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November 02, 2009
In a recent New York Times column
about Steve Brill’s Class Warfare: Inside
the Fight to Fix America’s Schools, Joe
Wrong. Like many education establishmentarians, Nocera makes the
mistake of confusing pedagogy and governance. The former—e.g. great teaching—is
a hard nut to crack and Nocera is right to suggest, as does Brill, that there perhaps
aren’t enough great teachers in the pipeline (or in charter schools) to educate
all 50 million public school students.
But there is certainly no such impediment to `scaling’ charters. Every
public school in America could be a charter school tomorrow if policymakers
would allow it. Would that “fix” America’s schools? Not necessarily. But it would
The other problem with the scaling argument is that it assumes that big is beautiful—that no matter how
successful you are, if you can’t replicate your methods of success, then your
model won’t be useful to the American public school system. That is true only
if you assume a governance structure like the one we now have: a system managed
from above. The monolith that we now call public education is dominated by
special interests, including unions, that are able to dictate education policy by
keeping their hands on a few levers of control (mainly on Capitol Hill and in
It is not so much that “reform has to go beyond charters” as it is that
real reform must embrace choice—choice at the individual level. In fact, scaling
up is really about scaling down.
The new MDRC
study of New York City’s small schools seems to make the point
perfectly. To quote from the
And, according to MDRC, these schools worked. Graduation rates were
nearly 10 points higher in the small schools. And the positive effects were spread
out to all subgroups, including minorities and the poor.
“Are these small schools perfect?” writes Joe Williams in a New York Post op-ed. “Of course not. In fact, the MDRC report adds to the
growing evidence that, while New York City is graduating students at a higher
rate than a decade ago, most of these kids are still not ready for college….
Bloomberg and his would-be successors should read the MRDC report from the
vantage point of those whose job it is to drive change.”
Williams is right to call out “those whose job it is to drive change.” But
that change, as the dramatic restructuring of the system that MDRC studied in
New York City shows, must be bold.
And it suggests that the question we must ask is “How do you `scale up’