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.”
Nocera makes the
mistake of confusing pedagogy and governance.

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?"

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