We Can Change

Public education is a set of guiding principles—a combination of beliefs about something that ought to be provided. Some characteristics include,

• Availability to all children

• Tuition-free

• Non-discriminatory

• Preparation for success in career and higher education

But these principles can be operationalized in countless ways. How we bring them to life is up to us.

A good analogy is democracy. That too is a set of principles:

• Suffrage for all adults

• One person, one vote

• Secret ballots

• Fair counting of results

But it can take many forms. In the US, we elect a president and Congress separately. In the UK, the prime minister is part of their legislature.

Every four years, we’re reminded that Iowa has a caucus while New Hampshire has a primary. These, and more, are all legitimate forms of democracy.

The problem with urban public education is that we have been led to believe that there is but one realway to deliver public schooling: the district. In fact, many people believe that “the district” and “public education” are synonymous.

But they are not. The district is just one way to deliver public education.

We can do something different.

Some of you have probably believed that to have a meaningful, lasting influence on urban education, the district had to be your center of attention: The district is now and forever would be the dominant, default deliver system for urban schooling.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. We don’t have to be constrained by these arrangements. The decisions of our predecessors—those who created the district eons ago—need not determine our future.

We can protect the priceless principles of public education while ridding ourselves of this delivery system.

We can preserve the faith while reforming the church.

But it’s more than “can.”

I want you to see that it is “must.”

The traditional urban school district is broken.

It cannot be fixed.

It must be replaced.

The History

The urban district was created more than a century ago. It was the “Progressive Era,” during which many leaders wanted to bring to America’s cities “good government” led by the “best men.”

They had reservations about the waves of immigrants streaming into our cities. They were concerned about local, machine politics. They disliked the messiness of city government. And public schools were poorly organized.

The Progressives were enamored of a new player on the economic scene: the corporation. Corporations of that day were profitable, and they were tidy; they centralized authority; they could standardize the delivery of goods; and when they were vertically integrated, they were highly efficient.

The Progressive brought this organizational thinking to urban schooling.

They created a system that looked like a corporation. A school board would function like a board of directors. The superintendent would function as the CEO.

Its operations would be highly integrated. It would own and operate all public schools in the city. It would control all aspects of those schools—hiring, textbooks, curriculum, facilities, and so on. It would provide a highly standardized education in each of its schools, and a student would be assigned to one via her home address.

(As an aside, recall this history the next time one of today’s establishment-defender derisively calls a change-agent a “corporate reformer”…)

This history alone raises a number of important questions.

Should the “best men” of a hundred years ago control our future?

Do we prioritize centralization, efficiency, and standardization over diversity and choice?

These very issues caused brutal fights a century ago. Many low-income immigrant families felt disempowered by this corporate-like system. The historian David Tyack wrote that though the district is now taken for granted, this system came to be despite heated battles over power and values.

So there were deep cracks in the urban district’s foundation from the very start.

And then there were its results.

The Actions

In the early 1960s, we realized something was terribly wrong with the outcomes of our urban districts.President Johnson made fixing inner-city schools a focal point of the Great Society. “Poverty must not be a bar to learning,” he said, “and learning must offer an escape from poverty.”

The Coleman Report, commissioned in the 1964 Civil Rights Act, found that our urban schools were unable to compensate for out-of-school factors like parental education and poverty—meaning that a child’s demographics were predicting her future.

This of course was unacceptable. The purpose of public education is to take kids, no matter where they come from, and prepare them for a lifetime of success. Yes, it’s true that some public schools will have a tougher task than others. But that doesn’t absolve the system from its responsibility for delivering for kids.

And so for fifty years, we’ve tried to fix the urban district.

We’ve tried increasing funding. Since 1965, Title I has sent about $400 billion to low-income schools. The federal government has also created countless other programs—Head Start, Title II, after-school programs, and much more.

Local districts greatly increased their spending. State legislatures increased funding even more. States mandated even more spending for urban areas. Now many urban districts spend much more per student than the national average. In New Jersey, for example, some urban districts spend $25,000 per student. And depending on who you ask, D.C. spends somewhere between $20–30k per student.

