Opinion Blog

Rick Hess Straight Up

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

Education Opinion

Part III: American Pragmatism

By Guest Blogger — November 22, 2013 5 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Note: Neerav Kingsland, CEO of New Schools for New Orleans, is guest posting this week.

There is good reason to be skeptical of Relinquishment: most significantly, it has yet to be tried at scale. To change hearts and minds, we will need multiple proof points that Relinquishment works.

New Orleans is Necessary but Not Sufficient

So far, New Orleans stands as a proof point that (a) a failing school district can achieve significant improvement (b) when a state initiates Relinquishment strategies (c) to reinvent an educational system after a natural disaster. In the march towards inevitability, New Orleans is an important step.

Moreover, New Orleans normalizes what previously was a radical idea: we can let educators run schools, let parents choose amongst these schools, and have government regulate the system. And student achievement will rise.

Yet, ultimately, New Orleans only proves that Relinquishment can work under very specific circumstances. In statistical jargon, evidence from New Orleans is of questionable external validity. Moreover, New Orleans still has a long way to go before it can stand as a proof point for excellence and not just improvement.

Other High-Quality Charter Markets have Not Achieved Scale

Outside of New Orleans, cities such as Boston, New York, and Newark all boast charter school markets that outperform their traditional counterparts (as measured by rigorous experimental and quasi-experimental research). Yet, market share is below 30% in each of these cities and we can’t yet claim that full Relinquishment “works” in these geographies.

Charter schools serving a low market share of students may be subject to student creaming effects; they may possess philanthropic backing that cannot be scaled; and they may rely on human capital pipelines that cannot be sustained at 100% market share. So while these charter markets should be expanded aggressively, we can’t currently say that they prove that Relinquishment can scale.
All of which begs the question: how do we get more proof points?

5 More New Orleans?

Given the success of New Orleans - as well as the low levels of achievement in many urban centers - a transition to a Relinquishment system could be well worth the risk for many communities. Remarkably, I’ve yet to find an urban charter sector has performed significantly worse than its traditional district counterpart. The move to Relinquishment appears to have high upside and little downside.

In looking across the country, many cities appear to be candidates for such a transition. Washington DC, Newark, Memphis, Camden, Cleveland, Boston, Oakland, Indianapolis, Detroit, Baton Rouge, Kansas City, San Jose, New Haven, Philadelphia - all of these cities have some, if not all, of the necessary conditions to begin making a system wide transformation. In each of these cities students are suffering in failing schools; there is sufficient educator talent to deliver great results; and there is an emerging charter sector which could get to scale.

My great hope is that, over the next decade, a couple of these communities will initiate a move toward handing power back to educators and families.

A Domino Effect

If additional cities adopt Relinquishment and achieve academic success, these cities can provide evidence for the last belief: a system of schools run by educators will outperform a system of schools operated by the government. And this could then lead to additional cities adopting Relinquishment strategies - and over a longer period of time - Relinquishment could become the dominant mode of educational delivery in urban areas.

Of course, this path could breakdown at any point. Perhaps Relinquishment will not deliver results in other cities. Perhaps the majority of cities will be subject to intractable political fights that will thwart the scaling of Relinquishment. Who knows. Social change is massively complex.

But, all told, I believe the current evidence base (New Orleans and smaller high performing charter markets), the opportunity to scale prudently (by only scaling to a handful of targeted cities in the short-term), and the potential upside (significantly better serving kids who are being denied a great education) - make it a strategy worth pursuing with passion and urgency.

Concluding Thoughts

To be clear: I do not view Relinquishment as an educational panacea. But I do view it as one of a few high-potential drivers for long-term increases in student achievement. But sign me up for all the other “thick” reforms we can initiate. And don’t forget about the four arrows.

Moreover, there are numerous thorny issues that still need to be worked out in a Relinquishment system. Do you allow some form of neighborhood schools? (probably). What type of governance structure is best suited to oversee such a system? (I don’t know). We at the beginning, and not the end, of understanding how to build the urban school system of the future.

I’m also open to the idea that the movement for school choice is not really a social movement in the sense of the true meaning of “movement.” The fight for choice is driven by elites as much (if not more so) as it is driven by those currently bearing the brunt of our flawed system. Support for choice cuts across racial and socioeconomic groups in a way that diverges from traditional movements (with the African-American community being divided). In the end, the better framing may be “is this policy inevitable?” rather than “is this movement inevitable?” This makes the question no less important. But it is an issue worth raising and debating, as it will shape the future identity, strategies, and values of education reform.

But let me end with this thought: I am exhilarated by the notion that this may be the start of a fifty year effort to transform both the structure and performance of urban education systems; that we may be at the cusp of dismantling dysfunctional systems that have contributed to trapping people in poverty and illiteracy; that we may be in the early stages of truly handing power back to educators and families.

All I hope is that over the next decade a few more cities follow New Orleans so we can, at the very least, understand if Relinquishment’s inevitability is worth fighting for.

I believe it is.

-- 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.