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New Orleans Is An All-Charter City. Is That a Good Thing?

By Sam Chaltain — May 30, 2014 7 min read
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This week, the last five traditional neighborhood schools in New Orleans’ Recovery School district were closed - making it the country’s first district made up entirely of charter schools.

That’s a good thing, right?

If you look at some of the baseline data, it’s hard not to say yes. According to the Washington Post‘s Lyndsey Layton, prior to Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans’ high school graduation rate was just over 50 percent. In 2013, it was just shy of 80 percent. Similarly, student math and reading scores have risen over thirty points higher than they were before the storm. Indeed, as longtime PBS education reporter John Merrow shows in his documentary film, Rebirth, there’s a lot to like about what’s happening in the Crescent City.

Of course, Merrow’s balanced coverage also exposes some of the problems with the reform strategy in New Orleans - from reduced financial oversight to increased social stratification. And community activists like Karran Harper Royal have gone further, arguing that school closures in cities like hers disproportionately affect African American students and families. “This push to close schools . . . is the new Jim Crow,” she explained, pointing out that New Orleans’ “new normal” means something very different to residents like her. In an all-charter city, she says, “You have a chance, not a choice.”

Which is it? Are charter schools the answer? Or are they the beginning of the end of public education in America?

I’ve been thinking about these questions a lot these days, after spending the month of May traveling around the country to talk about my new book, which is (surprise surprise) all about school choice. What I learned can be boiled down to these two observations: first, school choice feels (and is) very different depending on where you live; and second, the question we ask when we talk about school choice - are charter schools the solution or the problem? - is not the question we should be asking.

With regard to the first point, let’s begin with a city like Washington, D.C., where enrollment in both charters and district schools is rising, and where the district and charter community are collaborative enough to have held their first unified lottery this year. Contrast that with a state like Michigan, where four out of five charter schools are for-profit entities. Then look at a city like Chicago, where more than fifty neighborhood schools have already been closed, where more will undoubtedly be shuttered this fall, and where shiny new ones are opening all the time - and this amid a larger climate of declining enrollment overall (you do the math), and you begin to see that speaking broadly about “school choice” or “charter schools” is appealingly simple, and completely inappropriate.

How choice feels depends on where you live, and how high (or low) the levels of trust, transparency, and cross-sector collaboration are in those communities. Period.

To be clear, school choice should feel different in different places, because different driving forces are at the root of different parts of the movement. Is the goal to build space for more innovation as a way to not just increase the number of charter schools but also create a rising tide that lifts all boats and improves all schools (of all stripes) in a city? I would argue that’s what’s happening, mostly, in D.C. Or is the goal to create a zero-sum game that results in the disappearance of everything old in order to make way for anything new? That’s what it feels like, partly, in Chicago.

Too often, our infatuation with charter schools has led too many of us - from soccer moms to President Obama - to equate them with reform. More charter schools, the logic goes, equals more quality and a reimagined public school system. And, to be sure, I’ve seen a lot more good charter schools in my travels than bad ones. But you can’t improve American public education, systemically, one school at a time (and, to be clear, although cities like New Orleans and D.C. are inundated, less than 5% of children nationwide attend charters).

This is not surprising to anyone who knows anything about systems change. “From a very early age,” Peter Senge writes in his classic book, The Fifth Discipline, “we are taught to break apart problems, to fragment the world.” This reflex makes complex tasks seem more approachable. But the truth is we all pay a price for deluding ourselves into thinking that complex problems can be addressed with piecemeal, or, in this case, school-by-school, solutions.

In his book Solving Tough Problems, Adam Kahane postulates that one reason we do this is because we fail to recognize the interplay of three different types of complexity: dynamic, generative, and social. “A problem has low dynamic complexity,” Kahane writes, “if cause and effect are close together in space and time. In a car engine, for example, causes produce effects that are nearby, immediate, and obvious; and so, why an engine doesn’t run can be understood and solved be testing and fixing one piece at a time.” By contrast, a problem has high dynamic complexity if cause and effect are far apart in space and time. This characterizes just about any major challenge faced by American public education today. Kahane says such problems “can only be understood systemically, taking account of the interrelationship among the pieces and the functioning of the system as a whole.

“A problem has low generative complexity,” he continues, “if its future is familiar and predictable. In a traditional village, for example, the future simply replays the past, and so solutions and rules from the past will work in the future.” By contrast, a problem has high generative complexity if its future is unfamiliar and unpredictable. Think again of the challenges faced by schools, which must depart from the traditional Industrial-era model of schooling to match the needs of students who are entering a radically different world than the one their parents grew up in. “Solutions to problems with high generative complexity cannot be calculated in advance, on paper, based on what has worked in the past, but have to be worked out as the situation unfolds.

“A problem has low social complexity if the people who are part of the problem have common assumptions, values, rationales, and objectives.” This may have been true in the past, when one’s neighborhood school was more likely to attract families of similar faiths, economic levels, and ethnicities. But a problem has high social complexity if the people who must solve it together see the world in very different ways. “Problems of high social complexity,” Kahane says, “cannot be peacefully solved by authorities from on high; the people involved must participate in creating and implementing solutions.”

So how do we identify solutions for a field that is marked by high degrees of dynamic, generative, and social complexity? One step is merely by asking the question, as opposed to debating whether we need more or less charter schools. And another step, impossible to avoid when the opening question is a different one, is to start seeing public schools and the communities they serve as systems, not parallel tracks.

Too often, this interdependence between charters and traditional public schools (not to mention between charters themselves) is given short shrift. Yet our still-nascent experiment in school choice - national and/or local - won’t work until we do. And although New Orleans’ highly localized experiment as an all-charter city may ultimately succeed, its strategy, applied nationwide, is a fool’s errand. “The most profound strategy for changing a living network comes from biology,” Meg Wheatley explains in Leadership & The New Science. “If a system is in trouble, it can only be restored by connecting itself to more of itself.”

So what does this all mean?

To unleash the sort of generative feedback loop that can improve all schools, we must see reform as a both/and proposition. We need to raze and rebuild, and we need to preserve and improve. We need the ingenuity of single-school autonomy, and we need the scalability of whole-community structures. We need to incentivize schools to instill in young people the skills, habits and dispositions they’ll need to navigate this brave new world, and we need to stop rewarding schools that are merely perfecting our ability to succeed in a system that no longer serves our interests. And, finally, we need to realize that as appealing as it may be to assume otherwise, concepts like “choice” and “charter” are not monolithic terms; they are fluid, fulsome, and unfolding before our eyes.

In New Orleans, and everywhere else, we remain in the eye of the storm.

(This is my last column for Education Week. Beginning next week, I’ll return to blogging exclsuively for my own site, samchaltain.com. Hope to see you there!)

The opinions expressed in Of, By, For: In Search of the Civic Mission of K-12 Schools 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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