The New York state education department has filed a lawsuit to block a controversial new rule allowing certain charter schools to certify their own teachers, claiming that the regulations will “erode the quality of teaching” across the state.
I find this to be a highly questionable move by Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa and state education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia. And the only way I can make sense of it is that they feel threatened by charter networks and want to exert greater state authority over charter autonomy.
Let me preface my argument by sharing my view of charter schools, since it is such an apparently contentious area of our politics. I work for and believe in NY public schools, and I do not buy into the ed reform narrative that public schools are all failing and charter schools should supplant them.
But I also don’t buy into the opposing narrative that charter schools are “privatizing” education and destroying public education. Or that they only “cream” high achieving students in order to derive mind-boggling results.
There are practices and operations from the charter sector that are incredibly valuable, and there are charter networks and schools that are doing incredible work serving their communities and students that should be scaled and emulated, especially here in NYC. And at this point in the game, the research on the charter sector in general is pretty darn convincing — unless you’re only reading Diane Ravitch’s or Valerie Strauss’s blog, in which case you’re the education equivalent of Trump watching Fox & Friends.
Highly effective charter operations have built an infrastructure around teaching and learning that can accelerate student learning. In too many public schools, we leave teachers and administrators on their own when it comes to communicating and supporting what effective instruction looks like. We all too often give them vague platitudes, complex compliance rules, and abstract concepts and then say, “Here, go apply this! Good luck!” and blame them when our initiatives don’t garner the results we expect.
At the same time, I believe charters should be regulated, and that it’s the state’s prerogative to do so.
So Rosa’s and Elia’s pushback makes kneejerk sense in that they feel the need to exert state control over the charter sector in order to ensure positive student outcomes—which they are ultimately responsible for, regardless of the type of school.
But in the long-term, it really doesn’t make sense when you consider that NY’s charters are already well-regulated, and that the charter networks already in operation, such as Uncommon Schools, Achievement First, KIPP, Democracy Prep, and Success Academy, have a demonstrated track record of success.
These are networks that have extensive infrastructure built around instruction and accountability. They can take a new teacher with no certification and accelerate their ability. And if that new teacher doesn’t demonstrate results, they’ll get rid of them. That’s what being a charter school provides the leeway for.
So let them take unexperienced and uncertified entrants into the profession and develop them. And then when those new entrants get tired of having all their time drained away with few benefits from the charter school they’re working for, they’ll move into the public system with some solid training and experience.
Let’s be honest. Charter networks will probably do a far better job of preparing new teachers than the majority of our state’s certified teacher preparation programs. And this will be of ultimate benefit to the learning of NY state’s children, which our state officials can then take credit for.
“…a remark by a DeVos spokesperson last week — ‘the ultimate accountability for schools is whether or not parents choose to send their children there’ — should be seen as an attack on the idea that school quality matters. It’s fake accountability.”
This is an important point to bear in mind. There are some choice advocates who argue that rich parents already have choice and no one critiques or limits their choices, so why shouldn’t poor parents be able to make their own choices, misinformed or no?
While there’s rhetorical attraction to that proposition, it’s also a circular argument, since the primary reason choice advocates call for choice in the first place is because parents with only poor performing schools located near them should have access and options for higher quality schools.
Other than the hard-line free-marketeers, few choice advocates would argue for unfettered choice without adequate oversight. How about we have more arguments about the oversight itself, rather than choice as some mystical holy grail?
Should vouchers be equated with segregation? It’s complicated.
Matt Barnum brings in the nuance. Like many things in ed world, we need to avoid painting vouchers with a broad partisan brush (saying this as much to myself as to you).
And a lot of how vouchers or education savings accounts are perceived has to do with how they are framed.
“Advocates for school choice often point to the support of black and Hispanic voters. An Education Next poll found that nearly 64 percent of African-Americans and 62 percent of Hispanics — compared to 50 percent of white respondents — would back a tax credit program to fund private school tuition.
But support for private school choice programs tends to drop substantially when the word “voucher” is introduced or the use of public dollars is emphasized.”
Charters should be able to hire uncertified teachers
Given that most ed programs haven’t exactly demonstrated a concern about outcomes and actually preparing their teachers for real classrooms, seems to me that it would make sense to allow charter schools in NY to hire uncertified teachers and train them as they see fit. Hold them accountable for the results.
And let’s be honest–the most successful charters have tightly managed structures that pair assessment, curriculum, and professional learning that could probably better prepare teachers — or send them on their way if they don’t perform.
