Scaling Up By Scaling Down

In a recent New York Times column about Steve Brill’s Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America’s Schools, Joe Nocera, says

“[Y]ou simply cannot fix America’s schools by `scaling’ charter schools. It won’t work. Charters schools offer proof of the concept that great teaching is a huge difference-maker, but charters can only absorb a tiny fraction of the nation’s 50 million public schoolchildren. Real reform has to go beyond charters – and it has to include the unions. That’s what Brill figured out.”

Wrong. Like many education establishmentarians, Nocera makes the mistake of confusing pedagogy and governance. The former—e.g. great teaching—is a hard nut to crack and Nocera is right to suggest, as does Brill, that there perhaps aren’t enough great teachers in the pipeline (or in charter schools) to educate all 50 million public school students.

But there is certainly no such impediment to `scaling’ charters. Every public school in America could be a charter school tomorrow if policymakers would allow it. Would that “fix” America’s schools? Not necessarily. But it would help.

The other problem with the scaling argument is that it assumes that big is beautiful—that no matter how successful you are, if you can’t replicate your methods of success, then your model won’t be useful to the American public school system. That is true only if you assume a governance structure like the one we now have: a system managed from above. The monolith that we now call public education is dominated by special interests, including unions, that are able to dictate education policy by keeping their hands on a few levers of control (mainly on Capitol Hill and in state capitals).

It is not so much that “reform has to go beyond charters” as it is that real reform must embrace choice—choice at the individual level. In fact, scaling up is really about scaling down.

The new MDRC study of New York City’s small schools seems to make the point perfectly. To quote from the document,

During the past decade, New York City undertook a district-wide high school reform that is perhaps unprecedented in its scope, scale, and pace. Between fall 2002 and fall 2008, the school district closed 23 large failing high schools (with graduation rates below 45 percent), opened 216 new small high schools (with different missions, structures, and student selection criteria), and implemented a centralized high school admissions process that assigns over 90 percent of the roughly 80,000 incoming ninth-graders each year based on their school preferences.

At the heart of this reform are 123 small, academically nonselective, public high schools. Each with approximately 100 students per grade in grades 9 through 12, these schools were created to serve some of the district’s most disadvantaged students and are located mainly in neighborhoods where large failing high schools had been closed. MDRC researchers call them “small schools of choice” (SSCs) because of their small size and the fact that they do not screen students based on their academic backgrounds.

And, according to MDRC, these schools worked. Graduation rates were nearly 10 points higher in the small schools. And the positive effects were spread out to all subgroups, including minorities and the poor.

“Are these small schools perfect?” writes Joe Williams in a New York Post op-ed. “Of course not. In fact, the MDRC report adds to the growing evidence that, while New York City is graduating students at a higher rate than a decade ago, most of these kids are still not ready for college…. Bloomberg and his would-be successors should read the MRDC report from the vantage point of those whose job it is to drive change.”

Williams is right to call out “those whose job it is to drive change.” But that change, as the dramatic restructuring of the system that MDRC studied in New York City shows, must be bold. And it suggests that the question we must ask is “How do you `scale up’ small?”

– Peter Meyer

This post was originally published on the Fordham Institute’s Board’s Eye View

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