Hey, Marc Tucker: You don't have to travel to Singapore or Shanghai to see world-class systems

Getty Images/Sean Pavone

David Osborne

Marc Tucker has written recent columns, one of them reprinted in The Education Gadfly Weekly, that make a very important point: Public education systems developed back in the Industrial Era are not well suited to today’s world. He argues that other countries, which started building their mass education systems much later than we did, have been able to mold them with modern realities in mind. Unfortunately, he adds, the adults who benefit from our outdated public education systems have held us back from emulating these countries because they fight to preserve the old ways.

Tucker would have us emulate Singapore and Shanghai:

In both cases, a great effort is made to place first-rate teachers and administrators in the schools serving the most disadvantaged. The expectations for students are set very high for all students and the students are given a curriculum that is matched to those standards. But the teachers are given much more time to work with each other to develop highly effective lessons and effective teaching techniques so the students can reach those higher standards. Their approach to formative evaluation provides teachers with the skills needed to figure out whether every student in the class understands the material as it is being taught, so no one falls behind. If a student does fall behind, a team of teachers is formed to figure out why and fix the problem, whatever it is, in school or out. If a whole group of students is falling behind, the core curriculum is stretched out and enriched for them and the students get much more support, whether that means before school, during the school day, on Saturdays or during the summer, in small groups, one-on-one, whatever it takes. More time, more support, but not lower standards.

In this system, students do not routinely arrive at middle school from elementary school two or even three years behind. It simply does not happen. Nor does it happen at the transition from middle school to high school. The teachers take collective responsibility for the students, monitor them closely and work together in real time to address problems in performance as they arise, not after they have accumulated for years. They are given the time, support, training and leadership they need do that.

If one of our states set up a system like this, it could reasonably expect to cut the proportion of its students not ready for college dramatically in ten years and, no less important, greatly increase the probability that any given child from a poor family will do well enough to get into a highly selective college.

We don’t have a state system like this, but I have seen exactly what Tucker is describing in several cities, where charter authorizers have created high-performing charter sectors. The fastest improving city in the nation has been New Orleans, since Hurricane Katrina, for exactly this reason. It now has roughly eighty public charter schools and only two traditional public schools, which will both convert to charters in the next year or two. The practices Tucker describes are not seen in all of these schools, but they are common in many. And New Orleans has indeed “cut the proportion of its students not ready for college dramatically.”

The second fastest improving city over the past decade, according to NAEP scores, has been Washington, D.C. There, 47 percent of public school students were in charters last year, which operate under the D.C. Public Charter School Board, which enforces high standards and closes or replaces schools that don’t meet them. Chicago was also moving in this direction under Arne Duncan, with Renaissance 2010, but its academic progress has largely stalled since Mayor Emanuel effectively froze charter growth in 2013.

Denver is the other big city whose students are mostly low-income that has improved the most rapidly. This happened in part because the school district embraced charters a decade ago and now educates almost a quarter of its students in them. In addition, Denver Public Schools has tried to treat many of its district-operated schools, called “innovation schools,” more like charters. The district has also worked hard to import charter practices into all of its district-run schools. Like New Orleans, both Denver and D.C. have dramatically increased the percentage of students ready for college.

This kind of progress is also taking place in the charter sectors of cities with strong authorizers, such as Boston, New York, Newark, and Camden. In some cities, including D.C., Denver, Boston, and Newark, traditional public schools are learning from charters and embracing similar practices.

The magic is not in the word charter. The magic is in giving schools significant autonomy, holding them accountable, replacing the weakest with the strongest and encouraging the strongest to open more schools, encouraging schools to differentiate their learning models to help kids with different needs, and letting families choose between these models. Some places, like Indianapolis, are beginning to do this without calling it chartering, and it's working. Indianapolis Public Schools calls its model Innovation Network Schools.

These reforms give schools both the autonomy they need to do what Tucker advocates and the urgency required to go to such lengths.

As Tucker concludes, “There is no reason why schooling cannot once again be the gateway to opportunity in the United States that it once was.” To get there, however, we must create more of these new systems. That is not easy, for precisely the reason Tucker points out: Those who benefit from the old ways fight hard to hold on to what they have. But if we care about all children, we must overcome the political obstacles. We must grow these new systems within the remains of the old.

David Osborne is the author of Reinventing America’s Schools: Creating a 21st Century Education System and directs the education work of the Progressive Policy Institute.

The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the authors and not necessarily the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.