Teen herd behavior channels the opioid epidemic into schools
“The 16-year-old, a student at a specialized and highly competitive public high school, says drug use runs rampant at her school.
‘I was drinking and smoking (pot) because it was accepted,’ said the teen-age girl, who asked to remain anonymous to prevent bullying at her school.”
During finals and midterm exams, she said, students pop prescription stimulants such as Adderall, Vyvanse and Ritalin to aid their studies.
‘It’s crazy,’ she said. ‘Even the kids who never use drugs want to enhance their brains, so they’re taking these drugs.’
The girl’s mother thinks the school didn’t do enough to help her daughter.
‘I still don’t understand why the school had no control over what kids are doing besides academics,’ she said tearfully.’
‘Teenagers are very hormonal and go through a lot of changes,’ [the student} explained. ‘Those emotions have nowhere to go. It’s the only way that they can get a grip on themselves and their feelings.’ ”
If you care about education, it’s worth paying close attention to what’s going down in Silicon Valley. The hyperdrive capitalism of venture investment, with its raw focus on the rapid scale of the highest performing and rapid failure of all the rest, parallels and in some ways informs edtech and charter models.
There’s certainly a healthy and necessary space in education for a private marketplace of rapid iteration, scale, and fail. But there’s also a necessity for the less efficient but robust, slow-growth, long-term models of public schools.
In The New Yorker there is an interesting piece on Y-Combinator’s Sam Altman relevant to this. It’s interesting purely as a biopic, but scattered throughout are insights into the driving mindsets and ethics of Silicon Valley. Let’s take a closer look at some quotes from the article with the frame of education in mind.
Altman, as he nursed a negroni after dinner, had his own warning for the timid: “Democracy only works in a growing economy. Without a return to economic growth, the democratic experiment will fail. And I have to think that YC is hugely important to that growth.”
Democracy needs a heck of a lot more than just a viable economy. It needs strong civic institutions and an active citizenry that has a shared understanding of how to engage with those institutions and of their purpose. Public education should serve the public in cultivating shared civic knowledge and values.
. . . In his book “Hackers & Painters,” Graham calculated that smart hackers at a startup could get 36x more work done than the average office drone—and that they would, therefore, eventually blow up employment as we know it. He made this sound patriotic and fun; how could an oligarchic technocracy go wrong?
Indeed? How could a focus solely on only the most productive and efficient members of society go wrong? In education, imagine if we only invested in the most gifted and talented. The rest would be herded into service professions or unskilled labor. A meritocracy! Wait. Isn’t that more or less how things used to be before the advent of a public education . . .
. . . And he told me, “It’s bad for the companies and bad for Silicon Valley if companies can stay alive just because they’re [associated with Y-Combinator]. It’s better for everyone if bad companies die quickly.”
This is a driving philosophy of venture capital and rapid scale that Silicon Valley pursues. Scale the few most successful ventures rapidly, and fail the remainder. With schools, we could only invest in and scale the ones that demonstrated strong academic performance — all the rest we would close. Sounds good, right? Kids should only be in schools that have demonstrated their worth.
But there’s a problem with rapid scale in terms of sustainability:
. . .The truth is that rapid growth over a long period is rare, that the repeated innovation required to sustain it is nearly impossible, and that certain kinds of uncontrollable growth turn out to be cancers. . . Every great startup—Facebook, Airbnb—has no idea why it’s growing at first, and has to figure that out before the growth stalls. Growth masks all problems.”
A school could be high performing, but not such a great place to be.
This isn’t to say that there isn’t a place for markets in the education system. A market doesn’t have to mean Silicon Valley style scale and fail.
…it’s possible to create a huge tech company without taking venture capital, and without spending far beyond your means. It’s possible, in other words, to start a tech company that runs more like a normal business than a debt-fueled rocket ship careening out of control. Believe it or not, start-ups don’t even have to be headquartered in San Francisco or Silicon Valley.
. . . You can simply start a business, run it to serve your customers, and forget about outside investors and growth at any cost.
Schools that do this work are the ones that get better: they put their focus on service to their students and families and adapt accordingly.
But there’s other ways that those who abide by the scale and fail model are investing in, recognizing the limitations of a brick and mortar approach. Venture capitalist Marc Andreessen (you may have heard of AltSchools?) lays out the long-game for software and tech in the education industry in this Vox interview:
Primary education in the US is a monopoly. It’s a public sector monopoly with very little competition. Even the charter schools end up under sustained attack for violating the monopoly. You see this most recently in New York with De Blasio trying to shut them down. A government-sponsored monopoly is not easy to move.