More money came from philanthropic contributions made by businesses, individuals, and foundations—from the national names like Annenberg, Gates, and Ford, to numerous city-based foundations.

We’ve tried accountability. We’ve measured and publicized the performance of urban districts for ages now. Minimum competency testing in the 1970s then standardized states tests in 1980s and 90s. It reached its pinnacle with NCLB in the 2000s. We’ve assessed the learning of our inner-city kids and fully informed parents, taxpayers, and policymakers.

We’ve tried competition via inter-district choice, charters, tax credits, scholarships, and more. In many cities, a quarter, a third, in some approach half of students are choosing non-district schools.

We’ve tried human-capital strategies. As for superintendents, we’ve tried a wide array of career educators. We’ve tried outsiders—business leaders, US Attorneys, generals and admirals. We’ve had Teach for America and TNTP provide new teachers and a wide assortment of supports. We’ve had countless principal training programs, from district-run residencies to nonprofits like New Leaders for New Schools.

We’ve tried interventions. Some states took over urban districts.  More took over failing urban schools.  NCLB forced states to put failing districts on improvement plans. Restructuring forced these districts to seriously intervene in their lowest performing schools. SIG has provided billions to urban districts to implement serious reforms. The list of school interventions is jaw-dropping: needs assessments, staff surveys, conferences, professional development, turnaround specialists, school-improvement committees, training sessions, principal mentors, teacher coaches, leadership facilitators, instructional trainers, subject-matter experts, audits, summer residential academies, tutoring, research-based reform models, reconfigured grade spans, alternative governance models, new curricula, improved use of data—and it goes on.

What do we have to show for fifty years worth of these efforts?

The Results

After a half-century of work, these large urban districts struggle to get 15 or 20 percent of their 8th graders reading proficiently.

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Now some cities like to talk about their gains. But how much progress are they really making? Here are some examples. Since 2003, these cities have progressed from 11 percent to 16 percent proficiency. Not exactly awe-inspiring.

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But there have to be some great urban districts—how about the winners of the prestigious Broad Prize, the award for outstanding urban district performance and improvement?

Let’s look at three that have participated in NAEP TUDA since the start: Boston, Houston, and NYC. This is how they did in 2003. Very poorly. And they’ve barely budged since.

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I’ve added the average “large city” figure to show you how these compare. The best urban districts are maybe a nose better than the average.

But what about this year’s winner, Miami-Dade? It started taking TUDA only in 2009, so we don’t have much historical data. But it’ll look familiar. Very, very low performing. Miniscule progress. The tiniest bit better than other urban districts.

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When the urban district is your reference point, this is what success looks like. This is deserving of a national award.

I’m not alone in my grim assessment of the urban district.

When Arlene Ackerman recently left as superintendent of Philadelphia’s district, she wrote an op-ed saying the following:

“I’ve come to a sad realization. Real reform will never come from within the system because too many powers that be (the teachers’ union, politicians, consultants, vendors, etc.) have a vested interested in maintaining the status quo that is failing our children. Meaningful education reform must be forced upon the system from outside by giving parents of all income levels real choices about where their children go to school.”

Late last year, when Jean-Claude Brizard left as CEO of Chicago Public Schools he wrote in an op-ed,

“Transformational change will require a radical redefinition of the district…The fact is the public school district is an outdated model.”

Joel Klein tried to break down the district into a “system of schools.” Despite the city’s progress, Mayor Bloomberg wishes they had gone farther.

So what do we know from all of the above?

We know that the district is not synonymous with public education. We can do something different.

We know it was created a century ago for a very different time.

We know that some of its building blocks—distrust of choice, belief in centralization and standardization—run counter to today’s beliefs.

We know that it is dreadfully low performing, even after half a century of effort.

We know that those most familiar with its workings are saying it’s broken.

Is there an alternative? Yes, and it’s at our fingertips.

—Andy Smarick

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

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