Nashville’s Schools, What It’s Like to be Poor, John White, Waivers, and More

Here’s what I’ve been reading:

The Tennessee Charter School Center (TCSC) is out with a terrific new report on Nashville’s schools landscape. This new organization subscribes to the notion that the district need not be the primary unit of analysis; instead, TCSC focuses on the number of high-quality seats in the city. The findings are grave—there are so very few great schools serving kids in the city—and the recommendations are strong. Like lots of places, Nashville is evidently scared of charter-school growth, even though charters make up a disproportionately high percentage of great schools, and have therefore put policies into place that will hem in charter growth. TCSC suggests doing otherwise. This is a very good, reader-friendly analysis with strong ideas.

I think we’re on the way to fundamentally changing K–12 delivery in America’s big cities; these shifts aren’t inevitable, but we’re headed in the right direction, and the pace is accelerating. SEA reform, which is almost as important, is unfortunately many years behind. Too few groups are working in this space. But just as CRPE helped launch the thinking of systemic reform in cities, they are trying their hand at state-level stuff. Good for them! Their latest report is on SEA productivity. If you care about SEA reform, give it a read. I particularly like Roza’s and DQC’s pieces. The pension stuff is fascinating too, especially if that’s your gig. In full disclosure, I have a different take on what we need to do with SEAs; Fordham will soon release a paper on my vision. It varies a bit from CRPE’s—just like The Urban School System of the Future and portfolio districts are the conceptual equivalent of close friends who occasionally quibble. But there’s no better or more interesting group of researchers with whom to debate and collaborate.

Spend four minutes on these 500 words from The Atlantic—“Why Poor People Seem to Make Bad Decisions.” Others have written about how the hopelessness of persistent poverty distorts time horizons and, therefore, alters one’s sense of rational decision-making. But lots of insight is jammed into this punchy piece. Its huge shortcoming is that it gives short shrift to the role of personal responsibility and discipline and doesn’t even mention that many people unjustly saddled with poverty utilize these virtues to escape their current station (along these lines, you must check out this fascinating list of rich-poor behavior differences). But if you’ve never personally known the sting of going without or if you’ve ever wondered why the destitute seem to overvalue short-term gratification, this might be a real eye-opener. If you don’t immediately see the tie to education, read it, consider that primary and secondary schooling is a twelve-year venture, and then remind yourself of the heartbreakingly low college-going rate of kids who grow up poor.

I met John White, state superintendent in Louisiana, years ago when he was part of the astonishingly talented team at the NYC Department of Education. The work he did there was groundbreaking. His tenure in the Bayou State has been equally impressive. Read this short piece about him, his accomplishments, and his vision. I’m convinced he should (and will) be the next U.S. Secretary of Education.

Morgan Polikoff et. al. have produced an interesting paper comparing accountability under NCLB and ESEA waivers. They use four categories to assess the identification rules for Priority and Focus schools and then render judgments about whether waivers are an improvement to the underlying law. The paper is technical and could’ve used a scrub by some professional policy types to increase its usefulness to SEA and congressional staff. But that’s my bias; if you’re faculty, in grad school, or aspire to be either, and if you enjoy K–12 accountability talk, this might be right up your alley.

-Andy Smarick

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

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