Our current educational system is limping along in the equivalent to my 1949 Chevy half-ton truck. No matter how much money we put into the current system—or how much money and how many technological improvements I make to my truck—it is never going to carry the load that we need it to carry today.
Think your only option for reforming public education is to nibble around the edges? Not anymore. A cohort of education reformers frustrated with the pace of progress in school districts are pushing for new, decentralized, portfolio-based systems that would increase autonomy, improve budgeting, and enhance choices for parents. The Philanthropy Roundtable’s recent 2013 National Forum on K-12 Philanthropy brought three such reformers together. In a panel moderated by Tony Lewis of the Donnell-Kay Foundation, Andy Smarick, Marguerite Roza, and Neerav Kingsland discussed the concept of school system redesign, why it’s necessary, lessons learned from the New Orleans example, and what this concept means for philanthropy. Selections from this discussion are featured below.
- Andy Smarick is partner at Bellwether Education Partners
- Marguerite Roza is senior research affiliate of the Center for Reinventing Public Education
- Neerav Kingsland is CEO of New Schools for New Orleans
The following resource about the New Orleans school system’s transformation was made available to attendees of this conversation:
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On the distinction between “public education” and “the traditional school district”:
We should be able to say, “Public education is something we hold dear, but the district is a delivery system.”
The traditional urban school district is broken. It can’t be fixed. It has to be replaced. Public education is a series of beliefs. It’s a collection of thoughts that we hold dear, just like democracy. So, for example, democracy consists of one person, one vote, the idea that all adults should have suffrage, et cetera, but we assume that there are many ways to deliver that. Iowa has a set of caucuses, New Hampshire has primaries. Democracy is embodied in all of those, but they are operationalized in different ways. None is more democratic than the other. The problem with public education is that we have, unfortunately, conflated two things that should not be conflated. We should be able to say, “Public education is something we hold dear, but the district is a delivery system.” Two different things, but many of us think they are the same. They are not. You can love public education and rid yourself of the district structure. Or in the words of these wonderful scholars up in Minnesota, “We can preserve the faith while reforming the church.”
On the need for urban district redesign:
We have been trying to fix urban districts for 50 years: the accountability movement, increases in funding, attempts at competition, human capital, on and on and on. With all of this, we’re struggling to get one out of five kids in these districts able to read by eighth grade. Fifty years worth of effort, the best brains, most money, best backs working on this. For most of these districts, at this rate, they would get there in about 250 years.
On what a successfully redesigned district looks like:
So, can the school district be replaced? Absolutely—with the principles of chartering. I believe in something that I call sector agnosticism, which is a three-sector approach. I believe we should include non-public schools in the portfolio [as well as district and charter schools]. If they’re doing right by kids, I love them. I’m not going to be biased against them.
So, then you just manage the portfolio just as the best cities are doing. Find a great CMO, expand it. Find another one that’s doing great, expand its enrollment. Find one that’s doing poorly, reduce its footprint. Find another one that’s doing super poorly, get rid of it entirely. Private schools participating in a voucher program aren’t cutting it, they no longer can participate (see graph).
All of this is premised on the idea that we are going to allow schools to exist if they are good for kids. If they’re not good for kids, then they don’t have to stay in business. The magic here is in the district. In the school system of the future, we are no longer going to say the district exists in perpetuity. It exists only if it can run high-performing schools. If it can’t, it will shrink like everything else and we can expand and create new schools along those lines.
On beginning the redesign process:
Rule number one: when you find yourself in a hole, stop digging. If you find yourself investing for 50 years in a broken urban school district and it’s not working anymore, at some point I think you have to say, “These are precious resources. We are better off investing them in some other entity.” Rather than asking, “How do we make the district better?” ask, “How do we increase the number of high-quality seats available to low-income kids?”
The first thing I would do is start to fund the activities that make increasing the number of high-quality seats available a citywide campaign. So, you start to track which kids are in high-performing Catholic schools, high-performing charters, high-performing district schools. Then, year after year, you say, “In September, are we better off than we were last September?” That’s a data collection issue, it is a publicity issue.
