By the Company It Keeps: Robin Lake

Robin Lake is the Director of the Center for Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) at the University of Washington. I’m personally indebted to her, because for more than a decade, my thinking has been consistently informed, influenced, and improved by CRPE’s work. Robin has been instrumental to CRPE’s most important contributions, including extensive research on charter schooling and hands-on support for districts attempting the groundbreaking “portfolio” concept.

She has published on issues as diverse as special education, turnarounds, accountability, innovation, LIFO, SEA reform, and governance. Her counsel is sought by organizations across our field and by policymakers of all stripes.

And she’s just a really good person. Everyone likes and respects Robin, especially those who know her best. I’ve admired her thoughtful, sensible approach to this work and her honest, down-to-earth interactions with friends and colleagues.

Her responses will give you a flavor for her many other strengths. She’s sharp, modest, open, honest, and really funny.

Now she’s TOTALLY wrong about her critiques of my book, which is perfect in every way imaginable. But I won’t hold that against her, especially because her answer to my Slaughter/Sandberg question is hilarious, and her analyses of Ronaldo’s dancing, Messi’s godliness, and Beckham’s tattoos are spot on.

So with no further ado…She’s huge in Greece and Germany! Robin Lake.

You joined CRPE in 1994 when charters were in their infancy. What has most surprised you about chartering’s evolution now that it’s, in your words, “a mature presence” in public education?

It has been amazing to watch the charter movement evolve from a small, quirky, but interesting sideshow to a pretty powerful force in mainstream public education. From the early days, I was dismayed that most government agencies saw charter schools more as an escape valve for angry parents and disaffected teachers, not as a way to create better schools by establishing binding performance goals and consequences, placing the locus of authority and accountability at the school level, and pushing schools to be distinctive and purposeful about their instruction. It took far too long for school districts and states to wake up to that potential, but I’m glad to see it happening more often now. The work ahead is to make sure that all charter authorizers take their jobs seriously and are held accountable for results. Authorizers need to close more low-performing schools, but they also need to get a heck of a lot smarter about who gets a charter in the first place.

The thread running through all of the essays in this year’s Hopes, Fears, & Reality is innovation. Your introduction notes that chartering will expand and evolve; the question is in what direction. What’s your best guess for a) how the charter sector of ten years from now will differ from today’s and b) how it will differ from its contemporary district sector?

The growth of charter schools has been strong and steady, but I have two worries. First, I don’t see the number of high-performing schools growing quickly enough to meet the incredible need across the country. We have many thousands of failing schools every year, and as a country, we consistently produce only about 500 new charter schools a year, about a third of which are not successful. Growth is much greater in certain cities but almost nonexistent in others. We’re long overdue in asking whether the charter sector could grow more quickly with quality, what’s holding it back, and what are creative new ways for successful charters to expand their reach to more students.

Second, back in the late nineties, some predicted that charter schools would eventually be reregulated and would end up looking exactly like the district schools that founders sought to escape. We’re not there yet, but I do see many signs that if we’re not careful, we’ll be there soon. There is too much overzealous regulation, but as we argued in Hopes, Fears, & Reality, charter schools have really not taken full advantage of their autonomy. Many CMOs are recreating school district bureaucracies, and few charter schools have experimented with new staffing models, compensation, innovative uses of technology, and even new approaches to instruction. It doesn’t make sense to just open the floodgates to unregulated risk and experimentation because children can’t afford to lose years of learning when untested models fail, but we should be much more intentional about investing in, testing, and launching path-breaking charter models.

Jeffrey Henig’s essay considers charters expanding into more affluent areas. As a recovering statewide charter authorizer, I know those fights—suburban groups ferociously opposing a potential charter in their communities—can be brutal. Are you skeptical of suburban charter growth for this reason or others, or will the astonishing results of suburban models like BASIS and the expected drop in suburban test scores in the Common Core era cause now-complacent suburbs to give chartering another look?

I grew up in an affluent suburb and nearly dropped out of a school that regularly makes the US News top high schools list. We need to face the reality that our suburban schools have failed too many students and have often skated by with mediocre instruction. Many suburban schools are also rapidly looking more urban these days, with the influx of immigrant families. But yes, the resistance is fierce from suburban families who think their schools are perfect, and philanthropic foundations have not been focused on supporting suburban charter expansion.

