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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform.

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An Open Letter to Urban Superintendents in the United States of America

By Neerav Kingsland — January 23, 2012 4 min read

Note: Neerav Kingsland, chief strategy officer for New Schools for New Orleans, is guest posting this week.

An Open Letter to Urban Superintendents in the United States of America

Part I: Reformers and Relinquishers

Dear Superintendents,

You work immense hours and subject yourself to scathing criticism all in the pursuit of better serving children. I know a few of you--and without fail you are all passionate about your work. In short, I’m a fan. So know that I’m not writing this letter to attack anyone--rather, I aim to offer advice, which I hope some of you accept.

In the following letter I aim to convince you of this: the single most important reform strategy you can undertake is to increase charter school quality and market share in your city--with the ultimate aim of turning your district into a charter school district.

In other words: rid yourself of the notion that your current opinions on curriculum, teacher evaluation, technology, or anything else will be the foundation for dramatic gains in student achievement. If history tells us anything, they will not be:

Dismissing this letter--and the idea of charter districts--would have been easier five years ago. But over the past five years, educators and policymakers in New Orleans created the nation’s first charter school district.

This transformation of the New Orleans educational system may turn out to be the most significant national development in education since desegregation. Desegregation righted the morality of government in schooling. New Orleans may well right the role of government in schooling.

As the below chart details, since 2006 New Orleans students have halved the achievement gap with their state counterparts. In the next five years, New Orleans will likely be the first urban city in the country (that I know of) to surpass its state average.

Unfortunately, Louisiana ranks 49th in the country in student achievement. Surpassing the state is not the end goal. But what was once a hope is now a fact: New Orleans students have access to educational opportunities that are far superior to any in recent memory.

If the New Orleans results can be successfully replicated, tens of millions of children in other urban centers will also receive higher quality educational opportunities. Yes, the New Orleans system developed under unique devastating circumstances. But the system of schools now exists and should be evaluated on its merits. Willing adults in other cities can replicate this model, if they so desire.

The remainder of this letter will be posted over this week. In it I will cover: (a) the evidence base for charter districts; (b) why, at scale, charter districts will likely outperform traditional districts; and, remarkably free of charge, (c) how to prudently transform your district into a charter school district.

Also, each section will include a “chart of the day.” As a special bonus, today’s post includes two charts.

Before I begin in full, let me say this: Superintendents, over the years I’ve begun to believe that your identities--how each of you perceives your professional charge--are often misguided. In my experience, most of you view yourselves as system reformers--leaders who can make the current educational system much better. For the sake of the letter, let’s call you, well, Reformers. With great diligence, you fight to make our government-operated system better.

But let me suggest another identity--one whose charge is to return power, in a thoughtful manner, back to parents and educators. Let’s call these types of superintendents Relinquishers. With great diligence, these superintendents attempt to transfer power away from a centralized bureaucracy.

Both Reformers and Relinquishers possess noble aims, but only one group, I think, possesses a sound strategy.

Superintendents, in the rest of this letter I hope to convince you to become Relinquishers. Specifically, I will advocate that you return power to parents and educators through the creation of charter school districts, which are the most politically acceptable mechanisms for empowering educators.

Fortunately, I will not make many original arguments. Smarter people than me have said most of what will follow (see Bryan Hassel in 2003). I’ve just been lucky enough to have lived in New Orleans for most of my adult life. So I’ve not only read about what’s possible, I’ve lived it, which is useful in terms of perspective and credibility.

Superintendents, together, you hold incredible power over tens of millions of children. As it stands now, many of these children will receive an abysmal primary and secondary education. This is not your fault. You inherited the system in which you operate.

But, together, over the course of the next five to fifteen years--the time period it takes to create a charter school district--you all can change this. And in doing so, you could transform our country.

I hope you do so.

Part II of the letter follows tomorrow.

Sincerely,

Neerav

--Neerav Kingsland

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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