Scaling up by scaling down, part 2: Deborah Meier meets Jay Mathews

I’m not sure what was more disconcerting from the blogosphere last week:
’s comparison of KIPP schools’ “ideology” to that of Nazi Germany or Jay
’ hesitation in suggesting that Washington, D.C., shouldn’t be a
city of charter schools.

Meier writes:

What troubles me most about the KIPPs of the world are not
issues of pedagogy or the public/private issue, but their "no
excuses" ideology implemented by a code that rests on humiliating those
less powerful than oneself and reinforcing a moral code that suggests that
there's a one-to-one connection between being good and not getting caught. It
tries to create certainties in a field where it does not belong.… As we once
reminded colleagues, Nazi Germany had a successful school system—so what? I'd
be fascinated to interview some KIPP graduates to learn how its work plays out
in their lives.

Yikes. That’s quite a leap.

In his Washington Post column Mathews, who wrote a book
about KIPP (Work
Hard, Be Nice
, was describing a new report that suggested that the D.C.
public school system either close 38 struggling schools or send their students
to charters. Mathews notes that charters are already so popular in the nation’s
capital that 41 percent of the city’s students attend them with more on the way.
He writes:

This charter fan doesn’t think that’s good. It is not clear that
the best charters are capable of such rapid expansion. More important, moving
kids from bad regular schools to charters in the way Gray’s Chicago-based consultant, IFF, recommends
would accelerate the downward spiral of traditional public schools in the city.

What is wrong with this picture? Meier and Mathews aren’t arguing with
each other—or even about the same thing. What links them is a scaling
phobia.  Meier sees too much of it;
Mathews, not enough. Meier sees fascism in a popular model of schooling that
seems to be doing a fairly good job educating its 32,000 kids—all of whom, as
far as I know, attend voluntarily—and Mathews simply doubts that “the best
charters are capable of such rapid expansion.”

Choice has a way of solving problems all by itself.

As I suggested in my Scaling
up, part 1
, essay, part of the problem here is in seeing charters as a
pedagogy (or, in Meier’s view, ideology) rather than a market mechanism, one
that is largely indifferent to pedagogy or ideology, and, for that matter,
capacity. Choice has a way of solving those problems all by itself. The market,
as Milton Friedman famously said, is not a cow to be milked.  The idea is not to shoe-horn schooling into
governance systems but for governments to get out of the way so good schooling
can happen. As
RiShawn Biddle
says, “The very assumptions—including benefits of scale—at
the heart of district bureaucracies hinder much-needed efforts to stem dropouts
and help kids enjoy economically and socially prosperous futures.”

By coincidence, over the weekend I came across a dusty copy of a
Fordham report from 1999 called “Better By
.” Written by James Traub of the New
Times, the study profiles
ten models of school reform—from Accelerated Schools to Core Knowledge and
Success for All—and is still a good read. Traub even includes the Coalition of
Essential Schools, founded by the respected educator Theodore Sizer and
trumpeted by Deborah Meier, whose Central East school in East
Harlem was a part of the Coalition. And Traub notes that “an
effective model may bring out the best in all the constituents of a school, but
it must succeed with the ordinary human material of administrators, teachers,
and children.” The question seems to be, How do you scale up freedom? 

I was struck by Traub’s introductory “truism,” that “it is a lot easier
to make a good school than to make a good school system.” Or, “Such are the charms
of the exemplary school that one can easily forget the difficulty of

In the context of preparing this essay, however, I wondered, why we should
worry so about creating a good system. But as Traub suggests, “Something here
must be generalizable and replicable; but what?”

We need less system, not more.

Might I suggest that it is hiding in plain sight. The success of so
many different models of schooling over the last couple of decades—including
the ones Traub wrote about in 1999—suggest that it is less pedagogy than
governance methodology that is the key. And the what may just be government
getting out of the way. We need less system, not more. The very notion of
scaling up may be leading us in the wrong direction, as RiShawn Biddle
suggests, because it only encourages the bureaucracy’s bad habits.

A new flower must “take root in the local soil,” wrote Traub about
model school designs. Indeed, Jay Mathews is hesitant to throw over
neighborhood schools. But he must be careful to check the soil before planting
any seeds. We’ve got a lot of scrub and stone to remove before we start cultivating,
much less planting.

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