School Choice & Charters Opinion

What ‘System’ Works for Both of Us?

By Guest Blogger — January 09, 2014 4 min read
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Today, Robert Pondiscio once again writes to Deborah Meier.

Dear Deborah,

Happy New Year to you as well, and ... wait a minute. Let me make sure I’ve got this right. You lined up $50 million in philanthropic funding to support 150 schools and 50,000 students, and the whole thing went up in smoke at the mere whim of a new schools chancellor? That’s not democracy, it’s despotism!

You write that you’ve been “trying to imagine a ‘system’ that could work for the kind of liberty within the context of democracy that we both seek.” Perhaps the best “system” is no system at all. My friend Andy Smarick wrote a book recently, The Urban School System of the Future, which argues that big city school systems have outlived their useful life and should be replaced. All schools in a city, he thinks, should be run by outside operators. A schools chancellor would be more portfolio manager than dictator. I find his argument persuasive. Based on your experience perhaps you do, too.

That said, I will always be more interested in what goes on inside schools than in governance issues and structural reform. In theory, ed reform should encourage a full flowering of innovative curriculum and pedagogies. In practice, however, we still have something close to an educational monoculture. Too many of my colleagues in the ed reform camp remain stubbornly incurious about the content of education. As we’ve discussed, I believe this is a glaring mistake.

Another friend, Kathleen Porter-Magee took Andy to task on precisely these concerns.

“While we undoubtedly have school-governance challenges that need to be overcome, we also have a serious gap between what we expect students to know and the content and rigor of the work we ask them to do in class every day. ...There is little evidence that system-level reform without classroom-level change will solve these problems,” she wrote.

I’m in agreement with both arguments. Smaller school “systems” have natural structural advantages, but absent clarity on what we want students to know and be able to do, it tends not to make much difference. You end up with new and different flavors of bad. So you won’t get much of a disagreement about governance, funding, and staffing issues from me. At least not yet. Let’s decide where we want to go before we argue about how we’re going to get there.

“Innovation,” even in small entrepreneurial schools, tends to be an idea more honored in the breach than the observance. Here I think the reform impulse bears a disproportionate amount of blame. I’m concerned with improving the literacy of low-income students; increasing the civic engagement of all students; and conceiving of schools as institutions (although not necessarily public ones) that cultivate a civic disposition. In other words, I’m interested in the long game.

The current focus on short-term, “measurable” progress, however well intentioned, tends to get in the way.

You want to offer advice to New York City’s new Mayor, Bill de Blasio and his new schools Chancellor, Carmen Fariña. On the one hand, he ran a campaign that was at times stridently anti-charter schools. Happily, Ms. Fariña has sounded a more conciliatory note. On her first day on the job she noted she is not opposed to charter schools. “There are some I love to death,” she said. That’s encouraging. I’m similarly encouraged that she brings a wealth of curriculum and instruction expertise to the task.

This suggests someone who might understand there are many paths to a common goal. I wonder how she would feel about Andy’s concept of her job as a “portfolio manager.” Is she wedded to her own curricular orthodoxies or is she open, as Kathleen suggested, to different ideas about “content and rigor” than those she championed earlier in her career.

You and I seem to be in agreement on the appeal of small networks of schools, Deb. So far, so good. Their autonomy, you write, should rest “on their mutual agreement to be open and accountable to each other.” Truth to tell, I’m not sure what that means. I don’t care for the myriad deleterious effects of test-driven accountability as practiced, but I accept and embrace the principle. I’m no smarter about how to solve those problems—how to buy time within the school day for the “long game” concerns I cited—than I was on Day One of this work. I’m curious to know what you think.

Your experience and our exchanges demonstrate the inevitability of choice and the desirability of small “systems.” Neither of us would be completely comfortable with the others’ pedagogical and curricular choices. You seem more concerned with schools as laboratories of democracy; I see them as preparation for democracy. Rather than try to change each other’s minds on that, how do we create the conditions that allow both of us to pursue these different approaches, which clearly have similar ends—engaged citizens prepared for a lifetime of active citizenship?

What kind of “system” accommodates both our approaches, and many others?



Robert Pondiscio is the executive director of CitizenshipFirst, a civic education initiative based at Democracy Prep Public Schools in Harlem. A former 5th grade teacher in New York City’s South Bronx, Mr. Pondiscio has written and lectured extensively about education and ed reform. He previously served as the vice president of the Core Knowledge Foundation. Prior to becoming involved in education, Mr. Pondiscio was the communications director for BusinessWeek, and the public affairs director for TIME Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @rpondiscio.

The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences 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.