A Pragmatic Approach to Systems Reform

Reinventing America’s Schools: Creating a 21st Century Education System
by David Osborne
Bloomsbury USA, 2017, $30.00; 432 pages.

As reviewed by Andy Smarick

The 25th anniversary of chartering is an opportunity to take stock of this policy innovation’s greatest contribution: changing our understanding of what constitutes a public-education system. For a century, that term meant having one government operator of schools in each geographic area, purposely similar schools, kids assigned to schools based on home address, and schools existing in perpetuity regardless of performance. Chartering taught us, however, that the principles of public education could be consistent with an environment of multiple nonprofit operators, schools’ differing from one another, families exercising choice, and school closure as a consequence for failure.

This alternative approach, which now educates more than 30 percent of public-school kids in 19 cities, requires a new structure in order to work. Cities where chartering has scaled must invent interconnected processes for determining who can run schools, how kids enroll in schools, how new schools are opened, how failing schools are shuttered, and so on.

Nevertheless, most recent book-length treatments of chartering have focused on individual charter schools and the leaders who founded them. It wasn’t always so; in the early days of chartering, Paul Hill and Ted Kolderie wrote about creating a new system. To be sure, a number of writers (including Robin Lake, Ashley Jochim, and others at the Center for Reinventing Public Education; Chester Finn, Bruno Manno, and Brandon Wright; Neerav Kingsland; Joe Siedlecki; and more) have also produced valuable work on the systemic elements of this innovation. But most charter-related tomes—Work Hard, Be Nice; Sweating the Small Stuff; On the Rocketship; Whatever It Takes—have focused on high-performing, high-poverty schools.

In his new book Reinventing America’s Schools, David Osborne aims to shift our focus from kids and educators to the principles, policies, and practices that make their schools possible. Though the author’s progressive tendencies might frustrate right-leaning readers, Reinventing America’s Schools nonetheless makes a significant contribution to the field.

The Story of System Reform

Osborne has spent the last 30 years thinking about public-sector reform. His seminal 1992 book Reinventing Government, co-authored with Ted Gaebler, helped policymakers appreciate that the government can delegate responsibilities to other service providers and then hold those providers accountable for results. This idea—that the government can set the direction and course-correct along the way while others execute the work—is the “row-steer” dichotomy that Osborne and Gaebler made famous.

In Reinventing America’s Schools, Osborne focuses on three cities (New Orleans, Washington, D.C., and Denver) to explain how concepts like rowing and steering, primarily through chartering, are changing the delivery and oversight of primary and secondary education. Osborne deftly uses a story-based approach to show why cities are going down this path, which laws are necessary, and the kinds of civil-society activity required. This reportage makes the book highly readable and animates important but potentially dry elements, such as why a series of public meetings was significant. From time to time, though, the downsides of this approach are evident; interesting but non-essential episodes are given sections, while serious actors are introduced like characters in a novel (a New Orleans leader is described as “intense, dark-haired, and attractive”).

What holds these stories together, however, is the author’s serious conceptual framework. Throughout the book, Osborne returns to a collection of principles called “the seven Cs”—including parental choice, serious consequences for school failure, school-level control of operations, and the separation of rowing and steering—that define new public education systems. Although leading cities have undertaken pioneering reforms, their systems often violate one or more of these key principles.

Miles to Go

A virtue of the book is that it has a backbone. Without mincing words, Osborne criticizes the traditional district-based system and makes it clear that charter-like schools underperform true charters. Have New Orleans’ path-breaking efforts worked? “In a word, yes.” How do the results of D.C.’s traditional district compare to those of the city’s charter sector? “When all is said and done…the charter model is clearly superior.”

But Osborne could have emphasized the mistakes being made by these reform-friendly cities. For example, by allowing a district to simultaneously operate schools and oversee schools run by others, Denver, Indianapolis, and Camden are violating the steer-row principle. New Orleans may violate it soon, too, if the district continues to run schools after state-authorized charters are returned to its control. Some of these cities’ semi-autonomous schools, including Achievement School District schools in Memphis, violate the choice principle as assignment-based schools. A number of cities have “charter-lite” schools that violate the control principle by not giving their leaders full operational authority.

To be clear, these violations are noted, but Osborne could’ve done more to highlight their frequency and perhaps even note this important commonality: In cities where the traditional district is expected to lead the revolution, we’re likely to see violations of the steer-row, control, and choice principles. Indeed, D.C.’s charter school sector, overseen by the independent D.C. Public Charter School Board, comes across as the purest form of this new system. A reader might wonder why the superiority of the non-district approach over the district approach wasn’t the author’s primary thesis.

Another criticism is that Osborne is too dismissive of the arguments of education reformers on the political right. The introduction delivers what some might consider an unfair and unnecessary broadside against private-school choice. Given that high-accountability voucher systems adhere to the seven Cs more faithfully than many urban districts, the author should’ve been more charitable here. Similarly, Osborne’s swift critique of policies allowing multiple charter authorizers to operate in one area doesn’t engage with the legitimate concern that a single-authorizer environment can constrain school supply, homogenize offerings, and concentrate too much power in one government body.

The author’s too-soft treatment of district violations and too-tough treatment of bolder reforms are, however, understandable. For decades now, Osborne has taken on the difficult task of selling bureaucratic reform to government bureaucracies. His generous handling of slow-moving change and swipes at more aggressive, conservative-leaning reforms are the not-unreasonable tactics of someone who, thanks to hard-earned experience, knows his audience. In Reinventing America’s Schools, Osborne encourages cities to progress along a continuum instead of shaming them for not already adhering to his principles.

Theory and Practice

The final sections of the book also suggest that Osborne has acclimated himself to the irresolvable tension between ideas and implementation. He first argues that all of the seven Cs principles are essential—that working with them is “more like multiplication than addition”—and makes the case for embracing the true charter model rather than a “charter-lite” approach of limited autonomy and accountability. Later, he concedes that, if a city can’t do real chartering, then “charter-lite models can outperform traditional districts.” This is the flexible, pragmatic response of a man who realizes that he writes for an ideal world but has to work in the real one.

But this is by no means a book of compromise. Osborne takes a theory of decentralization, autonomy, accountability, and choice, tests that theory against real experience, and marshals substantial data to argue that the new systemic approach is succeeding. His early theoretical work influenced this theory and approach, and he has every right to be gratified because of it.

Andy Smarick is a Morgridge Fellow in Education Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

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