Charter vs. District Systems

By NASA’s Aqua/MODIS satellite ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Neerav Kingsland looks at the recent findings on professional development via the TNTP Mirage report and the Rand Corporation study, and comes to the conclusion that “Professional development only seems to lead to student achievement increases in charter schools!”

I noted in a recent post that in the TNTP study, teacher effectiveness and growth was notably more observable in a CMO, and I hypothesized that this could be attributable to some charter networks having more tightly managed systems of assessment, curriculum, teacher practice, and observation.

But to suggest that this is an innate quality of charter schools is questionable. There is absolutely no reason for a district school not to be in possession of such qualities, and indeed, many do.

Kingsland argues for NOLA-style systems, in which the government merely regulates, rather than operates, schools, with the idea being that the private sector can conduct operations more efficiently and effectively. But there’s a potential, and possibly critical, issue with such a system: a lack of coherency.

Within a well-managed district, on the other hand, there is potential for greater coherency. A state or central office can provide specific direction on operational shifts via policy that all district schools would be expected to adhere to.

Kingsland asks, “is it more likely that we can achieve major gains in districts or scale highly effective charters?,” I think he’s created a false dichotomy. I think the more interesting question is, “How can we achieve major gains by leveraging federal, state, and district policy to implement effective and coherent systems, content, and practices across all schools?”

A NOLA-style system might be able to make swift initial gains, due to well-managed networks putting into place strong systems of assessment, feedback, and practice. But it’s certainly feasible that a well-managed district system can make even bigger gains over the longer haul.

I disagree, therefore, with Kingsland’s position that charter schools are inherently superior in enhancing teacher effectiveness and promoting student achievement. In fact, I charge that a NOLA-style system may ultimately run up against its innate incoherency, at which point, large-scale gains would stagnate.

I could be totally wrong on this, of course, and admit that this is conjecture and based on my own values. It may be that a NOLA-style system may end up leading to greater coherency in operations due to competition, and thus, best practices evolve through demonstrated gains in one organization and subsequent adoption by those who are attempting to compete.

I may also be overstating the ability of district schools to establish coherency, given constraints in operating within often volatile political contexts.

The problem is, of course, that while NOLA has demonstrated significant academic gains on tests since moving into a private sector operated system, it’s still purely conjecture as to whether the same benefit would transfer to any other district simply due to a  structural change. It’s also still conjecture that those gains can be solely attributed to a structural shift to private sector operation, rather than the simple mechanism of distributing students across geographical boundaries.

But let’s assume for the moment that Kingsland is correct that a private sector operated school system is the optimal system. I would still argue, even in such a case, that this doesn’t mean that such a system will necessarily scale effectively into different social and political contexts.

In the face of great complexity and uncertainty, we can hedge our bets by planning for robustness, rather than optimality.

The question therefore becomes: what is the most robust? A school system operated by the public, or a school system operated by the private sector?

Perhaps the answer lies somewhere in between.


4 thoughts on “Charter vs. District Systems

  1. Thought you did a good job of fleshing out the main issues.

    You will not be surprised that I agree with this part of your post: “I may also be overstating the ability of district schools to establish coherency, given constraints in operating within often volatile political contexts.”

    My take is that we haven’t accomplished coherency in one state over the past few decades, I don’t think it will happen anytime soon (and only a few very high-performing, generally small countries have ever accomplished this).

    So I think competition is a better lever than attempts at top down coherency.

    But time will tell if NOLA model can scale.

    Lastly, appreciate your tone. I found the post measured and reflective.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Neerav.

      I do share your cynicism regarding the track record of our nation in establishing coherency, and it’s also why I find your vision of relinquishment fascinating.

      I think where I most disagree with you, however, is on competition as the best lever. To be clear, I’m not anti-charter, nor anti-private sector involvement in the administration of public services. Instead, I see the need for strong partnerships between government and private organizations.

      Competition can be healthy in many respects, but when it comes to the administration of a public service, I find it problematic that charters such as Success Academy deliberately withhold a public sharing of resources, practices, and curriculum, yet still term themselves “public.”

      I could possibly get on board with the idea of relinquishment as a mechanism for public schools, but only if some of the following conditions were met:

      –Regulations ensuring public accountability, not solely via test scores, but also via community empowerment, such as community representatives required on charter boards, and community feedback in any decisions made on closures or expansions
      –Regulations ensuring diversity and inclusion (what TCF terms “controlled choice”)
      –Regulations ensuring equity of opportunity via an agreement on the shared knowledge and skills that should be learned to participate productively in a democratic republic (i.e. curriculum, assessments, and standards)

      Maybe some of these are already addressed in NOLA?


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