For those reasons, if charters are going to fill a niche in the suburbs, it may need to come about through partnerships like the one in Spring Branch, Texas. Spring Branch’s superintendent, Duncan Klussman, realized that he was running a pretty good district that would never be great until he figured out what the folks over at KIPP and YES Prep were doing right. So he invited them to co-locate with one of his schools, and he hired one of KIPP’s leaders to run the district’s professional development and portfolio office. We should be creating incentives to make more of those partnerships happen.

I also want to say that while BASIS may be a good example of how charters can succeed in the suburbs, the test results for suburban charter schools have not been strong overall. We should figure out why that’s the case and what can be done to create more high-performing suburban charters.

You’ve been at CRPE for nineteen of its twenty years. What is it about the organization and its work that has kept you excited? Anything you’re working on now that’s especially captivating?

You know, when I started working at CRPE I thought I’d be there a year or two, but then Paul Hill handed me a copy of his manuscript for Reinventing Public Education. That night I read his proposal that school districts should no longer run schools directly but, instead, oversee performance contracts for charter-like schools, and I could barely get to sleep because I couldn’t stop thinking about his idea. I was intrigued, skeptical, and completely hooked on CRPE’s agenda: to think up provocative ideas about systemic reform; do rigorous, honest research to learn if they work or not; and then actively work with thought leaders to inform policy. Really, I couldn’t believe someone was paying me to do this work. I tried to leave a few times, but I quickly realized that there are a lot of policy and research organizations out there but few that are really doing path-breaking, nonpartisan, and really pragmatic work.

I’m so thankful I stuck around. I’ve had the unique opportunity to help grow an organization from what used to be known as “Paul Hill’s office” to an internationally recognized education-policy shop. And now, having taken over as director, I get to work with the best analytic team in the country to help shape its future. We’ve got a tremendous amount of interesting work brewing. We just received a grant from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation to launch a new initiative on governance as a civic enterprise. We’ll be working with cities to question, prod, push, and analyze different reform strategies. We’ll help inform how cities can manage issues like special education, accountability, and facilities when choice becomes the norm, not the exception. We’re also looking into using computer-based simulations to model different approaches to governance and urban reform and will produce web-based tools for cities engaged in this work.

Watch for a lot of new work from CRPE’s new crop of brilliant analysts on the state education agencies of the future, district-charter collaboration, the costs of blended-learning models, charter schools and special education, and, of course, more research and tools for portfolio management. Oh, and we’re incubating our colleague Marguerite Roza’s new Edunomics Lab.

You probably know my three-part thesis. Urban districts are broken; they can’t be fixed; they must be replaced. What do you think I have right, and what do I have wrong?

I love the book. As you’ve said many times, putting each school on a performance contract and separating school operations from district oversight comes out of CRPE’s central thesis. Where we differ is that you think all districts should completely replaced by outside charter authorizers. I think you’re being shortsighted for a few reasons: 1) Many charter authorizers are terrible, and many districts can be strong authorizers! I’m way more interested in accountability for oversight agencies than labels. 2) Most cities simply don’t have enough high-quality schools and CMOs to replace every district school with quality in any reasonable timeframe. 3) Superintendents like Paul Vallas, Joel Klein, and Tom Boasberg and a fast-growing number of urban districts understand that the traditional district system is broken, have closed ineffective schools and opened effective ones, and have committed to legal autonomy at the school level and a bare-bones central office. These districts are evidence that districts can fix themselves given the right conditions.

I also think that your book doesn’t deal sufficiently with how the urban school system of the future will ensure that all students are served equitably. We are starting to see anarchy in cities where five or six different authorizers are chartering schools: In the wild marketplace of options, every family has to fend for itself to ensure its child is treated fairly and is educated effectively. In the end, some government agency or a set of agencies needs to assess whether the current portfolio of school options in a city is serving all students’ needs and has to make the choice process rational and equitable for all kids in a community. No matter who’s responsible for doing this, it needs to happen.

Look, we won’t get rid of districts or their boards any time soon. But we do need a large number of more effective schools soon. If we rely completely on charter authorizers, we have a very long road ahead of us to replace all of our failing schools with high-quality ones and to provide real opportunity for all kids.

