The Evolving Geography of Reform

By 11/06/2013

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One of the most important and interesting questions I get about my book, The Urban School System of the Future, is whether I think its analysis and recommendations apply to non-urban districts. Though my thinking on this is still developing, my current response is as follows: When it comes to suburban districts, yes, much, but not all, is applicable; rural districts, however, are a different story (more on this in the weeks to come).

If you’re interested in the subject of reform in different contexts, you might want to read AEI’s recent report about Douglas County, an affluent district outside of Denver. It tells the story of a school board and district leadership, in an attempt to move their district from good to great, embracing a right-leaning agenda and some of the initiatives traditionally associated with reforming struggling urban districts, including improved teacher-evaluation systems, new educator-salary programs, and expanded parental choice. The choice aspect of the paper is especially interesting—the district has been resourceful in its use of the state charter law.

But the other reason to read the report is that the politics of the Douglas reform effort are intense. Though this Politico article on the topic is tendentious (a few paragraphs in, it’s clear the reforms aren’t going to get a sympathetic treatment), you’ll find a number of very interesting facts, themes, and questions, including the propriety of disclosing who funds such reports (for example, my organization, Bellwether Education Partners, always discloses relevant relationships—you can find our full explanation here).

Though the surface takeaway is that the Douglas affair is one of conservatives and reformers taking over an affluent district, there’s a much bigger story here: We are likely to see many, many more episodes like this in the months and years to come, though there will be variations on the theme.

As statewide teacher-evaluation laws, Common Core implementation, tougher assessments, and other reforms really begin influencing suburbia, the ed-reform debate is going to seriously evolve. New fault lines are likely to appear. I’m not sure what this will look like, but if we thought urban ed reform was contentious, just wait.

My naïve hope is that we can somehow tone down the rhetoric and thoughtfully implement new initiatives in non-urban areas (because these schools too could stand to improve), prudently course-correcting along the way. Unfortunately, if the politics of Douglas and the reporting of it are harbingers of things to come, suburban reform is going to be marked by a whole lot more heat than light.

-Andy Smarick

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

Comment on this article
  • David Hochheiser says:

    Mr. Smarick – I fully agree that there is a different need presented by suburban schools than there is in urban districts. As I’m sure you know, the first issue is a consensus around what makes a school work, which is quickly followed by the resources, policies and politics that either will allow or thwart movement towards those best practices. I think our best chance at starting this universal conversation is to be careful with our grouping.

    As you said, not all charters or independent schools are the same, so allowing “charters” isn’t going to be a real fix. In the same sense, Douglas County Schools are certain to be run more like an urban district than many of the small suburban districts that exist throughout the North East and – I assume – in other parts of country.

    I do fear that many “high performing” districts are maintaining the status quo because their students do well enough (great by state test measures), and the perception of the schools used by real estate agents is more important than the strength of education programs being implemented. I actually read a post that spoke of a plan in Boston schools to try and localize the decisions, making things look more suburban.

    There’s a lot to chew on here. Thanks.

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