You can believe in public education, you can believe in the role of the state, but you can make a distinction between the government rowing and the government steering.
On the “invisible architecture” of successful schools:
If a school is not good for kids, then it doesn't have to stay in business.
Districts have what I’m just loosely calling “invisible architecture.” A bunch of stuff that, when you have a single entity running an entire system of schools, you don’t realize it’s actually there until it’s gone. In your cities you need to start building the “invisible architecture”, the connective tissue, the third sector organizations that can get ahead of those issues. Ask yourself: does your city have the ecosystem of non-profit organizations that can start to build this new system? Can you handle enrollment, can you handle expulsions, can you handle human capital, can you handle facilities management?
On the role of Common Core in creating demand for system redesign:
A lot of suburban districts are quite complacent about how they’re doing right now, and they’ve been allowed to be because our tests aren’t all that rigorous in most places. [With the implementation of Common Core testing,] a bunch of very complacent suburban districts are going to see their proficiency rates go from 80, 90 percent to 50, 40, in some places even 30 percent. It’s really hard to get a suburban district fired up for change when they think everything is hunky-dory. When they get hit with the fact that 70 percent of their kids are not prepared for college and career, and there are state testing data showing that, then I think it’s going to be the moment for change.
On the unsustainably rapid increase in public education spending:
This is a 10-year forward projection (see below). The blue line is our current spending trajectory in public education if we continue to do what we’ve been doing—meaning we’re not adding new reforms or implementing new technology programs—this is the cost growth associated with that. The green line is our likely revenues in public education in this country. So, what you can see is a steady set of cuts ahead of us just to bolster up what we’ve been doing. That means in the coming years, we’re either going to slowly erode public education or we’re going to do some major redesign. Those are the choices ahead, and they don’t happen by themselves.
On the increase in the number of public school employees:
In public education, which is the blue dotted lines (see below), you’ll see that we actually grew our employment footprint right through the last three recessions, and only at the tail-end of this last one did public education employment start to dip. This system is not used to having the regular redesign moments one sees in other industries. It’s been immune to redesign through these last three contractions and only in this very disruptive moment is it facing the facts. In 1970, we had 58 adults in this system for every thousand kids. That grew to 100 adults for every thousand kids in 1980. In 2008, we peaked at 127 adults per thousand students. Our model for public education had been to fix problems by adding staff. It hasn’t been particularly effective, and it’s no longer financially possible.
On the rising costs of staff benefits:
[The cost of] benefits is growing much faster than revenues are growing—so much faster that benefits are now eating into our non-benefit spending. So, the system that we’re looking at going forward is one that implodes under its own weight of benefits growth.
On the need to improve outcomes at a lower cost:
There are schools that are spending about the average and really knocking it out of the park on outcomes. Those are schools where we need to do more of whatever they’re doing. Now, the problem in many school districts is that we also have a lot of these schools that are spending a lot and getting good outcomes, which actually is not acceptable going forward. You can’t draw money off from other schools and say it’s in the name of excellence. You actually have to, in your innovations, figure out how you can build a successful school with a financially sustainable model.
On creating demand for redesign:
You’re really going to need to create the appetite for redesign because there’s no one-man show that will transform the system in your region.
When people realize that, for example, a charter school is absolutely beating the odds without breaking the bank, or some Catholic school is, or even subsets of schools inside districts, people will have an appetite to see more of these leading schools. I think that until people see the evidence in the data , including taxpayers without kids, then you’re not going to necessarily have an appetite for this change.
One of the best selling points for system redesign is the subsequent innovation and exploration of these crack-the-code models. I think if we can loosen the reins on schools, then some will start to innovate in ways that they will uncover solutions. And right now, they are. We just don’t pay attention to them.
On the basic principles that have led to New Orleans’ success:
The system that we’re looking at going forward is one that implodes under its own weight of benefits growth.
