Dear Mark and Priscilla:
In a recent open letter, the Fordham Institute’s Checker Finn warns you against trying to reform our public school districts, which he describes as impossible to change, even with the scale of funding that you can bring to the table. The old wisdom, he says, was that private foundations could be “pilot fish” for government, charting a path with independent money that could then leverage large amounts of public money. But even when the leviathan Gates Foundation, acting in concert with the Broad Foundation, joined forces with the Arnie Duncan’s U.S. Department of Education, trading staff and ideas back and forth, nothing much, he says, was achieved.
Better, Finn says, to “just avoid government entirely.” You should be using your resources to “press for change outside the district structure.” He means, he says, charter schools. But he says you should be thinking about chartering in a larger sense, with entities that will “advance the education of kids with all sorts of different needs, interests, and possibilities...Likewise with alternative pathways into education.” He cites as examples Teach For America and New Leaders.
Finn notes that advocates from both the right and the left lament the separation of American society into haves and have-nots. And he acknowledges that the American education system bears some responsibility for this growing divide. But he states flatly that this challenge “isn’t likely to be solved by that system.” So he urges you to provide scholarships, supplemental learning opportunities and great summer programs for poor kids from low-income communities.
I disagree with every element of Finn’s analysis and therefore with his recommendations.
I’ll begin by making an important assumption, namely that you would like to make as big a difference as possible for the greatest number of children who need you the most—that is, that you want as much leverage as possible. I will further assume that you don’t just want changes that last only until your money runs out, but changes that will last long after you are gone.
If that is what you want, then there is only one way to get it and that is by changing the way public education works, by changing the system, the very opposite of scholarships.
I’m not opposed to scholarships. But scholarships only affect the students to whom they are given and, when the money runs out, there are no more scholarships. Teach For America, an organization Finn suggests is worthy of your support, is another version of the same thing. Fewer than two percent of the jobs filled each year in our schools are filled by Teach For America volunteers. That proportion is going down, not up, and the majority of the TFA members don’t stick around very long. Or take another organization Finn recommends, New Leaders. New Leaders spends about $85,000 on each New Leader trained, which is unsustainable and unscalable. No leverage there, either. The idea and the reality of charter schools has been around since 1992, and there is no doubt that individual charter schools and charter school organizations have produced strong schools and strong students, but, after all these years, charter schools are still only six percent of all American public schools and there is no evidence that, taken as a whole, they have resulted in a significant net gain in student performance in the United States.
I can understand why your experience in Newark made you think that you needed to listen more carefully to the community and the rank-and-file educators than to the kind of experts who led you astray in Newark. I’m with you on that, but I would also urge you to take some other things into account as you plan your next moves.
First, city school districts are not independent actors. They live in a spider’s web of state and federal policies. Those policies structure the incentives faced by everyone in the system. Strong leaders marching to the beat of their own drum can and sometimes will ignore those incentives and do what they need to do to make things better for students, but, over time, they burn out, and the people who come after them go back to responding to the incentives they face. They are not bad people; they are just ordinary mortals, unlike the heroes and heroines we like to find and point to. I do not doubt that you will be able to find such heroes and heroines or that things will go reasonably well while you invest in them. But they won’t change the larger system.
So what can you do? The answer begins with the recognition that there are city school systems in many parts of the world whose students do far better than all of their counterparts in the United States. Average performance is much higher and there is much more equity in student outcomes. It would be much more than worth your while to look closely at how these systems get these greatly superior results.
But, while there is a whole lot to be learned from the countries and cities with the world’s best-performing education systems, you also ought to look at the urban systems in our best-performing state: Massachusetts. What you will find is a story that runs counter to Checker Finn’s narrative on every point. It is not a story about making things better by giving up on the system; it is a story about making things better by creating a better system. And, not least important, it is a story about how Jack Rennie, an entrepreneur in the Massachusetts high-tech community, led the charge by involving many people in creating a widely shared vision of a high-value-added, high-skills economy and the system that would be needed to realize that vision. If he could do it, there is no reason that you cannot do it.
Finally, there is another story that makes the point in a different way. This is the story of the Union City school district in New Jersey, as told by David Kirp in Improbable Scholars: The Rebirth of a Great American School System and a Strategy for America’s Schools. You are probably familiar with it. You will find that there are common elements in the strategies used by the top-performing countries, the Massachusetts story and the Union City story. They are all stories about providing more resources to poor and minority students than others; creating a strong system of early childhood education; greatly raising expectations for students; developing strong instructional systems based on high standards, a strong curriculum and high quality assessments based on the curriculum; supporting teachers in every possible way as they work to help students meet the expectations described by the more demanding curriculum framework; recruiting the best possible candidates for teaching positions and making sure they are supported as they enter the system; and, most important, welding all these elements together into one coherent system that is stronger than any of its parts and pieces.
But you will note that not all these things are under the control of school districts. The state sets the core curriculum, the standards for student performance and the required tests. The district has no control over the teacher education program educating the teachers it hires, who gets admitted to those institutions or what the standards are for getting a teachers’ license. These days, it has to abide by the state accountability system and all the incentives it creates. The Union City story shows you what can be accomplished by a superintendent who does it the right way: by setting high expectations, getting the highest quality staff, supporting them in any way he can and providing them with sensible guidance on instruction. But, while this shows what an effective local government leader can do, it also shows how much influence the state and federal governments have on the outcome. We are left to wonder how much of what the superintendent did will be on view a few years after he leaves.
So what is the bottom line here? First, it is not to listen to the council of despair. You do not have to settle for “charters” that work at the margins of the system making the world better for a little while for a few people at a time. There is abundant evidence here and abroad that it is actually possible to create much more effective urban school systems.
Second, there is a big role here for private foundations. Finn and his colleagues have had astonishing success at selling his agenda as the only “education reform” agenda. The agenda I have just described--the agenda derived from careful study of highly successful education systems around the world—is not well known or understood either by American policymakers or practitioners. You could change that, and, in changing it, make an enormous difference, by helping a few states and districts study what the top performers have done and helping them to build their own agenda on their shoulders.
None of this is said with any animosity. Finn and his colleagues are serious, thoughtful analysts. Their steadfast support of high student performance standards over the years has been at times heroic and always on the money. Finn’s willingness to modify his views based on the data has been exemplary. But, in my view, the direction in which he is pointing you is not the direction that will deliver the results you are seeking when all is said and done.
The opinions expressed in Top Performers 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.