A Lion in Winter and a Coming of Age

By 09/22/2014

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Over the last month or so, there’ve been a number of notable stories highlighting the passing of the torch from urban districts to urban chartering. The former continue their long, slow decline while the latter experiences the exhilaration and growing pains of emerging adulthood.

A sobering new study from Brookings, “School Superintendents: Vital or Irrelevant,” finds that district “superintendents are largely indistinguishable” in their ability to improve student achievement. For those who’ve hoped that the half-century struggles of the urban district might finally be remedied by a superhero leader, this has to be deflating. The study finds that district leaders account for an infinitesimal fraction of achievement differences, that hiring a superintendent is not associated with increased learning, and that longevity doesn’t improve a superintendent’s influence.

In recent years, we’ve put an inordinate amount of faith in (and money behind) bold urban district leaders. The continued dispiriting results from NAEP TUDA, the Newark boycott, the LAUSD iPad dust-up, the Atlanta cheating scandal, DC’s “disappointing” 2014 test scores, Chicago’s strike, and much more should force us to take stock. Why exactly do we continue to tell ourselves that these ancient, preternaturally inept institutions are fixable?

It’s probably more than a coincidence that the Broad Prize, designed to call attention to urban-district bright spots, named—for the first time ever—only two finalists this year (instead of the customary four or five). In announcing finalists, a member of the review board said, “We were incredibly disappointed with the overall progress of urban school systems across the U.S.” Bruce Reed, president of the award’s philanthropic sponsor, agreed, saying, “The review board has sent a clear message. In too many urban school systems, students aren’t getting the quality of education they deserve.”

Those behind the prize, which has admirably provided millions in scholarship money to low-income students, deserve an enormous amount of credit for what appears to be some soul searching. Next week, they announce this year’s winner. We should listen carefully to the tenor of that event. It’s a celebration, so we shouldn’t expect Eeyore-style doldrums. But a subdued tone would be telling. Sedateness may suggest a swan song—for the award, the urban district, or both.

Recent news about urban chartering isn’t nearly as gloomy, but it does have a certain coming-of-age quality to it.

There are wise words and tough-love questions from those who have chartering’s best interests at heart. Robin Lake recently wrote astutely about the challenges of building the “system” part of a “system of schools” when the district shrinks and chartering expands. This article about English-language learners in New Orleans is a great example of what Lake has in mind. An excellent Dan Willingham piece about an Education Next study of Boston charters asked the charter sector to consider the kinds of skills its students are acquiring (“crystallized” vs. “fluid”) and what that means for students’ long-term growth.

There are warnings from charter friends noticing something might be going sideways. DFER offered this smart but pointed post on the nonexistent relationship between the performance of a state’s charter sector and that state’s charter law ranking according to NAPCS and CER.

There are direct challenges from those who’d like to put chartering in its place. NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio, announcing the contours of a new charter co-location policy, continued to publicly air grievances against the charter sector.

There are tense moments of chartering’s standing up for what it believes. Michigan’s Dan Quisenberry pushed back against anti-charter forces in Michigan, and NYC charter leaders took up the fight against de Blasio.

There are flashes of pride for jobs well done. This encouraging NOLA article shows what’s possible both in terms of systemic change and academic achievement. A report out of California showed the charter sector’s making progress in closing persistent underperformers and growing successes.

And there are moments of forward-leaning confidence. The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools argued that the U.S. Department of Education should change the highly unsuccessful federal SIG program to allow for the funding of new charters for low-income students.

The final chapters of the urban district-urban charter story are not yet written. But more and more it reads like a changing-of-guard tale.

– Andy Smarick

This first appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

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