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Bad to Good and Good to Great

Michael J. Petrilli writes to Deborah Meier once again today.

Dear Deborah,

I want to say more about a topic that interests us both: How to create an accountability system that empowers excellent educators to create top-notch schools while ensuring a basic level of quality for everyone.

It's a real dilemma, because what might work in a hothouse setting (especially lots of professional autonomy) has tended to disappoint when taken to scale.

That's not easy for me to admit. My first education enthusiasm was the notion of autonomy and uber-local control, as epitomized in Chicago's "local school councils" of the early 1990s. I wrote my college thesis on the topic (with the help of the University of Michigan's great David Cohen), and came away convinced that educator autonomy, plus parental choice, would lead us to the Promised Land. (Professor Cohen knew better!)

A few years later, I landed at the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, where we embraced the "let a thousand flowers bloom" mantra of the early charter schools movement. I helped plant a few of said flowers in our hometown of Dayton, Ohio—flowers that turned out to be, err, more like skunk cabbage.

It was a disaster. Well, not a total disaster. A few of those charter schools (in Ohio and elsewhere) turned out to be quite good. KIPP. Amistad Academy. The Met. High Tech High.

But many, many more turned out mediocre, or worse.

What was the problem? We'd cleared away the soul-sucking union contracts and much of the mindless bureaucracy. We'd empowered educators to do their thing and let the magic happen. Yet many flopped.

It wasn't just the test scores—though those were often pretty pitiful. Anyone who visited the schools could see with their own eyes that there wasn't much there there—the curriculum (if they had one) was disorganized or incoherent, the teaching was inconsistent (at best) and nonexistent (at worse), the culture was weak. The schools were often small, safe, and welcoming—virtues, all—but you couldn't say much more about them without wanting to cry.

This period of the charter movement yielded difficult lessons—but which lessons is still debated. Did it just show that nothing works—that poverty is too much of a barrier for anyone to overcome? (Most of these early charters in most states were serving overwhelmingly poor students.) Were the charters simply underfunded—money matters after all!—and just needed more resources to succeed? Did it prove that "decentralization" and "professional autonomy" are misguided—and that what we need is more centralization and control, like some systems overseas?

My own take is that freedom—for educators to do their work and for parents to choose an environment that's right for their children—is necessary, but not sufficient, for the creation of excellent schools. That it's "necessary" is obvious by looking at what happens in highly controlled, regimented systems in the United States or around the world. These systems can bring a certain degree of quality control to the task and make sure that outright failures (educational, fiscal, or otherwise) don't happen. But it's hard to find an "excellent" school in a command-and-control system. That's because of a simple fact of human psychology: We hate being told what to do.

But removing all strings isn't sufficient to get you excellence, either. You can't just empower anyone—you have to empower a team of people who actually know what they are doing. And these people, collectively, must have the capacity to run a great school. They need to have a coherent pedagogical vision, know how to build a curriculum, know how to create a positive school culture, know how to build and follow a sensible budget, know how to put reasonable "internal controls" in place, know how to recruit a great staff, and on and on. These people, it turns out, are scarcer than I had realized at age 22.

And then you have to hold these schools accountable for getting strong results with kids. That brings us back to the question of measurements. I think the charter movement had it right from the get-go: Each school would have its own "charter" spelling out the results that it would be responsible for achieving, and these metrics could be customized to the school. More traditional schools might have been happy to use test scores, but more progressive ones might use something else—say, their graduates' success at the next level of schooling. (Deborah, how do you think about this for a school like Mission Hill, whose test scores are pretty mediocre? Is it how well their students do in high school?)

Then came the modern standards-testing-accountability movement with its emphasis on uniform achievement measures, culminating in No Child Left Behind. Here those of us in the charter movement made a mistake. We quickly agreed to be part of the "same accountability system" as other public schools, which meant that those customized "charters" mostly went out the window; the measures that mattered were the test scores and nothing but. We did this for understandable and strategic reasons—imagine the outcry from charter opponents if charters didn't have to sweat the tests!—but it was a step backward nonetheless. And it led, predictably, to less pedagogical diversity in the charter movement, which came to be increasingly dominated by "traditional" models of schools.

So now what? Let me make a modest proposal for how to design an accountability system going forward; I think you might actually like it!

  1. First, as the default system, we keep something like we have today, but with better standards and tests. (Yes, common-core standards and tests.) Students are tested annually; schools are held accountable for making solid progress from September to June, with greater progress expected for students who are further behind. States and districts give these schools lots of assistance—with curriculum development, teacher training, and the like. Such a default system won't lead to widespread excellence, but it will continue to raise the floor so that the "typical" school in America becomes better than it is today. (NB: I'd scrap any state-prescribed "accountability" below the level of the school. In other words, no more rigid teacher evaluation systems; leave personnel issues to the principals.) And it would provide taxpayers an assurance that they are getting a "public good" from their investment in public education (namely, a reasonably educated citizenry).
  2. Then we offer all public schools—district and charter—an opt-out alternative. They can propose to the state or its surrogate that they be held accountable to a different set of measures. My preferences would be those related to the long-term success of their graduates. School "inspections" could be part of the picture, too. These evaluation metrics would be rigorous, but designed to be supportive of, rather than oppositional to, the cause of excellent schools. And they might be particularly important to educators of a more progressive, anti-testing bent.

How about it, Deborah? The "default" system would keep schools from being bad, and might even help most schools be good. And the "alternative" system would unleash our best educators to go for great.



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