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Educational Silos Are Hindering School-Improvement Efforts

This month, Rick is out catching up on various and sundry projects that piled up during the rollout of Letters to a Young Education Reformer. In his stead, we've got a terrific slate of guest bloggers. Up this week is Lance Fusarelli, professor and department head for the Department of Educational Leadership, Policy, and Human Development at N.C. State University. 

On a trip to the Midwest a few years ago, I kept noticing these large, shiny, silver silos. They seemed to be everywhere. They contain valuable grains essential to farmers and provide protection from the elements, keeping it safe and secure. Others probably contain anti-ballistic missiles. While incredibly valuable in agriculture and for national defense, silos are less valuable, but no less ubiquitous, in K-12 and higher education.

In the thriller "The Sixth Sense," Haley Joel Osment says, "I see dead people. Everywhere." What is both amazing and disconcerting to me is that I see these silos everywhere. They appear in the rhetoric infecting debates about school choice; they appear in discussions about how best to improve schooling in the U.S.; and they appear damn near everywhere in higher education—from program and faculty autonomy to licensure and accreditation, to accountability and the appropriate role of oversight. In my blog posts for this week, I address the issue of silos and how harmful they can be in hindering our efforts to improve schooling. The silos present in debates over school choice offer an illustrative example.

Aided immensely by former President Obama's advocacy of states removing their caps on charters as part of securing Race to the Top funding, the charter-school sector is expanding rapidly. In states such as North Carolina, it represents the fastest growing segment of the market. Similarly, the election of Donald Trump, his nomination and confirmation of Betsy DeVos, the transition to a more voucher-sympathetic Supreme Court, and Republican control of many state legislatures has led to a big push for expanded school vouchers. School choice has moved front and center into the battle lines over how best to improve schooling as highlighted by the much-overwrought "Davis vs. Goliath" claims of AFT president Randi Weingarten that such efforts threaten the future of public education.

The problem is the divisive rhetoric of debates surrounding school choice creates and reinforces these silos—they protect like-minded individuals by surrounding them with others who think like they do (not unlike arguments over diversity, inclusion, and intellectual freedom in higher education) in a protective shell and shield them from opponents. Supporters view everyone outside the silo as alike and intent on doing harm, while simultaneously viewing those within the silo as diverse and promoting the common good. Allow me to offer a few examples:

  • Advocates of traditional public schooling who are virulently opposed to charter schools, usually on the basis of an alleged lack of accountability, transparency, and fairness in the sense of not everyone having to play by the same rules. Many insist charters are not public schools, even though most state laws explicitly state otherwise.
  • Libertarian-leaning school-choice advocates who support a wide-open, largely unfettered market with limited government oversight and regulation, coupled with Education Secretary Betsy DeVos' criticism of the new education establishment.

Let's examine these silos. First, those created by advocates of traditional public schools. As noted above, many insist charters are non-public schools, even though most state laws explicitly state otherwise. Most insist they pull money from traditional public schools, even though for decades, magnet schools and other specialized schools have done the same thing. I don't hear many calls to eliminate Bronx Academy of Science, Brooklyn Latin, LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, or Stuyvesant High School in New York City, even though they are highly selective, elite high schools within the public-education system. Such diversity within the public system, and the similarity with many charter schools, is often overlooked.

Second, silos within silos have been constructed within the school-choice movement itself, as exemplified by the internecine conflict among school-choice proponents. For example, a rhetorical dustup, albeit one with potentially real policy implications, recently occurred between Max Eden, co-editor of the Center for Education Reform's Chartering a New Course: The Case for Freedom, Flexibility & Opportunity Through Charter Schools, and Checker Finn and Nelson Smith—even Secretary DeVos entered the fray. In a review of the work, Finn claimed the thrust of the book was to abolish results-based accountability and scrap careful vetting of would-be charter operators. Finn concluded the book was one-third smart and timely and two-thirds of a very dumb mistake insofar as it would weaken the careful vetting of the charter-school authorization process (which happened in North Carolina when the state cap was lifted) and make it more difficult to close charters for consistently low performance. Eden responded by calling the criticism a straw-man fallacy and that he and his colleagues were merely cautioning against regulatory creep, voicing opposition to common charter-authorizer standards, and advocating for a more flexible, parent-driven charter sector.

Secretary DeVos entered the fray with remarks she made at the National Charter Schools Conference when she cautioned reformers not to "become the man" and suggested reformers have "instead become just another breed of bureaucrats—a new education establishment." DeVos' comments, coupled with the CER report and remarks by Eden, set off Nelson Smith, senior advisor to the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, who objected to being characterized as part of the new education establishment simply because his organization supports high-quality standards of charter school authorizing and rigorous vetting of charter applicants.

In separate posts, Rick Hess and Alex Medler tried to craft a middle ground between what Hess called "blind faith in markets and blind faith in the value of 800-page applications filled with cut-and-paste inanities"—although I seriously doubt Smith and others think 800-page charter applications are useful either. Similarly, Medler believes that, "We can and should identify and remove frustrating burdens on charter schools, while maintaining a tough and effective approval process." What is most interesting about all this is that each side accuses the other of creating artificial binaries (in effect, silos), where you are either for or against greater educational freedom or more or less regulation and oversight. Each believes their position constitutes the appropriate middle ground.

The challenge is that in our highly politicized climate, the complexity and nuances of reformers' positions on these important issues get obscured and hidden within their silos. This leads to inflated, contentious rhetoric and simplistic, weak policy reforms. Without breaking down those silos and barriers and finding some common ground, it will be difficult to move beyond the "either/or" rhetoric to achieve meaningful reform in education.

—Lance Fusarelli

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