Systems vs. Classrooms: And, Not Or

When he’s about to comment pointedly on some debate, the avuncularly pugnacious former U.S. Secretary of Education Bill Bennett occasionally prefaces his verbal fisticuffs by telling the old saw about the Irishman who sees two men fighting and interrupts to ask, “Is this a private fight or can anyone join?”

It is in this fine tradition that my friend and colleague Kathleen Porter-Magee took a scriven swipe at me.

You see, I’m in a lopsided fight with the failed urban district and its reactionary defenders. I say “lopsided” because, well, like Rocky in the 15th round, it can’t muster a defense. It’s ill served kids consistently for half a century. Even those who don’t like my left-right combination—bring it to an end and replace it with a true system of schools—never counterpunch with, “The urban district is doing great!” They know better.

I put my belt on the line this week against another glass-jaw opponent, The Broad Prize. This “award” has been feting failed districts for more than a decade now, and it shamefully crowned as this year’s winner Houston, where about one in ten African American eighth graders can read proficiently.

Like Tyson-Spinks, my match was over in about 90 seconds. But before The Broad Prize could fall through the ropes and I could have my victory interview with Ferdie Pacheco, Porter-Magee unexpectedly jumped in and puts up her dukes!

Her basic point is straightforward and irrefutable: What happens in the classroom matters most, and we shouldn’t forget that as we’re talking about other reforms. Her post did, however, catch me off guard because my Broad piece and my book, which she also discusses, are about a particular subject (systems), while her thrust is about something quite different (classrooms).

Nevertheless, had she kept it to the simple jab-hook of classrooms matter, she coulda been a contender. Instead, she threw a haymaker that missed the mark. She argued that we’ve been obsessing about the ancillary issue of governance.

Conversations about how to improve achievement and reduce gaps seem almost myopically focused on systems and governance—how schools or districts are organized, how to hold them accountable, who should hold them accountable, and on.

This just doesn’t square with the world as I see it. Throughout the duration of the urban district’s failed career, we’ve focused incessantly on the classroom—giving its teachers more money, reducing the number of kids sitting inside its four walls, adjusting what’s taught, how it’s taught, how we assess what’s taught, and on and on and on.

What we had not done is talk about the system in which those classrooms were embedded. Consider all of the supposedly dramatic reforms of the last several decades; every single one of them took for granted the district structure.

NCLB worked through the urban district.

SIG sent gobs of money to the urban district.

State takeovers just put someone new atop the urban district.

Mayoral control simply changed to whom the urban district’s boss reported.

Contracting out school operations preserved the district’s central office.

Common Core, teacher-evaluation reform, new CBAs, technology, schools within schools—the list goes on endlessly—all of these do nothing to alter the urban district’s role as dominant-default school operator. (The only reform exceptions are the revolutionary RSD and its progeny and, indirectly, non-district charter authorizers.)

It is for this very reason that I began my book so starkly: “The traditional urban public school system is broken, and it cannot be fixed. It must be replaced.”

Porter-Magee and I seem to have a fundamental disagreement about the value of systemic reform. I think it’s not only essential but also the disruptive force that will generate the gains we need. Porter-Magee’s take is different:

Claims about the potential of system-level and governance changes seem to both overestimate the impact system-level changes can have on student achievement at scale and studiously avoid what happens every day in the classroom…the conversation on the district, rather than the classroom, glosses over the question of what students should be learning, whether we’re teaching it, and whether, in particular, we’re teaching it well in the challenging context of urban classrooms.

Our disagreement on the first part of this quote is understandable. But I take issue with the rest. Everyone I know who works on systemic reform cares deeply about what happens in the classroom. But everyone specializes in one way or another. That’s both natural and productive. We don’t scold a pediatrician for not focusing on the elderly. And to this day the number of people working to improve the stuff of the classroom is exponentially higher than those focusing on the system.

But more importantly than all of this, I readily concede that my recommended alternative system can’t succeed without the right things happening in classrooms. I wish Porter-Magee would concede that these right things will never happen in nearly enough inner-city classrooms unless the urban district is brought to an end. Its policies, practices, habits, systems, contracts, and so much more conspire to stymie great teachers and principals.

I always thought Porter-Magee and I were on the same team, just playing different positions. I was the beefy offensive linemen and thick-necked fullback clearing a path so she had holes through which to run. I was trying to create the system in which her smart standards-assessments-curriculum-instruction approach could succeed.

By referencing football, I’ve clumsily mixed sports metaphors, totally ruining my extended boxing motif. Alas.

So I’ll just end with a VMA allusion. When I first read Porter-Magee’s intelligent post, I, in total self-pity mode, felt a little like Taylor Swift. My system-of-schools argument was gaining traction, I’d made a strong case against The Broad Prize, I was making my way onto the stage…and then I get Kanye’d! My little moment in the spotlight and I get upstaged by a sharp-minded superstar.

But the thing is, unlike Yeezy and Swifty, Porter-Magee and I aren’t competing in the same category—I’m vying for Best Systemic Reform, she’s won the Best Classroom Reform award for the last few years and shows no signs of letting up.

Both of us can be right.

Both of us can walk home with a Moonman.

So I’m not going to go all T-Swizzle and hold a grudge—head back to my bedroom, pick up a guitar, and write an edu-equivalent of “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.”

No, I’m going to call Kathleen up and see if she wants to head into the studio together.

Next year, for our smash hit “Systems of Classrooms,” we’ll walk away with Best Collaboration.

-Andy Smarick

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

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