. . . New technologies tend to vaporize on impact with those institutions. The last thing a unionized public school wants to do is to fundamentally change how they operate. Of course they don’t want to adopt new technology. It’s antithetical to the philosophy.
So the solution? Software!
Look, there’s great potential for technology in the education sphere, and I think experiments like AltSchools and Udacity are well worth making. But Andreessen’s premise here is false. Having worked in NYC public schools for even the short length of time that I have, I’ve seen so many tech fads get readily embraced by educators and districts that it’s become ridiculous. Rather than “vaporizing on impact,” new tech fads rather seem to become desperately embraced and then just as hurriedly discarded. Harried educators and administrators would love it if a SMART Board or data system or robot would magically and rapidly improve the outcomes for their kids!
But I do think Andreessen makes a more balanced analysis and point here:
We can’t revamp the entire system. Nobody can. But I think more and more, there are gaps in what the current system can accommodate compared to what people actually want. There are opportunities to build on the edges, around the sides, parallel systems. And at the very least introduce choice. In the best-case scenario, it becomes a real challenger to the status quo.
I fully agree that there are massive gaps and many opportunities to better serve our nation’s students, and I for one welcome the evolution of edtech and tools and software, as well as the vibrant niches of effective charter models and networks. But we’re on a quixotic mission if we’re shooting for supplanting public education systems, rather than supplementing them.
The argument for why this is so can be viewed in statements that Barack Obama and Vox’s Ezra Klein have made about the function of public institutions vs. private ones (I’ve posted this before):
The final thing I’ll say is that government will never run the way Silicon Valley runs because, by definition, democracy is messy. This is a big, diverse country with a lot of interests and a lot of disparate points of view. And part of government’s job, by the way, is dealing with problems that nobody else wants to deal with.
. . . sometimes we get, I think, in the scientific community, the tech community, the entrepreneurial community, the sense of we just have to blow up the system, or create this parallel society and culture because government is inherently wrecked. No, it’s not inherently wrecked; it’s just government has to care for, for example, veterans who come home. That’s not on your balance sheet, that’s on our collective balance sheet, because we have a sacred duty to take care of those veterans. And that’s hard and it’s messy, and we’re building up legacy systems that we can’t just blow up.
I will say one thing about both government and private-sector production, which is something that I do think is important is there is an advantage to being willing to do kludgy, difficult, somewhat unpleasant things.
. . . As you say, there’s an attraction — recognizing the government is inefficient — to just saying, “Well, let’s just do cash transfer for everything. Let’s go UBI for everything.” But there is a lot that government does, often not that well, that somebody needs to be doing, because a lot of the people you want to help are actually really difficult to help. This is something . . . this is one of the things I believe strongly in policy that we underrate.
A lot of what we’re trying to do in government is not help people who want “free stuff,” but is help people who are actually very, very difficult to help. This is particularly true in health care.
And particularly true in education. The work of education is a slow, complicated, incremental process that will benefit from new technologies, software, and schools, but that will not rapidly scale, and provides a public service that makes rapid failure of massive amounts of schools or students a nonviable option.
EdBuild has released a damning indictment of economic segregation in the United States. The report and interactive sheds much-needed light upon an illogical system that ensures poor kids are kept segregated by arbitrary district lines and confined to poorly resourced schools.
I urge you to read EdBuild’s full report. There’s a scathing resonance to the sentences that helps to convey how cruelly unjust and unnecessary school district lines are. Here’s one example:
“The fact, too seldom acknowledged, is that district boundaries themselves compound the inequalities that our public schools were intended to conquer. In present day America, we allow invisible lines to determine the fate of our youngest and most vulnerable citizens.”
“Our wealthy are consigning lower-income students to a lesser caste by cordoning off their wealth and hiding behind the notion of ‘local control’.”
Reading this report, I couldn’t help but think of parallels to the current political battle on NYC’s Upper West Side over potential rezoning of a school district. The rezoning would place a well-off segregated school in the same zone as a segregated school that serves the projects just down the street.
“. . . families who have made a decision to live in a certain area . . . made massive life decisions and investments because of which school their kid would go to.”