I want to boil New Orleans down to three fundamental principles that I think can be replicated in any city in this country. First, educators run the schools. In New Orleans, educators form and operate charter schools via nonprofits. It is not the government. The people who are closest to kids are organizing themselves in high-performing, strategically coherent organizations. They are serving kids who need it the most, and decisions are being made very close to the level of students and children. Number two, parents have choice. A parent in New Orleans can send their child to any school in the city. There’s one application to rank their top seven schools, which they submit to the government. The government runs an algorithm that takes sibling preference, geographic preference and other factors into account, and spits out an option. In New Orleans, we let parents decide what school is best for their children. Third is the role of government. The government still has an incredibly, incredibly important role in this model. The government is the regulator. They create the accountability system, they determine which schools are meeting the mark and which ones aren’t. They close the schools that aren’t achieving, and they ensure equity across the system: that special education students are being served, that expulsions are happening in a fair and equitable manner, and so forth.
If you were going to design a school system from scratch, this might be where you’d start. You’d let educators run schools, you’d let parents choose where to send their children to school, and because public dollars are at stake, you’d have some sort of regulatory body to make sure people are playing by the rules. Right now New Orleans is the only city in the country that allows this to happen.
On the difference between “reforming” and “relinquishing”:
In New Orleans, we’ve tried a different paradigm of how you can make things better. We’ve moved away from the “reform” paradigm, which is the traditional paradigm of (incredibly well-meaning) people trying to make things better. Their general ethos and their theory of change is, “The system is broken. The people who are there in power before weren’t able to fix it. Now, I’m in power, I’m going to be able to fix it.” We in New Orleans and generally in Louisiana have moved away from that model. Instead, we are taking a different approach, which is we’re relinquishing power. Your job is not to make the system better. Your job is to slowly and surely hand power back to educators and parents. Louisiana State Superintendent John White, Recovery School District Superintendent Patrick Dobard, they’re incredible not because of what they’re doing but because of what they’re not doing. They’re not trying to make the system better themselves. They’re empowering educators and families to do the work, and they’re just steering the system to make sure it’s heading in the right direction.
We are no longer relying on one, two, three, four, five people to determine how to get over the finish line. Rather, we have thousands of incredible educators forming organizations that they control, that are going to figure out how to improve performance. And that’s what makes me extremely hopeful that New Orleans will be the first city to prove that this is possible.
On the shrinking number of “failing schools” in New Orleans:
Before the storm, 80 percent of New Orleans’ children attended failing schools. Now, we’ve cut that in half, only 40 percent of kids attend failing schools. We think within five years we’ll have this down to five percent. So, in a 10-year period, New Orleans will have gone from 80 percent of children attending failing schools to roughly five percent.
On the challenges New Orleans still faces:
There are certainly things that are keeping us up at night; three things have us extremely worried, and might prevent us from achieving our goals. The first is what we call “better than before” syndrome. Things are so much better than they were before, we’re incredibly worried that people will put the brakes on disruptive change. It’s very hard to close a school. It’s hard to close the school when 80 percent of the kids are dropping out, but it’s harder still to close the school when only 40 percent of the kids are dropping out because parents are happy, the schools are safe, and the teachers care. But as a community, are we going to have the courage to say that’s still not good enough, and make the hard decisions? Number two is we just don’t have enough good charter operators. Third is our human capital. We have what I would call a high-will, low-skill human capital environment. We probably have the most talented educator base in the country because we’ve decentralized our human capital systems, but they’re either very young and not experienced, or they’re unbelievable veteran educators who have just not been trained and developed because they were in a dysfunctional system.
On system redesign philanthropy:
A system leader's job is to slowly and surely hand power back to educators and parents.
It’s extremely important for the funding community to have explicit areas of measurement on this. Our theory of change is 50,000 high-quality seats, not run by governmental providers within 10 years. We have spreadsheets that track how many kids are in high-quality seats. In every intervention we do, we look at it through the lens of how many high-quality seats it will create.
The second area I’d encourage the funding community to think about is really tackling governance. I would think about incremental change in the sense that your governance strategy is really an anti-trust strategy. The Recovery School District in New Orleans is, for all purposes, an anti-trust organization at the state level. It’s formed by the state and it picks apart the local district monopolies and it chips away at them.