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Andrew Smarick Talks About Urban Schools

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Is the urban public school system irreparable broken? In his recent book, The Urban School System of the Future: Applying the Principles and Lessons of Chartering (R&L Education, 2012), Andrew Smarick argues that it is, and that the very structure of the public school system—which centers around school districts—is responsible.

As he writes in the book's introduction: "No city will ever realize a renaissance in K-12 education so long as the district continues as the dominant, default delivery system for public education." The solution, he argues, is the demotion of the public school district to a co-provider of schooling, along with other types of schools. Smarick envisions the creation of a new system of schools governed by the practices of chartering, in which four innovations—diversity of options, new starts, replications/expansions, and closures—are implemented to create "dynamic, responsive, high-performing, self-improving urban school systems."

Smarick, a partner at Bellwether Education Partners and a Bernard Lee Schwartz senior policy fellow with the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, in Washington, recently chatted online with me about urban schools and the future, both short- and long-term.

1. At its most fundamental level, what does the urban school system of the future look like in your opinion?

Each city will have a wide assortment of high-performing schools from which families can choose. These schools will be run by a variety of operators, and they will be held accountable for their performance by the government. New schools will regularly open, persistently underperforming schools will be closed, and great schools will be replicated and expanded. The traditional urban school district will have a greatly diminished role, and in many places it will go away altogether.

2. In what circumstances do students perform better at charter schools than regular public schools?

There are a number of factors that contribute to a successful charter school sector. The first category includes school-based characteristics, such as a strong leader, a great teaching staff, a supportive and no-excuses culture, a broad and rigorous curriculum, and so on. The second category is policy. Laws and regulations need to support the start up, growth, and maintenance of great charters; this includes the right rules related to authorizing, facilities, funding, and more. The third category is what I call the "support ecosystem"—the set of organizations that help charter schools succeed. This includes fair but tough authorizers, great human-capital providers, organizations that can provide operational assistance, etc.

3. Why is it important to talk about urban schools, rather than all schools? How are the needs of at-risk urban students different than at-risk rural students?

I'm the first to say that the reform movement has done a poor job of bringing support to disadvantaged kids in rural areas. Far, far more attention has been paid to kids in inner cities. While this is good for boys and girls living in urban areas, it's done little for the millions of at-risk students outside of cities.

My book focuses on urban K-12 education because I'm convinced that we've created a system that will never work the way we need it to. The laws, regulations, institutions, practices, and beliefs currently in place conspire to produce consistently heartbreaking results.

4. What is the biggest challenge to helping at-risk, inner-city kids? Why?

At-risk, inner-city kids need many different kinds of support. I focus on schools, because I think they can make an enormous difference. The biggest challenge I see is that we have a failed organizational structure (the urban district) that dominates this sector and an array of policies and practices that keep it in place. No matter how much money we throw at the urban district or how much human capital we provide it or how many accountability rules we put in place, the urban district will continue to produce unacceptable results. We have a half-century of experience making this clear.

5. What are the short-term steps that can be taken to create your view of the urban school system of the future in the next few years? How about long-term goals?

In the short-term, we should make sure all district-run schools have performance contracts with independent entities—in effect, making each a district-run charter school held accountable by a third party. The district must be prevented from keeping failing schools open in perpetuity. Second, we need to have a three-sector accountability system that treats similarly district public schools, charter public schools, and private schools; we must focus on school results, not school operator. I call this "sector agnosticism;" in other words, we shouldn't care who runs a school as long as it is superb. Third, we need a fair funding system built around school quality.

In the long term we need to make people realize that "the district" is not synonymous with "public education." The former is a failed institutional arrangement; the latter is a set of principles that can be brought to life in many different ways. We can rid ourselves of the first while advancing the second. Once the collective mindset has been changed we need to practice the innovations of chartering as a matter of course: new starts, closures, replications/expansions, and diversity of options.

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