Our public schools have become de facto private schools for those with money and means. Such parents can “invest” in the property that allows them to live within the district boundaries of their chosen school. They then can rely upon hale and hardy school district boundaries to keep less fortunate kids out. In this dismal reality of the US education system, instead of a Game of Thrones, it’s the Game of School Zones. This cut throat game determines the fate of our nation, and we play it with our children.
What does a public school really stand for in this country?
Must providing a quality education for some students mean denying a quality education to others?
Does ownership of property entitle you to be relieved of any commitment to the common good?
Building on my last post, in which I challenged Neerav Kingsland’s presumption that charter systems and schools are inherently superior to that of district systems and schools, here’s an important TED talk by economist Mariana Mazzucato worth watching that presents a refreshing new angle on this topic:
The narrative that charter supporters often promote is one in which traditional district schools are failures because they are:
Mired by bureaucracy and politics
Constrained by teacher’s unions
Unable to innovate and adapt to the needs of the 21st century
Beholden to the state
Unresponsive to the needs of parents and communities
All reasons, they suggest, that require us to turn to the private sector and its proven ability to disrupt, innovate, and provide competitive choice. The market, they claim, has been demonstrated to promote quality and efficiency, whereas the state has proven only to be cumbersome, to stand in the way of change, and to maintain the status quo.
Parallel to that conversation is our national shift away from representative democracy’s mechanisms for political decision-making and deliberation via a balance of power to that of the vagaries of capitalist markets.
NYC stands central to that shift, tracing back to the fiscal crisis of the 70s.
A Short Diversion into History
Prior to the 70s, NYC was the paragon of a social democratic state. City colleges were free to attend*. Public transit, daycare, hospitals . . . The government worked with labor unions to deliver strong public services.
But that beatific vision came crashing to an end when NYC found itself on the verge of bankruptcy in 1975. It had been borrowing to pay down debt for far too long.
Though the unions ended up bailing the city out—most notably via Al Shanker-led UFT’s investment of teacher’s pensions into municipal bonds—that moment is when, as Richard D. Kahlenberg suggests in his book on Shanker¹, “the relationship between democracy and capitalism had shifted.” Quoting journalists Jack Newfield and Paul DuBrul, Kahlenberg notes that at this moment, there was “a revolution in the governance of New York City,’ where bankers effectively took over the running of the city.”
Today, the rituals of fiscal crisis—the blaming of public sector workers, the vilification of the poor who use government services suddenly deemed excessive luxuries—may seem familiar. . . .
The crisis brought about a transformation of the very language and conception of politics, as the rhetoric of fiscal necessity and business acumen replaced a vision of politics as a domain of struggle and negotiation.
. . . the diminished expectations we have for the public sector and the increasing difficulty of living a middle-class life in the city suggest the legacy of the fiscal crisis even now. City governments today—including New York’s—seem primarily to be vehicles to attract and maintain private investment.
Back to Our Narratives on State vs. Private Sectors Today
Thus, the narrative about the efficacy of charterization for delivering what was once solely a government service is placed within a wider context, and it helps to explain why so many pro-charter folks not only denigrate unions, but furthermore the public sector et al.
And this is why Mariana Mazzucato’s challenge is so important to pay heed to.
Mazzucato argues that contrary to the anti-government narrative, innovation occurs as a result of government intervention. At minute 7:00 in her talk, she states:
Now, what’s interesting in all of this is the state, in all these examples, was doing so much more than just fixing market failures. It was actually shaping and creating markets. It was funding not only the basic research, which again is a typical public good, but even the applied research. It was even, God forbid, being a venture capitalist.
. . . In all these sectors, from funding the Internet to doing the spending, but also the envisioning, the strategic vision, for these investments, it was actually coming within the state.
Rather than wasting wind denigrating the state, she suggests, we should instead seek “public-private partnerships.”
This is what I was suggesting in my last post when I stated “Perhaps the answer lies somewhere in between [district or charter systems].”
As a side note, I recently read Peter Thiel’s Zero to One, and I found his ideas about how to innovate as an entrepreneur compelling. Yet I had a moment of cognitive dissonance when he suggested, in his contrarian way, that enterprises are most successful when they can gain a monopoly, rather than endure heavy competition. When I read that, I thought:
But the state IS the biggest monopoly!
The government is not necessarily the enemy of innovation. Unions aren’t either.
And on the other side, the private sector is not necessarily the enemy of democracy and strong social enterprises.
The question becomes: how can we leverage partnerships across government, unions, and private organizations to most effectively serve our nation’s future?