I wrote this book because, first and foremost, I wanted our community to know that our activities don’t have to be dictated by decisions made a hundred years ago, especially when those decisions have led to consistently heartbreaking results.
Second, the solution is right in front of us—it’s at work every single day, in cities from coast to coast. We just need to take it from its limited application and scale it, which will take far less work than you might imagine. And it will allow us to do what should have been ages ago: bring an end to the failed urban district.
In the simplest terms, chartering should replace the urban district.
Namely, four systemic innovations that chartering introduced into public education should serve as the tools for managing a city’s portfolio of schools. This is a plan for continuous improvement.
Here a quick walk through how our thinking and activities need to change to realize the urban school system of the future.
First, we have to begin with a new guiding question. Instead of asking, “How do we improve the district?” which wrongfully assumes that the district must be the central actor, our new question should be, “How do we maximize the number of students in high-performing schools?”
This has important consequences. It gets us focused on school performance.
It also leads us to “sector agnosticism,” meaning we judge each school individually, without regard to who runs it. This is a “three-sector approach.” It shouldn’t
Earlier today on WAMU, Washington’s local NPR station, Kojo Nnamdi hosted a discussion on a major issue facing parents in the D.C. region and around the country. As some popular schools become overburdened—and others face under-enrollment—districts contend with the process of redrawing school boundaries. This is a hugely controversial issue for families, some of whom have changed schools several times already.
One possible alternative to shifting boundaries is to, as Mike Petrilli points out during the show, “sever this link between a parent’s zip code and their child’s educational opportunities” by eliminating traditional school borders altogether. He noted that many students in the District of Columbia—almost 50 percent—are already attending charter schools, while another 25 percent attend traditional public schools out-of-boundary.
Abigail Smith, an independent ed-reform consultant and former chief of DCPS’s transformation office, shared her knowledge of the technical difficulties and opportunities that school choice afford parents. An interesting conversation ensues—be sure to check it out!
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
- 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 real way 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
School closures are traumatic.
Photo by Thomas Hawk
Secretary Duncan and his team were mobbed the other day by agitated parents and kids protesting the closing of public schools around the land. Though Uncle Sam has no real control over this, it's true that Duncan came to Washington promising to close (or overhaul) a thousand schools a year and, more recently, has been pressing for radical action in the lowest-performing 5 percent—i.e., about 5000 schools. Actual data in this realm are scarce, but NCES reports roughly a thousand closings a year among “regular” public schools (meaning that, in one sense, Duncan's promise is being kept, though not by him), as well as who knows how many charter and private schools that bite the dust. But even if the total is closer to 2000, in a country with 100,000 schools that's just 2 percent a year. Moreover, schools keep opening, too, hundreds of them every year in every sector.
Nobody likes to close schools. Secretary Duncan remarked to the crowd, “I don't know any educator who wakes up in the morning and says, ‘I want to close schools.’” And it’s self-evident that nobody likes to have his or her own school closed. It's traumatic for families, teachers, students, neighborhoods, communities, even entire villages and towns.
But there are three big reasons why schools close and will continue to close—while
About the Editor
Michael J. Petrilli
Executive Vice President
Mike Petrilli is one of the nation's foremost education analysts. As executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, he oversees the organization's research projects and publications and contributes to the Flypaper blog and weekly Education Gadfly newsletter.
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