, present, and future of charter schooling, what stands out to you most?

What continues to amaze me is the power this thing has to attract smart, passionate, motivated people. For the past couple of years I’ve been co-teaching a course on (surprise!) charter schools at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (and please don’t call it “Hugsy”). This year’s class makes my point—a great cross-section of students, some with teaching experience, some with a business background, one in the Harvard Law School, and several from overseas—but all wanting to see how they could put to work the freedom and flexibility afforded by the charter model.

Someone recently wrote, provocatively, that the traditional urban school district is broken, can’t be fixed, and must be replaced. What do you think?

Good grief—what kind of person would say such a thing?

But I’ve talked about this for years. I think it was at the 2007 national charter conference in Albuquerque that I closed a speech by saying that in 30 years or so, all public schools will be held to high standards through contractual accountability; there would be choice for both parents and teachers; most decisions would be made by the people closest to the kids, with a lean, customer-focused central office. And I wouldn’t care whether we call them “charter schools” or not. I thought then, and am more convinced now, that this model can work at scale.

So seven years have passed and we’re kinda behind schedule! There just hasn’t been a whole lot of system change in traditional districts, except in a few places like Denver and Houston that are truly taking a “portfolio” approach. And you see increasing signs of strain, from Atlanta’s cheating scandal to the apparently massive faking of attendance data in Columbus, to the staggering financial burdens of pensions and retiree health insurance across the country. And costs keep rising. Something’s gotta give.

We used to think there would be a “tipping point,” a “Berlin Wall” moment—but change will probably continue to be incremental. Maybe DC is a harbinger: Just this week, Kaya Henderson announced that Malcolm X Elementary, a long-troubled public school in Anacostia, will be operated by Achievement Prep, a DC charter—but will remain within DCPS as a neighborhood school. The Washington Post columnist Valerie Strauss has already denounced it as an admission that DC is moving to an all-charter system (from the 43% share we now have). We’ll see if she’s right.

What contemporary education reform leaders, organizations, or ideas most encourage and excite you?

Well, here I need to make a plug, but a sincere one, for my NACSA colleague Greg Richmond and the One Million Lives campaign he’s spearheading. For years, charter movement leaders have been stressing quality as the lynchpin for growth; Greg’s managed to crystallize it in terms people can grasp: Close 1,000 low-performing charters; open 2,000 great new schools. And because he represents the people who actually make these decisions, charter authorizers, the campaign has a chance of really bending the quality curve in the right direction.

I also have really high hopes for Citizenship First, the new civics-education initiative being launched by Seth Andrew of Democracy Prep and Robert Pondiscio, formerly of the Core Knowledge Foundation. I’m just really appalled by Americans’ growing ignorance of their own history and government. It leaves them at the mercy of political sloganeers who cherry-pick the Constitution. The only solution is to teach this stuff far better than we’re doing.

Let me pull back the curtain for just a moment: My review of your new report used the theatre as an extended metaphor because I wanted to tip my hat to your considerable stage skills. What plays or musicals most inspire you?

Well, my stage skills are getting pretty rusty, but as an audience member I love anything that entertains and makes me think. We saw “Death of a Salesman” on Broadway last year, and it speaks more powerfully today about class and ambition than at its premiere in 1949.

But honestly, the most riveting theater I’ve seen in the past few years is produced locally, by the Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown, WV where we now live. Every July they present five brand-new plays, in intimate settings, with top-notch actors (folks you’ve seen on network TV). Last year the standout was a play called Gidion’s Knot by Johnna Adams, a two-character confrontation between a teacher and a parent about who’s responsible for a tragedy—Incredibly powerful—you held your breath at times. You’ll hear about this play again. (And by the way, one production a few years back became an Oscar-nominated film produced by George Clooney, The Ides of March. Not too shabby.)

Lastly, could you please give us one story from your days driving a cab in New York City during the early 1980s? Huge bonus points if it involves The Ramones, Blondie, or Andy Warhol.

None of the above, but I did pick up two artists who Left Us Too Soon. One was the jazz singer Phyllis Hyman. Nice lady, very chatty and sweet. I dropped her off at an old Victorian apartment building on Union Square.

The other was Andy Gibb, who was in NYC doing “Pirates of Penzance” at the time. He got in the cab with his agent or manager, and in the course of a 20-block ride executed one flawless verse of “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General,” although of course that was not his part in the show.

Lousy tipper, though.

—Andy Smarick

This interview first appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

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