Your colleagues used some flattering adjectives to describe you: “unflappable,” “fearless,” “incredibly principled,” and “fiercely loyal.” Which individuals from your personal or professional lives have you tried to emulate? Any skills or strengths you wish you had?

I don’t know about all that, but I am focused and pretty stubborn about what I believe in. CRPE tries not to waste people’s time. We try to make all of our work clear, original, and compelling. We never back down from a rigorous finding, no matter how uncomfortable it makes even our own friends and funders. And we try not to publish anything that someone would not pick up, read, and remember out of a pile of 100 reports.

I’m driven to do impactful research and writing partly by my own impatience to solve problems, but Paul Hill has had a monumental influence on me. Paul introduced me to world-class people and ideas and has modeled rigor, relevance, wit, and humility. As far as personal deficits, there are many. I frequently wish I had more quantitative skills, but I’ve found ways to talk quant-heads like Betheny Gross, Julian Betts, Brian Gill, and others into helping out with analyses when I need them.

Are there any ideas, arguments, books, or articles—having nothing to do with education—that had an outsized influence on your intellectual development?

In grad school I was obsessed with organizational theory in other fields. (What makes some military units more effective than others? How do businesses develop competitive niches and strategies?) Tony Bryk and the literature on effective schools was also formative. In education we tend to talk about pieces of a school or district (teacher quality, technology, early-childhood education, etc.) and pay too little attention to what makes schools coherent and productive organizations and how government can promote or detract from those attributes. Some of my early research for CRPE was trying to understand what organizational qualities made some schools more effective than others. That work stays with me and informs all of my work at the city, state, and federal levels. No governance reform matters if it doesn’t produce many more strong schools, as fast as possible.

I’m told that your husband was a professional musician. As an artist, do you notice that he sees the world differently (e.g., problem-solving style, ability to make conceptual connections, etc.) than most others? If so, can you think of ways your work has been improved by having an artist nearby? And if so, are there lessons in there for other people or organizations?

Oh, that is funny. Matthew was in a rock band in high school. (They were big in Greece and Germany!) He’s since had stints as a creative writer, a boat builder, and for the last fifteen years he’s worked for a public agency, where he developed a profound skepticism of government. I wouldn’t call him an artist as much as an economist-wannabe, a professional contrarian, and an incisive analyst. I get some of my best ideas and most trusted counsel from him. Lessons? We in education are way too insulated. We need to engage more with the leading thinkers in economics, political science, technology, sociology, and other disciplines who will push us to be much more rigorous and creative in the way we approach problems in education.

Obviously you’re a top-notch professional. But your colleagues said that you’re also an extremely very devoted mom. Any advice for young professionals—men and women—trying to discover the ever-illusive work-family balance? Any particular thoughts about Sheryl Sandberg’s or Anne-Marie Slaughter’s recent contributions to the debate?

My kids would be the first to tell you that there is no balance in my life. I’m overly optimistic about what I can accomplish and am thus always teetering on the edge of disaster. I travel too much, spend too much time checking email, and justify my boys’ excessive time playing Minecraft with the hope that they are developing programming skills. I’m no model working parent. I do think, though, that my boys admire my work, and they have sure learned a lot about the politics and challenges of making good public policy. I know that I’m a better policy analyst thanks to my experience advocating for a child with Asperger’s in a crazy, mixed-up public school system. And my boys, who are much smarter than I, certainly keep me humble.

As several of my male colleagues have noted, the CRPE staff is about 75 percent women. We find ways to cover for each other when we have a sick kid or when someone goes on maternity leave. Most of us leave the office by 5 p.m. to be home with our families, and our most productive office hours are between 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. Haven’t yet read Lean In or Slaughter…too busy!

Lastly, my sources tell me that you’re a fanatical soccer fan. So: Ronaldo or Messi? (You know, Becks says it’s Messi.) Speaking of Mr. Posh Adams, he briefly played for the L.A. Galaxy; any thoughts about the only red card of his MLS stint—for a flagrant tackle against your very favorite team, the Seattle Sounders FC?!?!

This one is easy. Lio Messi is a god. Ronaldo is a pretty boy who spends more time dancing around the ball than playing real soccer. And Becks and his tats obviously met their match with the oft-brilliant but profoundly erratic, Sounders. Come out to Seattle, Smarick, and I’ll take you to a game, make you paint your face green, and show you what real soccer fans are all about.

-Andy Smarick

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

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